Let’s do some Spanish seafood vocabulary.
The other day I wrote a little article about my love for Spanish cuisine.
And I described the rather disorienting experience – many years ago – of having a decent (I thought) knowledge of Spanish, but walking into typical Madrid bars or restaurants and being completely unable to understand the menu.
One of the reasons is that I was unaware of what the Spanish actually ate. But another was that I wasn’t really informed about seafood at all, and that’s a big thing here.
Growing up back in Arizona, we’d eat salmon about once a year. Tuna salad, made with flaked tuna in cans, was an occasional dinner if my mom didn’t want to cook. I remember my dad eating sardines from a can once or twice. And I’d probably eaten shrimp a few times in my life.
Other than that? Not a lot of seafood out in the desert.
(Occasionally we’d drive over to San Diego, as people from Arizona tend to do, and I’d have squid or something similar. Good times.)
Anyway, Spain is a country where they take seafood very seriously. The wholesale market Mercamadrid is one of the world’s largest fish markets – and, notably, it’s hours from any sea or ocean.
If you’re like me – not much into seafood at all – you might think it’s a weirdly strong national obsession. But it does give us a lot of vocabulary to learn. Today we’re going to talk about fish, shellfish, and other types of seafood.
Ready? First up…
Spanish seafood vocabulary: What’s the difference between pez and pescado?
If you’ve spent any time in Spain, you might have noticed that there are two words for fish.
pez (pl. peces) = fish, alive in the water
pescado = fish after being caught
The difference whether it’s alive and in the water (pez / peces), or in the market or on your plate (pescado). The word “pescado” comes from the verb pescar, which is to fish.
And while we’re here…
pescador = fisherman
pescadería = fishmonger
A quick disclaimer before moving on: I’m talking here about fish and seafood as it’s served in Spain. I’m guessing that in Latin America there are regional names for some of these things, or they’re not common foods, or whatever. So this will (probably) be more useful here in Spain.
Then again, some regions of Spain (Galicia, Catalonia, etc) have their own languages and cuisines which complicate things further. Either way, this’ll give you something to start with.
By the way, here’s the video for some help with the pronunciation…
Different types of fish in Spanish and English
Some of the names of these types of fish are pretty obvious if you look at the words, others are less so. And the pronunciation of Spanish is easy, but it doesn’t sound anything like English. Keep that in mind.
First you’ve got the Spanish name of the fish, then the English.
- salmón = salmon
- bacalao = cod
- merluza = hake
- sardinas = sardines
- boquerones = anchovies (pickled or fried)
- anchoas = anchovies (cured in salt)
- caballa = mackerel
- trucha = trout
- rape = monkfish
- pez espada = swordfish
- atún = tuna
- dorada = gilt-head bream
- lenguado = flounder
- corvina = sea bass
- besugo = sea bream
You won’t find these at every fish market all year long. Some are seasonal and some are probably regional. When I went to the Canary Islands a couple of years ago, the selection of fish was pretty different than what you’d get in Madrid or Barcelona.
But then again, the Canaries are a two hour flight to the south, so you have these strange deserty-looking fish down there.
About the word “rape” meaning monkfish, yeah, it’s a fish. Occasionally some guiri who just got to town will post a picture from their local fishmonger as a joke saying “OMG rape 12,99 a kilo”. Um. Okay. Good one, I guess. In any case, just keep in mind that the pronunciation is two syllables and uses the full Spanish vowels: ra – pe.
Also, if you want to know about how to pronounce the Spanish R and RR sounds, check out this video I made about just that topic…
Moving on, we’ve got the wonderful world of marisco…
Marisco in Spanish: shellfish and molluscs
They eat a lot of shellfish in Spain. It’s one of the key parts of the paella de marisco and you can sometimes get large seafood platters at restaurants, with many different types of shellfish.
First, the very basic vocabulary.
marisco = shellfish and molluscs
una marisquería = a seafood restaurant
una arrocería = a restaurant serving paella and other rice dishes (many including seafood)
The words “marisco” and “pescado” work pretty well as uncountable mass nouns – meaning you can use the singular as a “collective noun” to refer to any number of actual pieces. (Kind of like how we use “fish” as both a singular and plural in English.) And while you technically can use mariscos in plural, it seems to me to be less common.
Common types of shellfish in Spanish
Here are a few specific words to describe the various edible crustaceans and molluscs you might find in the sea – or your local fish market.
- langosta / bogavante = lobster
- cangrejo = crab
- cigala = crayfish
- mejillones = mussels
- ostras = oysters
- almejas = clams
- langostinos = prawns
- gambas = shrimp
- calamares = squid
- pulpo = octopus
- sepia = cuttlefish
- vieiras = scallops
- caracoles = snails
About snails… there are sea snails and land snails available in Spain, and I know you might be saying “But land snails aren’t seafood… They’re terrestrial pulmonate gastropod molluscs!” And you’re right, of course. Also, snails are a bit weird. They sell them on the street in places like El Puerto de Santa María, but I’ve never been a huge fan.
And if we’re talking about crabs – tell your mom I said hi, by the way – you might see different words like nécora or centollo for different types. I’m no expert, though. The general word, as you can see above, is cangrejo.
Moving on to a bit of cooking vocab…
Ways of preparing seafood in Spanish
These words are used for different ways of preparing fish and possibly other foods. For example, “al horno” just means it’s made in the oven, so you could have patatas al horno just like you could have bacalao al horno.
frito = fried
rebozado = battered
empanado = breaded
al horno = baked in the oven
a la sal = baked under a pile of salt
a la plancha = grilled (in a skillet, if you’re doing it at home)
en vinagre = pickled in vinegar
en su tinta = cooked in its ink (in the case of squid or similar)
con ajo y perejil = with garlic and parsley
About that last one, when I finally decided to start cooking fish, I’d go to the market and ask the fishmongers how I should prepare the stuff on display. The answer was virtually always the same: a la plancha, con ajo y perejil. Maybe they’d add un poco de zumo de limón at the end. But most of the stuff can just be made very simply at home. And even on a menú del día at a restaurant, they’re probably not going to do anything too complex.
Proverbs and expressions about fish in Spanish
Let’s finish with a few fun expressions about fish in Spanish. If you want much more expressions of this type, I’ve got an article about shocking Spanish proverbs, and another about obscene Spanish expressions.
La pescadilla que se muerde la cola.
The snake that bites its own tail. Sort of a vicious circle like situation in which a problem recurs over and over again, and you can’t escape. Pescadilla is a type of hake, it’s pretty cheap, and long enough that it could possibly bend all the way around and bite its tail.
El pez muere por la boca.
The fish dies when it opens its mouth. This basically means you should be discreet and not talk too much. Fish, as you know, are often caught with hooks in their mouths. If they would just keep their mouths shut, they might survive. Or at least that’s what the expression suggests.
Estar como pez en el agua.
In English we have an expression, “like a fish out of water”… meaning somebody is in a totally foreign and uncomfortable situation. The Spanish expression is the opposite: a fish in the water, meaning a person who’s totally comfortable and at home where they are.
Finally, my favorite…
¡Que te folle un pez!
Go get fucked by a fish. The normal expression would be “que te follen“, but if you add the fish, you get something that’s a bit more humorous, but at the same time more painful and dramatic. If you want to dial it up a bit, you can also say “que te folle un pez espada“, which replaces the regular fish for a swordfish: even more painful, presumably.
Spanish seafood vocab: in conclusion…
Well, that was fun.
I hope you liked the Spanish seafood vocabulary.
I’ll probably write a new article soon, just about Chinese restaurants, as that’s something of a theme in my life. I live right near Barcelona’s “Chinatown” and have plenty of recommendations.
That’s about it for today.
Have a good one,
Daniel AKA Mr Flounder.
P.S. Every once in a while, there’ll be a whole controversy when some British chef makes a paella with some chorizo in it and everyone in Spain loses their shit. It’s dumb, but anyway, I’ve got an article about it called Spanish Culinary Hypocrisy. Enjoy!