There really is no such thing as traditional “Spanish” cuisine, since every region claims a quite separate culinary heritage. That said, lots of dishes crop up right across the country, whatever their origin, while typical Mediterranean staples are ubiquitous – olive oil, tomatoes, peppers, garlic, onions, lemons and oranges.
It’s usual to start your meal with a salad or a plate of cold cuts, while soups might be fish or seafood or, in the north especially, hearty broths such as the Galician cabbage-and-potato caldo gallego. Boiled potatoes with greens, or a thick minestrone of vegetables, are also fairly standard starters, while depending on the season you might be offered grilled asparagus or artichokes, or stewed beans with chunks of sausage.
Anywhere near the coast, you really should make the most of what’s on offer, whether it’s the fried fish of Málaga, Basque shellfish or the seafood specialities in Galicia, notably octopus (pulpo). Fish stews (zarzuelas) can be memorable, while seafood rice dishes range from arroz negro (“black rice”, cooked with squid ink) to the better-known paella. This comes originally from Valencia (still the best place for an authentic one), though a proper paella from there doesn’t include fish or seafood at all but things like chicken, rabbit, beans and snails.
Meat is most often grilled and served with a few fried potatoes. Regional specialities include cordero (lamb) from Segovia, Navarra and the Basque Country, as well as cochinillo (suckling pig) or lechal (suckling lamb) in central Spain. Cured ham, or jamón serrano, is superb, produced at its best from acorn-fed Iberian pigs in Extremadura and Andalucía, though it can be extremely expensive. Every region has a local sausage in its locker – the best known is the spicy chorizo, made from pork, though others include morcilla (blood sausage; best in Burgos, León and Asturias), and butifarra, a white Catalan sausage made from pork and tripe. Stews are typified by the mighty fabada, a fill-your-boots Asturian bean-and-meat concoction.
Cheeses to look out for include Cabrales, a tangy blue cheese made in the Picos de Europa; Manchego, a sharp, nutty cheese made from sheep’s milk in La Mancha; Mahon, a cow’s-milk cheese from Menorca, often with paprika rubbed into its rind; Idiazábal, a smoked cheese from the Basque Country; and Zamorano, made from sheep’s milk in Castilla y León.
In most restaurants, dessert is nearly always fresh fruit or flan, the Spanish crème caramel, with the regions often having their own versions such as crema catalana in Catalunya and the Andalucian tocino de cielo. There are also many varieties of postre – rice pudding or assorted blancmange mixtures – and a range of commercial ice-cream dishes.