Spanish cuisine: an ex-vegetarian’s love affair with jamón and chorizo

February 16, 2023

When I was a kid, back on the ranch, I learned a bit of Spanish in school.

In elementary school, we had a lady from Ecuador, who taught us how to say jirafa and hipopótamo.

That’s giraffe and hippopotamus, in case you’re wondering.

Even then, I strongly suspected that learning the names of African animals in a foreign language was probably not the best use of my time.

Besides, the teacher made us all use Spanglicized names. Of course, Daniel is a perfectly acceptable name in Spanish. It’s pretty common internationally as well.

But I didn’t know that. So Mrs Whatshername, the Ecuadorean, insisted on calling me Donito.

Donito. Sounds like a corn chip, more than a person.

My tiny eight-year-old brain drew some conclusions from all of this.

Specifically, I decided that I hated Spanish…

And probably, by extension, the whole culture it was attached to.

My introduction to Spanish cuisine

In high school, I had to take Spanish again.

This time, they taught us about more practical things, and I decided that I didn’t hate the whole thing after all. At least not much.

One thing we learned and were tested on was a list of foods. So by the time I came to Spain, at age 21, I thought I knew what I was getting into, both linguistically and food-wise.

I knew how to say naranja, after all. As well as zanahoria, carne, and chocolate.

My first surprise, fresh off the plane, was that they don’t eat Mexican food in Spain. Pardon my provincial ignorance, but I ate Mexican food about four times a week back in Arizona, and just assumed that the whole world worked on a “one-language-one-cuisine” system. The fact that they didn’t have chimichangas or enchiladas everywhere in Madrid was a bit of a shock.

Then I started going to typical old-man bars with my classmates at my English Teacher certification, and found that I often didn’t understand anything on the menu – despite feeling like I “spoke Spanish” just fine, most of the time.

Of course, I was a vegetarian in those days, so most of my focus was on avoiding meat rather than actually enjoying what I ate.

And in the process, I’d have these surreal conversations with waiters.

¿Eso tiene carne?

No, no tiene carne. Solo cerdo.

Ah, I see. So no meat. Only pork. Which, according to my definition, is also meat.

I tried explaining, “I’m a vegetarian. I don’t eat meat.” But that also got me nowhere. At best they’d offer me some fish, which is, according to the Spanish folk wisdom, also not meat. But of course, if you’re a vegetarian, it is meat. So what’s a guy to do?

spanish cuisine includes lots of seafood
Many grilled animals, but not, strictly speaking, meat. Seafood in Santander.

How to order vegetarian food in Spain…

I tried saying “nada de animales”. That might have worked, a few times.

And I learned. Slowly, and with the help of a big Vox dictionary that I carried around in my messenger bag, I learned about Spanish cuisine.

Apparently, carne wasn’t exactly “meat” as I’d been taught. In practice, it was usually used for beef.

One could, of course, be more specific: carne de ternera for beef and carne de cerdo for pork. Maybe carne de caballo for horse meat, if you’re into that kind of thing.

But I didn’t know any of that, and an overworked, underpaid bar waiter is hardly the person to ask for a lesson in Spanish food vocabulary.

Wandering the streets of Madrid during that first dark, freezing winter I also learned that un sandwich vegetal is not vegetarian at all. Apparently, “vegetal” means it “contains a slice of tomato”, not that it’s vegetarian. Your typical sandwich vegetal has some flaked tuna, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, and possibly an egg.

pintxos are a big part of spanish cuisine
Pintxos in Bilbao, Basque Country.

Lonely, cold and far from home, I ate a lot of cheese sandwiches and tortilla de patatas – that’s Spanish potato omelette – and wondered why I was so depressed.

It never occurred to me that I was just under-nourished.

Dating with dietary restrictions – it’s a bummer

Searching for a bit of warmth in my life, I tried dating some Spanish girls, but that was often little help. For one thing, they couldn’t get their heads around my vegetarianism.

“My grandfather ate nothing but onions for a whole winter during the 1940s, he would have killed for a piece of chicken… and now you come here and won’t even try jamón serrano? It’s an insult to Spanishness!”

That was Maria #1, the first in a proud line of girls named Maria I dated.

She was pretty nice, but also realistic about how our relationship had no future. She was from one of the wealthier suburbs, and at one point explained to me that she usually only dated guys who owned cars.

(In Spain, that’s sometimes shorthand for “can borrow Dad’s car as needed” but the point was made. She wanted to make out in a Citroen in the Corte Inglés parking lot, and all I had was a room with a twin bed in a shared flat down by the river.)

After a few months, she dumped me. Not because of the car thing, but because I was generally a miserable, depressing person to be around.

The second Spanish girl I dated – we could call her Maria #2 – dumped me for a similar reason. Apparently, I was negative about everything, always. Those were basically her words.

Oh well. She was young, also rich (well, family rich) and wildly attractive, and she probably would have ruined my life somehow, given time.

My life as a young ovo-lacto radical

I had a teaching job by that point.

But due to the extreme seasonality and badly-paid nature of the Teaching English as a Foreign Language game, could only afford to pay around 300€ a month in rent. Not easy to find, even back in 2006.

I ended up living in Vallecas, a working-class suburb in the south whose very name sent chills down the spines of the sorts of girls I’d been dating.

Luckily, though, I’d recently met Maria #3 at the anarchist book fair. She didn’t have a problem with the neighborhood. Or maybe she did. She never saw it. She lived in Valencia, so most of the time I’d go out there to see her.

paella, spain's star dish
Possibly paella, or possibly arroz con cosas. Here in the Catalan Pyrenees.

I know, I know. Mr Chorizo, picking up girls at the Anarchist Book Fair. Always a class act.

But what can I say? I’m a man of many facets. And, at one point in my life, one of those facets was drawn to radical politics. Mostly, I think, because I’d been scraping along below the poverty line for several years at that point, and didn’t find adult life in a capitalist society to be very promising.

And anyway, I wasn’t yet Mr Chorizo at that point… I was still eating vegetarian. If you’d known me back then, you probably would have called me Mr Zanahoria. (Get it? Because I’m sorta orange?)

Finally, one time out in Valencia, I decided to make a change.

I decided that I was done with being a vegetarian.

And so, Maria #3 made me a chicken burger. Una hamburguesa de pollo, in the local parlance.

It wasn’t bad.

Emboldened, we went to a bar the next day, and had boquerones en vinagre. Okay, so it turns out that raw anchovies cured in vinegar aren’t a great re-introduction to seafood. Sort of gummy in texture, and very fishy in taste, I would only come to love them much later. Oh well.

spanish fried fish
Boquerones fritos, not the vinegar-cured ones. Athens, Greece.

Back in Madrid, I signed up for a boxing gym. I had a friend who was doing it, and for years I’d mostly felt like punching someone in the face, so it seemed like a logical step.

My boxing coach told me I needed to gain some weight. He gave me some dietary advice. Carne de caballo, for its low fat content. Atún en escabeche, because (he believed) there was something about the mix of oil and vinegar that would make me put on muscle. And chorizo, for reasons I’ve since forgotten.

I wasn’t quite ready to eat horse meat, but I tried the escabeche tuna with some sliced tomato. It was pretty good. We were getting somewhere with this whole non-veg thing.

At least I was feeling a bit better.

And then one day, after a hard training session, I was in the mood for something different. I stopped off at a butcher’s shop on my way back from the gym and bought a couple of links of spicy red chorizo. Getting home, I fried it and put it between two pieces of baguette. I took a bite. Holy fuck.

The effect was immediate. Something was happening in my brain that hadn’t happened in several years at that point. It was like the black clouds parting to reveal a bright spring sun as my synapses flooded with cholesterol. For the first time in years, I actually felt good.

Mr Zanahoria was gone, and good riddance.

That day, to no fanfare whatsoever, Mr Chorizo was born… not in a manger, but in a tiny shared-flat kitchen in Vallecas.

Vegan lies and chicken thighs

A few years later I learned that humans are – biologically speaking – omnivores. Also, that our brains are around 60% fat, and that essential amino acids like tryptophan and fatty acids like omega 3 are important for mental health, and that they almost always come from animal products.

All that would have been nice to know as a teenager, but the science deniers over at PETA had been telling me I was basically designed to live on fiber. Thanks for nothing, PETA.

(It’s possible that I’d learned I was an omnivore in elementary school science class, or something, and had since forgotten. Either way, my main takeaway from 13-plus years of “education” was a hatred for all authority. I therefore distrusted most of the “information” I studied along the way.)

After that day eating chorizo, though, there was no going back to vegetarianism. I was all in. I bought panceta – pork belly – and fried it with eggs. I started going to a place called Casa Toni, near where I worked, and discovered oreja de cerdo – pig’s ear – in hot sauce. Amazing! Cartilagey and fatty and spicy and delicious, I went nuts.

Oreja de cerdo at Casa Toni.

That summer, Maria #3 having dumped me at some point, two friends invited me to stay with them up in Santander. They took me to every restaurant in town, and introduced me to dozens of Spanish foods I’d had no idea existed.

Morcilla – that’s blood sausage – fried in a bit of flour. Rabo de toro – stewed bull’s tail – best served at the bars near a bullring. Cocido montañés, made with white beans and several kinds of pork… best served by a real Spanish grandmother.

I was hooked. Hooked on cholesterol and finally eating a diet with adequate protein.

And for the first time in quite a while, I wasn’t feeling depressed.

The dangers of writing about Spanish cuisine while hungry

This was supposed to be a list post.

I was going to give you my top ten weird Spanish foods and tell you that you should try them on your next trip to Spain.

Then I started writing, and things went sideways. I also started getting hungrier and hungrier. And this is what I ended up with. Oh well. What’s so great about list posts, anyway?

These days I look back on those depressing years in my late teens and early twenties as being a huge mistake. I was mostly vegetarian for social reasons – everybody else was doing it, and they all claimed to “feel great”.

On the other hand, what else are you going to say?

Actual photo of a vegan saying how great they feel eating tofu.

One friend back in those days was a very large vegan who lived on a steady diet of 44-ounce cups of Dr Pepper, tofu, and – get this – Pop Tarts. She’d figured out that the frosting on most Pop Tarts contained gelatin, but the unfrosted blueberry and strawberry ones were animal-product-free.

Her weight problem was genetic, she said, because obviously Dr Pepper has no fat in it, and her Pop Tarts were a healthy fully-vegan option. Part of a balanced diet!

So of course, she claimed she “felt great”. But what does that even mean? Had she previously been an athletic omnivore for some comparison?

En fin… I love Spanish cuisine!

These days, I’m feeling pretty good myself. Life after vegetarianism hasn’t all been sunshine and roses, but I don’t have any qualms about being an omnivore.

And Spain’s a good place to be one. Here in Barcelona, for example, a lot of the fruits, vegetables, eggs and meat that I buy are “kilómetro cero” – basically, grown locally so they’re more sustainable, rather than being shipped in from across the country or across the planet.

Eat your heart out, vegans. Oh wait.

Also, I love Spanish cuisine. From the pescado frito down south in Málaga to the pulpo a la gallega up in A Coruña – and passing, of course, through the many regions along the way – I love all of it.

I recommend you try all the foods I’ve mentioned here, and more. Can you believe I haven’t said anything about Madrid classics like callos a la madrileña (sort of a tripe stew) and bocadillo de calamares?

That’s a pretty serious oversight. I guess I might have to make that list post some day, after all.

Hungrily yours,

Mr Chorizo. (Because Mr Zanahoria is dead.)

P.S. If you liked this, you might also enjoy my article about ordering wine in Spain. It’s a bit more informational, and has plenty of vocabulary you can use to get a glass of red or white… and more! And hey, here’s a list of the best international restaurants in Barcelona if you’d like something a bit less Spanish.

P.P.S. Often, vegetarians and vegans don’t really like my argument that “I’m a biological omnivore and trying to get by on roughage for several years made me really depressed”. They say I was probably just not “doing vegetarianism right”. To them, I say, read The Vegetarian Myth and get back to me.

P.P.P.S. Eventually, I ate the horse meat. Actually, I spent several years eating horse meat. That’s one of the topics in my recent article about Spain’s Great Recession. Have fun with that one. And thanks for reading. I appreciate you.

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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