Monday, April 23, 2012

Qué F*ckin Rico

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.

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