When I lived in La Rioja for about a year in 2019, I discovered that the art of Spanish food is in its simplicity. Instead of the world of spices I was used to from the diverse cuisines in the United States, I learned to embrace the freshness of local bounty prepared in an uncomplicated way—and the importance of eating my food with delicious wine and even better company.
Each of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions (known as comunidades) has its own local favorite dishes. Sample the pintxos (northern Spain’s version of tapas) through the narrow streets of Logrono, La Rioja’s capital, where garlic-covered mushrooms are the star of the show. Or head to the northwestern corner of the country to try percebes—aka goose barnacles—a delicacy eaten throughout Galicia.
Some regional dishes like Valencia’s paella have gotten so popular that they’ve become a part of Spain’s national identity. Others, like the tortilla, are ubiquitous in restaurants and homes around the country.
But no matter their origins, these 12 Spanish dishes bring flavors created by history and geography that have made Spain so beloved in the culinary universe.
1. Paella Valenciana
- Where to try it: Casa Carmela, València
Named after the word “frying pan” in the Valencian language, paella can be immediately identified by the wide, shallow cooking pan in which it’s made. This regional dish is so popular that those out of the country think of it generally as “Spanish food”—but the dish does have humble beginnings as a lunchtime meal for Valencian farmers working the rice fields.
It combines both sustenance and flavor: A bed of yellow rice (which gets its seasoning from saffron) is mixed with vegetables. Rabbit and chicken are sometimes used as proteins, but more often than not the dish is topped with Mediterranean seafood like shrimp, mussels, or scallops. Arguably the best part of any good paella isn’t what’s on top, but the burnt rice at the bottom known as soccarat. Scrape some off to add a crunchy texture to the fragrant rice and fresh seafood.
2. Patatas bravas
- Where to try it: Docamar, Madrid
Partake in the famed eating and drinking tradition of tapas and chances are you’ll come across this dish. It’s unfussy yet filling, only a small plate of fried potatoes covered in a red sauce made of smoked Spanish paprika, olive oil, garlic, and sometimes tomato. Despite the English translation of the name being “brave potato,” a high spice tolerance isn’t necessary to chow down.
- Where to try it: Restaurante Cinco Jotas, Sevilla
It’s hard picturing a Spanish meat shop without the hunks of cured ham strung down from the ceiling. Jamón is eaten everywhere—sandwiched in between bread to make a bocadillo, on top of eggs to create a dish called huevos rotos, or just by itself—adding a salty, umami flavor to everything it touches. Two main types of jamón are eaten in Spain: There’s the common jamón Serrano, which is made from white pigs, and the more expensive jamón Iberico, which is made from black pigs.
4. Pimientos de Padrón
- Where to try it: Pulpería Rial, Galicia
Pimientos de Padrón is a common choice on the tapas menu, consisting of green peppers fried in olive oil and salt. These peppers are grown in Galicia, and there’s even an annual festival in the small town of Herbon dedicated to the vegetable. For the most part, they’re mild tasting with a hint of sweetness. But the occasional pepper will pack some surprising heat, so partaking in the dish is a bit of a roulette game—making eating them that much more fun, doesn’t it?
- Where to try it: Bar Nestor, Basque Country
This fluffy mixture of egg and potatoes is a far cry from what Mexico would consider a tortilla, but in both cases the tortilla is a staple in the home. The Spanish tortilla de patatas is made by frying thinly sliced potatoes and onions in a healthy amount of olive oil before adding whipped eggs into the mixture. After cooking until mostly solid, the frittata-like creation is then flipped (usually with the assistance of an extra plate) to finish cooking. This simple yet satisfying Spanish dish can be eaten as a tapa, as a sandwich, or by itself throughout the day.
- Where to try it: Restaurante El Churrasco, Andalucía
Gazpacho is a refreshing cold soup enjoyed throughout the country in the summertime, with roots in the southern Spanish region of Andalucía. The dish blends tomatoes, cucumbers, Italian frying peppers, and olive oil into a reddish pink concoction that’s chilled before serving. The soup can be eaten by itself or with garnishes like hard-boiled eggs, chopped ham, or cumin.
- Where to try it: Nido Bilbao, Basque Country
Bacalao is arguably Portugal’s most famous dish, but its Spanish speaking neighbor has also enjoyed its fair share of salted cod since New World trade brought it from the northern waters of Norway and Newfoundland. The fish is common in dishes particularly during the Christmas season and is prepared in a plethora of ways. Some of Spain’s famous bacalao dishes comes from the Basque region: There’s bacalao a la Vizcaina, consisting of salted cod in a red pepper stew–like sauce, as well as bacalao al pil-pil, which is cod covered in a thickened olive oil and garlic sauce.
- Where to try it: Santerra, Madrid
There’s a lot to love about the croqueta: They’re deep-fried balls filled with a creamy bechamel sauce and ingredients ranging from salted cod to mushrooms (though the most common fillings are jamon and cheese). With origins in France, the croqueta made its way to neighboring Spain and is now a mainstay in tapas bars as well as served as an appetizer at restaurants throughout the country. Watch for a crispy breadcrumb exterior at whatever establishment you choose. That’s the sign of a good croqueta.
- Where to try it: Casa Ojeda, Castilla y León
Blood sausage is found all over the world, from the United Kingdom to Puerto Rico. Spain is no exception and has varying renditions of the dish depending on the region. Andalucia, for example, uses cinnamon, cloves, and spice in its blood sausage, while the northern region of Asturias specifically uses smoke-dried sausage. The morcilla from the Castile and León region, specifically from its capital Burgos, is the most well-known—this interpretation notably doesn’t actually have any meat in it. Instead, it mixes pork blood and lard with onion, rice, and spices.
10. Pan con tomate
- Where to try it: Any local bar/café
I know—bread and tomato hardly seems like a must-try dish when visiting Spain. But similar to the tomato sandwich beloved by the U.S. South, pan con tomate is a simple (and very underrated) dish that showcases the power of a ripe tomato. This combination uses toast as a base to freshly grated tomatoes, olive oil, and salt. Thanks to its low-effort preparation, pan con tomate is a common breakfast dish that’s usually enjoyed with a morning espresso.
11. Gambas al ajillo
- Where to try it: La Casa del Abuelo, Madrid
This Spanish dish mixes together shrimp and garlic with an ajillo sauce that’s made from olive oil, paprika, lemon juice, and parsley. All of the ingredients are then cooked over a skillet, creating a mouthwateringly fragrant plate to eat as a tapa (or ordered in a larger portion). Good thing that bread usually accompanies the shrimp so that you can mop up all of the garlicky goodness.
- Where to try it: Churrería Laietana, Catalonia
The exact history of the churro is a bit fuzzy. Some say the dessert came inspired by China’s youtiao while others claim Spanish shepherds created the dish as a substitute for baked goods. Nonetheless, churros are now served throughout the world from Latin American dessert shops to county fairs in the United States. Spanish churros are usually in the shape of a stick or loop and can come coated in sugar or eaten plain. Hot dipping chocolate is a frequent pair with this dessert, the result of 16th-century exploration efforts that brought Aztec chocolate to the Iberian peninsula.