Since moving to Spain, I’ve learned it’s often better if I just don’t ask what that pot of red paste is or why that circular piece of chicken-like meat has purple suckers. Some things, I’ve discovered, you just have to taste before you translate.
This is a country where every (and I mean EVERY) part of a pig is considered edible, where the creatures of ocean nightmares are commonly found on elementary school lunch trays and where an animal’s organs are often more popular than its tenderloins. Spain is a haven of possibilities for adventurous eaters and a culinary wheel of fortune for the rest of us.
Yet, shockingly, most of the nastiest-sounding things on the menu are surprisingly scrumptious. My current tapa obsession, boquerones en vinagre, are something that four years ago I wouldn’t have touched with a ten foot pole. Did I ever imagine I’d be singing the praises of pickled anchovies? Hell no. But this is Spain. And in this always-surprising culinary utopia of a country, the most delicious dishes are all too often the most bizarre.
So if you’re feeling adventurous, or just really want some darn good Spanish cooking, here are the six weirdest things I’ve eaten in Spain and where you can taste them for yourself:
Okay, so on the worldwide scale of weirdness, snails might not rank too high. But after walking to school every morning past a fence-full of those squirming shells, my toothpick took a definite pause before diving into my first stewed caracol. Turns out, I love them.
Unlike in France, where the escargot (could you possibly give a more elegant name to a less elegant creature?) are typically served in a cream or butter sauce, Spanish caracoles are usually stewed in a highly-spiced tomato sauce. Think garden-fresh tomatoes and great olive oil meet spicy paprika and a sturdy punch of cumin. Add a plate of fresh-fried potato chips and an extra-cold caña of Mahou and you’ve got the perfect Sunday afternoon snack.
For the best snail experience in Madrid check out Los Caracoles on Calle de Toledo, 106. This old-time Spanish bar is super close to the Rastro market that sprawls through the La Latino barrio so I highly recommend hitting up both on a Sunday morning!
2. Pig’s large intestine, stuffed and cured
If it sounds positively medieval that’s because it is. Records of monks eating botillo, as it’s called in Castillian Spanish, date back to the twelfth century before the Americas and the modern-day botillo´s main ingredient (paprika) were discovered.
While the spices have evolved over the years, the pig parts haven’t. As a Spanish mother (and excellent cook) explained to me, botillo is where all the parts of the pig that you don’t know what else to do with get stuffed. Bones and ribs and tail and a slew of other unidentifiable pig pieces are spiced with paprika, garlic and salt, then stuffed into the sack of the pig´s large intestine. The lumpy oval of meat is then smoked and cured in a process similar to curing sausage.
To actually eat the botillo it must first be boiled. The typical Botillo de Bierzo, the most popular variety that comes from a region in the northern province of León, is served in two plates.
First comes a bowl of stewed leafy greens similar to kale or collard greens which have been boiled along with the botillo. Then the sac-o-meat is cut open to reveal the enormously tender, marvelously spicy and positively succulent smorgasbord of pig parts. It may sound disgusting, but the meat inside that intestine is downright delicious.
Botillo being a dish served almost exclusively in León, in order to get a good one in Madrid you best be sure you’re in a Leonese restaurant. I suggest Prada a Tope on Calle del Principe, 11, between the Sol and Sevilla metro stops.
3. Pig ears
This so-called “delicacy” definitely fits the “weird¨ category but doesn’t even come close to delicious. There are few foods in Spain that I just can’t stomach and oreja a la plancha, or pan-fried pig ear, is one of them.
While the flavor isn’t too terrible – it’s basically generic pork flavor with olive oil, salt and sometimes paprika – the texture is torturous. If you’ve never eaten cartilage before (and I don´t recommend it) it’s a lot like crunching down on a thin sheet of gristly plastic. That delightful texture is sandwiched between two layers of firm fat and topped with a patch of skin that still has fine hairs poking out of it.
Still want to try it? Check out Casa Toni on Calle de la Cruz, 14. If the oreja awful, Casa Toni has a slew of great options for traditional tapas and raciónes. Hopefully a plate of their fried squid will be enough to get rid of all those cartilage remnants.
4. Octopus tentacles
I couldn’t possibly live in Galicia, the octopus capital of Spain, without getting in on the pulpo craze. Pulpo, aka octopus, may easily be the most famous dish in that northwestern state, where bimonthly octopus fairs hop from tiny village to even tinier village and “pulperias” are the most common type of restaurant.
For my first octopus-eating adventure two years ago I decided to do it right: on a wooden bench in a white circus-style tent in my pueblo´s fairgrounds. Here they only serve one thing: boiled octopus. Huge copper pots with purple tentacles bubbling to the surface greet customers upon entering the tent. The octopuses are boiled whole.
Next chefs use kitchen scissors to snip the tentacles into bite-sized round medallions and heap them onto wooden plates. A libral dose of olive oil, a healthy sprinkling of salt and a pop of paprika and the whole dripping mess is half-thrown onto the long wooden picnic table. A loaf of bread and unmarked bottle of wine come flying across the table behind it. Since apparently forks are for guiri amateurs,we pick up toothpicks and dive in.
Pulpo a la gallega would be amazing if not for the fatty ring of purple suckers that line each tentacle. The meat on the inside is fantastic. Dense and white, it’s like a cross between calamari and chicken and positively soaked in olive oil paprika-y goodness. In Madrid, it is also quite common to find pulpo a la brasa, or grilled octopus. If you see it on the menu, order it immediately. It’s all the goodness of traditional pulpo without any of the gooeyness.
Get some stellar pulpo a la brasa at Albur on Calle de Manuela Malasaña, 15 or try the traditional “a la gallega” style at El Chacon, situated right next to Madrid´s river at Saavedra Fajardo, 16.
5. Imitation baby eels
Yes, fake baby eels are an edible thing and yes, they are rather fantastic. Why imitation? Because real baby eels, called angulas, fetch a price upwards of about 130 dollars per pound (and that’s after the price plummeted this year to less than half the 700 euro per kilo the little water worms were going for in 2013).
The fake variety, gulas, are made from fish and usually served pan-fried with olive oil, garlic, cayenne pepper and often small shrimp. Gulas are typically piled onto a slice of baguette and sold as tapas or slathered in even more tasty olive oil and served on a plate as a ración to share. While I’m doubtful I’d ever be able to get over the snakey-ness of the real thing, I find the imitation eels to be quite fantastic. Especially if I think of it as a quirky fish pasta instead of itsy bitsy water snakes.
Casa Gonzalez on Calle León, 12 in barrio Las Letras has some of the best tostas in town, including a nice and spicy gulas tosta. The stellar tostas plus their impressive selection of fantastic Spanish wines by the glass makes it one of my favorite places in Madrid!
6. A pot of pig blood
Word of advice: when taking non-Spanish-speaking friends to a typical Spanish restaurant with Spanish-only menus, don’t let them order. You might end up eating a pot of pig blood.
Morcilla de León, or Leonese blood sausage, has really nothing to do with sausage and everything to do with blood. Unlike its absolutely awesome cousin, morcilla de Burgos, the León version is often served without the casing and (most importantly) doesn’t have rice to a add firm meatiness to the blood. Instead, this hearty and, in my blood-phobic opinion, gag-worthy dish consists of pig blood mixed with finely diced onion and spices like paprika, garlic and salt. The witchy concoction served in a clay pot, or cazuela, and eaten on bread or (if you’re really adventurous) by the spoonful. Admittedly, the Leonese morcilla has great flavor. But I don’t think I’ll ever get over the heebie jeebies of knowing I’m slurping up blood.
To try your hand at the vampire lifestyle check out the Morcilla de León at Albur Calle de Manuela Malasaña, 15.