I realized recently that I haven't really written about Spanish food here on this blog. Weird, considering how important food is to Spanish culture, and how much I like to eat. There is far too much material to cover in just one entry, so I'll start with some basics.
Most importantly: contrary to what I have been asked by many Americans, Spanish food is not spicy. In fact, most Spanish people I know are babies when it comes to spicy food. Put a little black pepper in there and shouts of Me pica!! will resound. Nor does Spanish food include things like burritos, tacos, or fajitas. That is Mexican food. Just because they speak the same language (sort of) doesn't mean their food is even remotely similar. Please think of American food being compared with British food the next time you feel tempted to ask a Spaniard if they prefer chicken or beef tamales with their frijoles.
With that out of the way, here is the rundown on Spanish meals:
First comes breakfast, which is a small, fast meal, often eaten at a bar on the way to work. Most adults have coffee and a few cookies. Yes, cookies. Kids have Colacao, which is a brand of chocolate milk drunk either hot or cold. In the morning kids drink it hot, and cannot imagine having anything else. When we went to London with students my first year here, a kid asked me if they had Colacao in London. I said probably not, but they might have another brand of chocolate milk. He was horrified. "No Colacao?? What do they drink?! I'll have to bring my own!!" Kids will have cookies too, normally, or a piece of toast or cereal.
Mid-morning people usually have a light snack. Kids bring a bocadillo or grinder/sandwich to school to have during their break, which normally consists of bread and some type of cured meat -- details on those later, the cured pork products in this country warrant their own entry -- or nutella. Adults have another coffee, and maybe a pintxo/pincho/tapa -- again, more on these in another entry -- at a nearby bar.
Sometimes, especially on weekends, there is another intermediate meal before lunch. I believe it's normally when you've stayed out late and slept through breakfast time, so people often meet friends at a bar around noon or 1pm for el vermút, literally "the vermouth". Some people drink vermouth, but mostly it's another chance to meet friends and have a little pintxo and a beer before the big lunchtime meal.
The main meal is lunch, which is around 2 or 3pm. In fact, the "morning" lasts until after everyone has eaten. That took a little bit of adjusting to when I first arrived -- to remember that 1pm is still the morning here. Anyway, lunch is always at least two courses, plus dessert and coffee afterwards. If you go out to eat, a common option is a menú del día, or "menu of the day" which is a set menu that most restaurants offer at a fixed price. Every day is different, but you choose from three or four first courses and three or four second courses, with dessert, coffee, bread, and wine or water included. You can spend up to 20euro, but a normal price is between 9 and 15. I'll try to post typical menus I see so you can get an idea of what types of food they offer, but typically the first course is salad/vegetables, soup, or beans/chickpeas/lentils. Most places will have fish, chicken, and red meat options for the second course. Dessert can be cake, flan (custard), etc., but I normally ask for fruit. Which is always available but not too common to order in restaurants, so I am often served an entire orange on a plate, with a knife and fork. Then coffee -- espresso -- which I drink black. Believe me, when you have to go back to work for another four hoursafter such a big meal you need that caffeine boost to get you through the afternoon.
Other (faster) lunch options at restaurants include sandwiches (pronounced SAN-weech-ess), which are always multi-layered and fried on the grill, and can include ham, cheese, a fried egg, white asparagus, lettuce, tomato, tuna, and lots of mayonnaise. Or you can get a plato combinado, combination plate, which will have several options in the style of Chinese lunch specials in the States -- the serving style, not the food style -- like croquettes, salad, hot dogs and french fries, or a grilled chicken breast, salad, mini empanadas and french fries, etc.
At home, most lunches are like the menu of the day, with a few courses. For example, Sunday I had lunch at my choir director's house. We had chicken noodle soup to start, followed by green beans with mushrooms, ham, tomato and garlic. Then as a main course we had oven-roasted chicken thighs with garlic and potatoes. Dessert was fresh strawberries with whipped cream, then coffee, and I think the other adults had a chupito or shot of orujo, a typical Cantabrian liquor that can be flavored with honey, cream, mint, etc. This was a weekend meal, though, so I imagine it was slightly fancier and more time-intensive than a mid-week meal.
Alcohol is typical at the lunchtime meal, but by no means required. It is perfectly normal to order wine or beer with your meal, and wine is included in the menú del día. But be careful -- the wine included in the menú is an entire bottle, so if you're by yourself you will go back to work drunk.
And bread. Bread is a huge part of every lunchtime meal. Most people cannot imagine a meal without bread, even if they're also having rice, pasta, or potatoes. And it's perfectly acceptable -- even expected -- for you to put your bread right on the tablecloth above your knife and spoon, not on a separate bread plate. I used to give class to a five-year-old boy, and the way the schedules worked out I would wait for him to have lunch before we had class. His grandmother was adamant about teaching him table manners, which for her -- and most Spanish people -- included holding a piece of bread in your left hand and using it to scoop food onto your fork, held in your right hand. My grandpa Twig is rolling over in his grave as I write this -- bread on the table at a meal, directly on the table, and being used to mop up food?!
Merienda, or snack time, is around 6 or 7pm, and is something small to hold you over until the very late dinner hour. Merienda can be another bocadillo like the kids bring to school for snack, or some fruit and cookies, or for adults, coffee and a piece of pound cake. It's quite common to meet family or friends on weekends for a merienda, and if the weather's nice people sit outside and snack while the kids run around and play. This meal can often involve alcohol as well.
Dinner is a lighter meal, eaten at 10 or 11pm, just before going to bed. It can include soup, salad, a sandwich, or even the delicious tortilla española, which is often translated as "Spanish omelette," but it's so much more than an omelette. It's a thick, potato-and-onion-filled egg dish, kind of like the Italian fritatta. It's eaten with a big hunk of bread on the side, and can be plain or topped with anything from tomato to tuna salad to ham and cheese.
In general Spanish cooking is very respectful of the ingredients: the meat, fish and vegetables are usually quite fresh and of very good quality, and cooks don't use a lot of fancy spices. It's a running joke among my friends that the only Spanish spices are salt, pepper, garlic, parsley, and paprika. Which is pretty accurate. And pretty delicious.
*Regarding the title of this post. Qué rico! Means "How delicious!" My lovely friend Francesca used to say, in her imitation of the absolute worst American-speaking-Spanish accent, "Que f*ckin rico." And it's all soooo f*kin rico.
start off this series with a doozy. Perhaps the most offensive Spanish
curse is "Me cago en Dios," which means, literally, "I shit on God." To
soften this rather fuerte (shocking) imagery, there are lots of
substitutions for "God". Think that middle-school replacement of saying
"sugar" when you want to say "shit." (Here they say miércoles [Wednesday] when they want to say mierda [shit].) When you want to shit on something other than God, the options include:
Me cago en... I shit in/on...
...la leche ...the milk
...la mar ...the sea
...diez (sounds like Dios, god)...ten
And should you want to make "I shit on God" even more offensive -- didn't think that was possible, didja? -- you can say Me cago en tu puta madre, which means "I shit on your whore mother."
The Spanish love to curse. Here, children as young as four, five, six are saying words that, in English, would make anyone blush and would warrant a rebuke, if not a spanking. Ass, shit, fuck, and even the C-word are ubiquitous, and nowhere near as offensive as in English. Grannies on the street say the C-word when they drop their shopping bags. My eight-year-old students say shit when they make a spelling mistake. Even the most boring, quiet class snaps to attention when the conversation turns to how to curse in English. It's actually pretty interesting to think about how swears have evolved in each language, and how different words are used to convey the same meaning. For example, to call someone a bitch, they don't use the word for female dog as much as they use the word for female fox (zorra). To say "son of a bitch" they say "son of a whore".
Pronunciation is also key here: one of the hardest distinctions for Spanish speakers to make is between dark and light vowels in English. Spanish has the same five vowels as English, but each one has only one sound that it always makes. None of this wind/wind or live/live confusion. I can't count the number of people who have confided to me that they're afraid to talk about going to the beach because they're afraid they're going to say bitch instead. My sophomores last year giggled uncontrollably when I handed out "worksheets" -- that small but oh-so-important difference in vowel sounds made it sound to them like I was saying "workshits". Ha ha, "shit" is soooo funny when you are fifteen.
Spanish curses can be quite creative, and when translated they're pretty funny. And so begins a new series: Spanish Swear of the Day. (Although let's be honest, daily here is a very high expectation for me and it will more likely be bi-weekly or even weekly or even monthly if we are very, very honest.)
Some of you may remember that last year my choir sang "The Messiah" with other choirs from the region and an English conductor/professional choir/orchestra. During the rehearsals we got to know -- at least by sight -- the members of the other choirs. A certain blonde soprano from another choir (el Orfeon) who sat behind us drove me and my choir's sopranos absolutely nuts...for all my singer-readers, she was one of those sopranos. Screaming at the top of her shrieky voice to be heard over everyone else, not supporting at all, overshooting every.single.note so that not only was she yelling, she was extremely sharp. On top of that she was a huge brown-noser (how's that for good English vocabulary...imagine explaining that to a group of students. I've done it.), agreeing out loud when the conductor made comments, raising her hand every.time.he asked a rhetorical question, laughing loudly at his sort-of-funny jokes. Ugh. It pisses me off to remember it. Anyway, she had a nice-looking, brown-haired friend who sat silently by and seemed pretty steamrolled by blondie. They were the only sopranos in that choir under the age of, say, 50, much like me, Maria, and Cristina in my choir.
One day I was waiting for the bus to go to rehearsal, getting more and more anxious about being late. I saw nice-looking-brown-haired girl waiting at the same bus stop. She got on a bus I wasn't sure would take us to the rehearsal space, but since I was already late and I figured she knew better than I did, I followed her on. As the bus took a hard right through the tunnel over to the other side of the city, I saw a look of panic cross her face, mirroring my own. Nodding to the score in her hand I asked her if she was going to the rehearsal, and she said yes, but that we weren't going the right way, and she didn't know what to do. We got off at the next stop and ran as fast as we could back through the tunnel to the bus stop we'd started at, laughing the whole way, stopping in the middle to catch our breath. I was thrilled to have a new sort-of-friend. When we finally got on the right bus, we sat together and chatted. I found out she was from Santander, had a husband, and a few other general facts. She was very sweet and friendly, and she complimented my Spanish, which of course made me like her even more. We got to rehearsal, late, and snuck in to our respective seats. From then on we smiled at each other but never got another chance to talk. Partly because she was always with her obnoxious friend.
Fast forward to my new job at the energy consulting company. When I started in November I made a point of taking up my workmates on their invitations to go "tomar un cafe" at noon every day. I felt shy but knew that it would be the best way to meet people and feel included in the office. Little by little I got to know the guys (there was one other girl but she left soon after I started and never came out for coffee), and they got to know me. One day I mentioned to Eduardo, the very blonde non-Spanish looking head engineer (yeah, they're all super smart and technical-like, and I ask such questions as "What do you mean the electricity goes in a circuit?" Ok, maybe not that bad, but almost.) that I sang in a choir. He said his wife did too, and said she sang soprano in el Orfeon. I was horrified, thinking annoying blondie was his wife. As disappointment set in -- bummer, and I thought I liked this guy. If I find out he is married to her, well, there goes that -- I casually asked if his wife was blonde. He said no, that she was brunette. "I know her!" I said excitedly, trying to hide my relief. I told him about how I'd seen her score and followed her on the bus, and how nice she was. "Ohhh!" he said. "You're the American girl she met when she took the wrong bus that day! Yes, she is very nice, but never follow her directions anywhere!"