If it’s your first time visiting Spain, you may be surprised that the paella that you’ve been drooling about is not yet available at the typical 12 noon lunch hour!
Compared with other Europeans, the Spanish eat at a much later time. For example, breakfast (desayuno), considered the lightest meal of the day, is served at 8 a.m. It’s merely coffee and sometimes paired with bread or a pastry. Traditional breakfast places may also serve churros sprinkled with sugar, dipped in a hot chocolate.
Lunch (comida) is the most important meal in Spain. Known as ‘Menu del Dia’, it’s oftentimes a three-course, fixed-price meal with soup or salad, a choice of meat or fish, dessert, and a drink. Most restaurants open for lunch at 1:30 p.m. and diners come in between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.
A Spanish dinner (cena), eaten between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. is a lighter meal, which can be a plate of cured ham, salad, yogurt, or an omelette.
In between breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Spanish have small meals or snacks to keep them going. During these times, the tapas trays come out to offer quick bites. The word ‘tapas’ originates from the Spanish verb 'tapar’, which means 'to cover’. It is an item (e.g., bread, coaster, small plates) placed on top of a drink to protect it from flies. Tapas can be a toasted baguette with ham, sandwich filled with calamari, or just bread with tomato spread. It can also be a simple fruit, yogurt, or sweet pastry. On the heavier side, it can be a serving of calamari, traditional hams, and other finger foods.
Over the years, the meaning of tapas has evolved. A tapa is now any small portion of food that is served with a drink. The following are examples of standard snack times:
(1) Mid-morning snack (almuerzo), between 10:30 a.m. to 11 a.m.
(2) Mid-afternoon snack (merienda), between 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
(3) Tapas hour (aperitivo), between 8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Tapas can often replace the dinner (cena), especially if you had a large lunch or snack. One or two orders of tapas may be enough to fill a hungry belly!
1. Churros con chocolate
Chocolatería San Ginés is a haven for chocolate-lovers. They have been serving hot chocolate and churros since 1894. Chocolate con churros is a traditional way to start the day in Madrid, but the shop (which is open 24/7) is frequented by locals and tourists alike at any time of the day. For example, churros can be enjoyed in the mid-morning, mid-afternoon, or even after a long night out. There’s always a long queue, but don’t worry, it goes very fast. You place your order at the counter, find a table to sit, and the server brings your order.
What is it like? The hot chocolate was not something I expected. The hot chocolate is overly sticky, with the consistency of a jelly, as it’s meant for dipping, not for drinking. It’s neither sweet nor bitter, and a bit oily. The churros are served straight from the pan, so they are really piping hot! Chocolatería San Ginés also sells souvenirs, and their powdered chocolate is a great souvenir to bring home from your trip.
When we think of Spanish food, we always think of paella. They say you cannot leave Spain without trying this classic Spanish dish. As per my Spanish language instructor, traditionally, paella was cooked with chicken and rabbit meat. Over the years, several recipe variations came about as the coastal regions of Spain added seafood to the dish.
I’d suggest trying paella mixta (meat & seafood mix) at Jamón 55 in Gran Via and in Mercado de San Miguel. Paellas are served with slices of bread. Soak the bread into the paella sauce and eat like a real Spaniard!
Top Tip: Ordering paella in Madrid can be tricky. Some restaurants advertise (in Spanish) the price for one order/person, yet you need a minimum of two orders/persons for them to cook it for you. Hence, the price is double what is listed. The bread that comes with the paella is not free of charge either. Paella may cost approximately 20 EUR (23 USD) per person and bread may cost 2 EUR (2.30 USD).
3. Bocadillo (sandwich) & tapas
The Museo del Jamon in Plaza Mayor, is one of the cheap eats. The sandwiches are all priced at 1 EUR (1.15 USD), while the beer is priced at 0.50 EUR (.57 USD) and the wine at 0.90 EUR (1.03 USD). The beer is always cheap, always served cold and in small portions (caña, 200 mL or 6.7 oz). The smaller the portion, the quicker it can be consumed leaving no time for it to get warm. A glass of wine is served in a nice glass (copa, 300 mL, or 10 oz).
Torrezno or pork crackling is a delicacy made from pork rind/skin. They are deep-fried in olive oil to get their crunchy texture. It is a savoury snack that is very addictive. Just as the Pringles slogan: “Once you pop, you can’t stop!”
5. Topolino all-you-can-eat buffet
Whenever we travel, we make it a habit to include at least one all-you-can-eat buffet in our itinerary. For us, this is a practical way of diving into the city’s cuisine, especially when travelling on a budget. In a restaurant, a lot of us play it safe when ordering from the menu. Naturally, a person does not order five different dishes for the sake of sampling each dish. Of course, we also do not want to spend money on something that we will eventually not like. Bottomline, we always end up ordering tried and tested dishes, shying away from adventurous eating. With the variation offered in all-you-can-eat restaurants, this predicament ceases. There are always new things to try that we would never normally order.
We had a buffet style dinner for only 13 EUR (15 USD) (excluding drink) at Topolino in Plaza Sto. Domingo. While Topolino is an Italian franchise, they offer a good range of traditional Spanish food, like soups, salads, and paella, in addition to the typical pizza and pasta to fill your cravings. There is also an array of sweet treats waiting at the corner.
If you happen to be in Spain during the Holy Week (Semana Santa), then you can sample torrija, a traditional dessert that local bakeries offer during this season. Torrijas are the Spanish version of French toast. They are from the bread-based pudding family and are made with stale bread dipped in an egg and anise mixture, then soaked in milk or wine, fried in olive oil, and served coated with sugar, cinnamon, and honey.
Torrija are served warm with sweet syrup. I suppose torrija are meant to be eaten warm with coffee on the side.
It’s all about food
The best ice breaker for a culture barrier is food! A meal enjoyed with locals is the perfect way to kickstart your holiday. Madrid, being the capital of Spain, is a melting pot of typical food from every part of the country. If you’re now enticed to go on a Spanish food trip, or fancy having a mug of beer or a glass of wine for less than a Euro, make sure that Spain is the next destination on your radar!
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