When my friends in the States asked what I was most looking forward to upon my arrival to Spain, I usually answered with three words: food and dance.
Well, I've now been in Madrid for a little over a week and, while I have been too jet-lagged for the dancing, I've already had my fair share of culinary experiences. From traditional Spanish dishes to international cuisines, I've tried a wide range of food - sometimes intentionally and, sometimes not...
Staying at the Princesa Plaza for our orientation week, we had access to a an expansive breakfast buffet every morning. They catered to Non-Spaniards (there was a selection of beans, mushrooms and sausages that I believe were geared toward Brits) as well as offering local cheeses/cured meats, fresh fruit and, of course, espresso. During the days we stayed mostly around the hotel, exploring the neigborhoods of Argüelles and Malasaña. Luckily there is no shortage of food options! You can't walk a block without crossing at least a couple cafés, bars (cervecerías), or restaurants, many of which have a patio so you can enjoy your meal in typical Spanish fasion: sitting and enjoying with friends. In fact, it's not very common to take food to-go here (unless you're ordering coffee "para llevar," in which case you might get an odd look but it's still acceptable).
For lunch - starting around 2pm or later - many restaurants offer a "menu del día" which includes a first plate, second plate, dessert, and drink for a set price since that's often the largest meal of the day. Some of my favorites so far have included paella (more to come on why this is still my favorite Spanish dish), freshly baked bread that they give for the table, salmorejo (like a garlicky, oily tomato soup), or the arroz con leche (cinnamon rice pudding).
However, nothing compares to the meal I ate directly downstairs from my apartment. I mean, I live above it, I figured I should at least eat there once...
I went alone; I've noticed it's not common to eat by yourself here and, while I'm perfectly comfortable taking myself on dates, it immediately screams "foreigner!" For the most part, waiters here are very helpful and patient when they realize you're not local. My waiter on this particular day took the time to explain the menu items to me - and by explain, I mean he slowly said them in Spanish and added a few extra descriptions. I'm still learning food vocab, and I was feeling particularly adventurous, so I asked him which plates he recommended and didn't look up what any of it was.
For the starter, he suggested "judiones con oreja." Now, those of you who know some basic Spanish vocab might already have alarm bells going off. I did not. I simply nodded and said, "Bueno, eso por favor." And when he brought a large bowl and soup spoon I thought, "Oh, ok, I like soup, this is fine." Well, the vat of soup arrives and, as he ladles it into my bowl, he kindly says something to the effect of, "If you don't like it, let me know, and I will bring you something else." I looked down and saw what appeared to be giant white beans (yum), blood sausage (not as yum), and some gelatinous substance I soon found out was pig ear (mmm...??). Yeah, that's the "oreja" part. I should've known, but my body vocab was not mixing with my food vocab.
I'm down to try almost any food at least once. So I picked up the spoon, took a deep breath, said to myself, "When in Spain," and took a bite.
Honestly, I will probably never order it on purpose again because there are so many other options and it wasn't my favorite...BUT. It was actually pretty tasty!
Sometimes it's ok to not know what's going on. In that moment, I had to give myself some grace - and a pat on the back - for saying "yes" to a new experience. I'm in a new country! With new food! If I want to fully experience a different way of life I'm going to have to dive into the deep end more often. That isn't to say I will agree to things I genuinely don't want to do (that's a rule no matter where I am), but I am pretty proud that I'm letting myself take more risks and allowing things to be uncomfortable. Hello, growth!
If you've only read this far because I promised earlier to talk about another popular meal, don't worry, I didn't forget to expand upon the paella...
In general, I'm pretty surprised by the lack of flavor in Spanish cuisine. It seems like olive oil and salt are the main sources of flavor. I'm not mad about it, because Spain is world-famous for their production of olives and olive oil, and this way you can really taste the food itself. But the paella stands out as the most well-rounded pairing of flavors, mixing salty seafood and savory chorizo, and drenched in their silky, rich olive oil. So this (or the gazpacho/salmorejo) is most likely be my primer plato whenever it's an option from now on!
Now, when I need a hearty brunch, I did find a place opened by a woman from Arizona called Bodegas Rivas. It offers some typical American items - french toast, bacon, eggs benedict - and my friends from orientation and I agreed it could be a monthly tradition for when we feel homesick.
My next step is learning how to cook here. I mean, I know *how* to cook, but some of the Spanish appliances have different buttons and knobs and are in Celsius!
So, here's to growing a little taller (and perhaps wider) as I eat and drink my way through Spain. ¡Buen provecho!