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Being a vegetarian in Spain is not the easiest of options, and whilst the wonderful flexibility eating tapas offers is great, finding the right meat-free snacks can be a challenge.
Spanish cuisine has many things to recommend it, including an emphasis on fresh, locally-produced and simple, high quality ingredients. However I think it’s fair to say that Spanish cooking is generally unimaginative and traditional – despite the complex cultural influences in past centuries, recent decades show little evolution in what typical Spanish people cook and eat.It’s also fair to say that vegetarianism isn’t a concept that is well understood in Spain. Perhaps this is because – and it is easy to forget this on the overdeveloped Costas these days – Spain is only a generation away from real poverty and hunger. The idea of choosing not to eat certain categories of food is often greeted with bafflement and confusion, by people whose parents knew genuine starvation, and raised them in abundance. In terms of popular understanding of vegetarian issues, Spain is probably about where the UK or US reached in the 1960s and 70s.
So, if you want to ‘ir de tapas’ with your friends, where do you start? The Spanish tradition of hopping from one bar to another enjoying a snack here or there, or ordering a selection of things to share, is relaxed and friendly, and a very flexible way of eating. You might find it easier to get a reasonable meal, in the end, than by trying to negotiate your way through a ‘menu del dia’ at a set-course restaurant. Here are some good choices to look out for:
Nuts – available almost anywhere, and often offered free with a drink anyway, you can always get a bit of veggie protein from nuts (nueces): peanuts (cacahuetes), almonds (almendras), pistachios (pistachos). Almendros fritos are popular (fried almonds) as a salty snack, especially in regions where they’re grown.
Olives – olivas or aceitunas, a staple crop in much of Spain, and again still often offered as a freebie. Note how it’s the salty snacks you get offered for nothing, as they keep you ordering fresh drinks! Spanish olives are lovely though. Just watch that they are not stuffed with anchovy (anchoa), a common trick that is not veggie friendly!
Bread – bread (pan) is often included in a set menu, and as tapas is commonly offered as tomato bread – pan con tomate, and is usually as simple as a halved tomato smooshed onto a freshly-cut hunk of bread that has also been rubbed with garlic. Can go soggy quickly, but surprisingly good to eat immediately.
Patatas bravas – potatoes in spicy sauce – exactly how ‘brava’ your sauce turns out depends on the chef involved, but don’t let your kids think it’s ketchup as it’s usually a lot spicier than that! A Canary Islands variation is patatas arrugadas, which are dry and salty.
Alubias con salsa vinagreta – white beans in vinaigrette, often garlicky, lovely for dipping your pan con tomate in afterwards.
Patatas fritas – cooked potato chips or fries
Empanadas de queso – little cheese filled patties or turnovers – but check they don’t also contain ham (jamon)
Tortilla –in Spain this always means an omelette, traditionally filled with finely sliced potato, and often fried onion as well. If you want an omelette without the potato in, you need to ask for a ‘tortilla francesca’ (French omelette).
Champiñones al ajillo – garlic mushrooms. Mmm… make sure you get enough as all the carnivores will try to scoff these, in my experience
Cheese – queso – you can often get a plato de queso, or some kind of cooked croquettes (croquetas)
Aros de cebolla rebozados - fried onion rings. Before you order, check they are not actually squid (calamares)!
Above all, don’t assume that because something looks veggie, or might traditionally be veggie, that it is. Anchovy (anchoa) and ham (jamon) are used throughout Spanish cooking, almost as seasonings rather than ingredients, and often in the strangest of places you would never expect to find them. Combined with the total lack of understanding about why anyone would be a vegetarian in the first place, this can lead to some very strange conversations – sure, it’s got no fish in it. None at all? Well, only a little, you won’t even taste it…
Here’s some useful vocabulary to help you order successfully:
- Yo soy vegetariano/a (I am vegetarian – use o or a ending depending whether you’re male or female)
- Yo no como carne, cerdo, ni pollo. (I do not eat meat, pork or chicken)
- Yo como (no como) huevos, leche/lácteos, o queso. (I do (do not) eat eggs, milk/milk products or cheese)
- No quiero pescado/carne (I don't want fish/meat)
- No como pescado (I don't eat fish/meat).
Good luck and enjoy your vegetarian tapas!
For more vegetarian in Spain ideas see Montgo Vegetarians website