Introduction to Spanish food

by Neil Morris

Spanish cuisine is the result of a collision of cultural, religious and geographical influences that goes back centuries. These influences have given Spanish food the wonderful array of vibrant colours and natural health-promoting ingredients that we have come to know today.

With an abundance of quality fresh ingredients at their disposal, food plays a major role in the everyday life of the Spanish people, with both the production and consumption of local produce integral to the culture of communities across the peninsula.

The History of Spanish food - The Moors

Spanish history is as rich and varied as the cuisine itself and many of the recipes and ingredients can be traced back through its fascinating and varied past. When the Moors invaded from North Africa, they stayed in Spain for nearly 800 years, bringing with them a multitude of ingredients, many of which are now commonplace in the Spanish kitchen such as aubergines, cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, saffron and almonds. As well as bringing new ingredients, the practical Moors also introduced new ways of cultivating food, using irrigation to transform the landscape with a myriad of colourful crops and trees bearing delicious fruit and nuts.salted-almonds

Many of the techniques used in Spanish cooking today were also introduced at this time, such as cooking skewered meat outside on barbecues, frying in olive oil (which had been introduced by the Greeks), preserving in vinegar and the use of clay pots for frying and baking. All of these methods are still used by the Spanish to this day and many of the recipes that are considered typically Spanish have Moorish roots. Even some of the Spanish food names – including arroz (rice), aceite (oil) and almendres (almonds) – have Arabic origins.

The Jewish Influence

Another legacy of the Moorish invasion was the liberation of the previously oppressed Jewish Community of Spain. The Jews welcomed the Moors and volunteered their services to help administrate the new regime. Their business acumen and organisational skills as well as their complicity in aiding the Islamic invasion, helped them forge a comfortable existence under the Moorish stronghold.

In culinary terms the Jews left their biggest mark with what is now considered Spain's national dish. Cocido is a fairly simple stew of slow-cooked meat with vegetables and chickpeas and has many different regional variations. Its origins lie in the Jewish casserole Adafina which was eaten on the Sabbath but the later addition of Pork by the Catholics helped disguise the Jewish provenance of the dish.


After the expulsion of the Moors and the Jews by the Catholic Kings, the consumption of Pork became widespread and also acted as evidence of one's faith to the Church as it was not consumed by either the Muslims or the Jews. The process of making salt cod (bacalao) came about after the need for preserved food during times of abstinence from meat. Both Pork and Bacalao are examples of how religion has also helped to shape Spanish food as we know it today.

The New World

Following Christopher Columbus' first voyage to the Americas in 1492 a whole new range of produce was introduced to Spain and Western Europe. Plants and animals from the Old World were exchanged with those of the New World in what became known as the Columbian Exchange. Some of the food products imported during this time included: avocado, various beans (pinto, kidney, etc), raspberry, bell pepper, blueberry, cashew, chilli peppers, courgette, cranberries, cocoa, Jerusalem artichoke, maize, passion fruit, peanut, pecan, pineapple, potato, pumpkin, squash, strawberry, sweet potato, tomato and vanilla. Many of these ingredients are now staples of Spanish food and the Mediterranean diet.


Every plate of Spanish food tells a story. It's a story that spans over a thousand years and takes us on a sometimes turbulent journey to the other side of the world and back again. It takes place against a backdrop of war, politics and religion and ultimately it is a story about the fusion of flavour, taste and colour which has come to define a country and its people.

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