The Spanish cuisine is incredibly diverse. After living in the south of Spain for a year, traveling cross country, and then moving to my current home on the northwestern coast, I still can open a carta (menu) and find dishes that I haven’t eaten. Yet. This is not from a lack of trying, quite the opposite. Over the years I adopted the habit—now a life goal—of eating something new everywhere that I travel, which quickly escalated to having no rules: I will try literally anything. When I first came to the land of sangria and cerveza, I started out simple with Spain’s usual suspects: jamón (cured ham), tortilla española (fried potato, onion, and egg omelette), paella (a rice dish with seafood, chicken, and vegetables), and tigres (stuffed mussels, containing no tiger). The next thing I knew I had tried every part on a pig, a variety of creepy tentacled seafood, and even recipes that call for blood (not human, don’t worry). The weirdest part, now these are some of my favorite dishes! Here is a list of the weirdest Spanish foods that I have eaten (and love!) ¡Que aproveche!
1. Calamares y pasta con tinta de calamar: Squid and squid ink tinted pasta
On the scale of weirdness, I would rate squid as quite normal. That’s to say I’m pretty acclimated to it now, but it made my list since I’m sure squid still raises eyebrows for some people. The pasta tinted with squid ink, although it may look unusual with its black color, has a very subtle salty taste of the ocean which compliments seafood nicely. Calamari is a fairly inexpensive and adaptable seafood that is very popular on the northern and southern coasts of Spain. Grill it. Bread it and fry it. Throw it in a paella. As long as you don’t overcook squid, it’s hard to eat it incorrectly. Now there’s not a week that goes by that I don’t eat calamari.
2. Pulpo = Octopus
The beautiful northwestern region of Galicia, my home-away-from-home, is the most famous in Spain for octopus. Pulpo a la gallega (Galician octopus), the smaller tapa shown above, is a signature dish of the region made of octopus, boiled potatoes, and sprinkled with paprika. Although admittedly the tentacles sometimes still make me squirm, this is an incredibly delicious seafood to introduce you to Galician culture.
3. Rabo de toro = Oxtail
After unknowingly eating cow’s tongue on a trip to Germany and liking it, the gloves came off in Córdoba. I tried bull’s tail, or oxtail, which is commonly slow-cooked as a type of stew in the regions of Andaulcía and Madrid where bull fighting is popular. When served on the bone, rabo de toro in a roundish shaped ball of very tender meat that surrounds the center bone and vertebra. The dish sounds more unusual than the food actually tastes since it’s similar to juicy pot roast. It definitely shows that Spaniards aren’t letting any meat go to waste.
4. Percebes = Goose barnacles
Did the waiter just bring me a plate of little monster claws?! That was my reaction to seeing goose barnacles for the first time. These tiny crustaceans are an expensive Spanish delicacy due to the fact that it is both very difficult and very dangerous to collect them. Percebes live attached to the side of hard surfaces like rocks along jagged coastlines where the tide is most dangerous. Many Galician fisherman risk their lives trying to fish for them, so they can sell as high as €200 per kilo in Madrid. To eat them you husk off the black outer covering from where it attaches to the “monster claw”, bite off the tender meat on the inside, and throw away the claw. Although it is commonly known that the goose barnacle has the biggest (Cover your ears kids!) penis in the animal kingdom in relation to body size, it is a misconception that that is the part that is eaten. It is not. Percebes have a very delicious taste of the ocean.
5. Oreja de cerdo = Pig ears
As with cows, the Spanish do not throw away any part of the pig either. Spaniards are a resourceful bunch, but a 40-year dictatorship will do that to a country. Although it was a toss up between pig nose, tongue, or intestines as the weirdest consumed body part, I rate the ears as the hardest to eat. Why? There is no disguising what you are eating. Warm or cold, you know it is an ear with every crunchy yet chewy bite of cartilage. There was even some hair still on my tapa shown above. However I tried it like every new food I come across, but orejas are not a frequently-ordered favorite for me.
6. Angulas = Baby eels
Yes, this is a real dish. The “baby” eels are actually a couple years old when sold at markets but are referred to as such due to their tiny size. Angulas are the length and width of a spaghetti noodle and are quite rare due to overfishing in the past. This is why a mock kind of baby eels, called gulas, are more commonly bought and sold in supermarkets. Gulas al ajillo, photographed above, are fried in olive oil with garlic and a little red pepper. ¡Ñum!
7. Lamprea a la bordalesa = Lamprey in its blood
For the grand finale of weird, I do not disappoint. I give you the lamprey, the vampire of the sea. This fish has the body of an eel and the jaw-less mouth of a sarlacc (Star Wars nerd here!) which they use to suck the blood of other fish. (Developing a phobia of the ocean yet?) In Spain lampreas are born in the river deltas of Galicia, live in the sea, and return to the rivers to reproduce and die. Because of their lifestyle they can only be fished for and caught in the spring months, usually March, when they return to the rivers. Don’t let the lamprey’s hideousness scare you away, it’s a tasty fish when cooked well.
When I tried it, it was cooked very well. My boyfriend’s best friend, Fran Lampón, is a professional chef and he cooked lamprea a la bordalesa. Since they are very expensive—the two shown above cost €50—a group of our friends got together for a nice lunch. Fran made the sauce from wine from Porto (Portugal), garlic, foie gras (fattened duck liver), the lamprey’s blood, and a few other secret ingredients. It is a uniquely delicious dish. If you ever get a chance, give it a try!