Thursday, 15 May 2014

On being (almost) a vegetarian in Spain

'But ham isn't meat!' 'Do you eat chicken, though?' 'Are you OK health-wise?' 'But why?'

These are just a handful of standard responses the revelation that I don't eat meat is met with in Spain. I'm actually a pescetarian, meaning that I eat (and enjoy) both fish and seafood. But even this caveat isn't quite enough to soothe most Spaniards: a fair number believe my diet is downright weird.

Vegetarianism is quite literally a foreign concept in Spain. In the UK, it's a fairly common choice, with all restaurants and fast-food outlets catering to non-meat eaters in some way, even if it is only by offering those menu staples of a goat's cheese tart or mushroom risotto. But here in Spain, it's just not the done thing. This, after all, is the land of jamón, where prized pigs are fed a diet of acorns and pampered more than your average princess before ending up on Juan and María's plates. The Mediterranean diet features fish, olive oil, vegetables and fruit in abundance: but it also features meat in all its different forms. Rabo de toro (ox tail) and oreja a la plancha (grilled pigs' ear) are more likely to be found on your average Spanish menu than the aforementioned mushroom risotto.

Meat-free Spanish omelette

Despite the lack of understanding, being a pescetarian in Spain isn't that much of a challenge. Yes, I have to study menus a bit more carefully than I would in my home country, but I'll usually find a fish option that suits me. Choices are more limited for me than for meat eaters, and I can't vouch for the contents of the stock used in some of the dishes, but in general, life as a pescetarian is pretty easy. When I first arrived in Spain aged 20, it's fair to say that my fish consumption went as far as fish fingers and the occasional piece of skinless cod. Being presented with a whole fish, all glassy-eyed and shimmering in its skin, was a learning curve. I admit I'm still not adept in slicing fish efficiently and often end up with a mouthful of bones, but I'm much less phased by having something on my plate that actually resembles a sea creature. Pescetarian visitors to Spain who are prepared to get involved with their dinner and do a bit of head-removing and shell-cracking will be just fine. It's their vegetarian cousins I worry about more.

Vegetarian visitors to Spain need to be flexible. And prepared to have their choice of diet questioned. In general, first courses in Spain cater reasonably well to vegetarians, with dishes such as gazpacho and salmorejo (cold tomato soups, the latter creamier than the former), vegetable soup and salads featuring on many menus. The challenge is the main course, where you'll generally find only meat and fish options. Tapas is another battleground: even the most vegetarian-sounding dishes ('fried artichokes') can surprise ('fried artichokes with ham' would have been a more accurate description). Here are some tips for surviving Spain as a vegetarian (or fish finger-loving pescetarian), and some ideas of what to order.

1) Confess
No, not to a priest, to your waiter. He or she needs to know you don't eat meat just in case (see point 2). It may do precious little to help, given the lack of understanding of the concept, but it's worth mentioning. Say 'soy vegetariano/a' or 'no como carne' and ask 'Qué puedo comer?' (What can I eat?)

2) Anticipate surprises
One of my main frustrations is finding meat where I least expect it. I'm all too familiar with the sinking feeling that comes along with that vegetarian dish you ordered that actually contains ham (it's always bloody ham). Even if you think you're safe, ask 'No lleva carne, verdad?' when ordering. This is wise even with fish dishes, just in case.
Be careful with: salmorejo (often topped with chunks of ham and boiled egg), ensalada mixta (usually contains tuna - go for 'verde' if you're a vegetarian), sandwich vegetal (likewise, often contains tuna)

3) Potatoes are your friend
Two staples of the Spanish diet are meat-free: tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelette) and patatas bravas (roast potatoes with hot sauce, also served with ali oli - with garlic sauce). Commonly found in both tapas bars and traditional restaurants, these dishes may be carb-heavy, but they're a safe choice.
Be careful with: patatas aliñadas (common in Seville, also known as ensalada campera in Madrid) - contains tuna

4) Tapas without the traps
In addition to potato dishes, pimientos de padrón are a safe bet. Yes, they may be greasy, but these roasted green peppers drenched in oil and salt are always meat-free. Other vegetarian tapas to try include croquetas de espinacas or de boletus (spinach/mushroom croquettes), espinacas con garbanzos (spinach and chickpeas), pisto (ratatouille) and berenjenas con miel (battered aubergine/eggplant drenched with honey). Many bars also offer tostas and montaditos (small sandwiches) which are usually available with a cheese (queso) filling. If you're in a Basque-style pintxos bar with mini-montaditos on the counter, perusing should be easy, but make sure to rock out the phrase in point 2 when ordering.

5) Go international
In bigger cities like Madrid and Barcelona, you'll find a range of international restaurants, from Indian to Ethiopian to Greek. Many of these will offer more meat-free options than your average Spanish place, so these are good bets when you've had enough of potatoes. In smaller towns, your only 'ethnic' option might be a Chinese, where you'll find a salteado de verduras (vegetable stir fry) on the menu, at the very least.
Be careful with: arroz tres delicias. The standard rice served in Chinese restaurants in Spain, this contains egg, peas and... ham. Ask for arroz blanco instead to avoid these meaty morsels.

6) Try a vegetarian restaurant
Thankfully also reasonably common in Spain's larger metropolises, vegetarian restaurants are a meat-free oasis in a desert of jamón. Many are old-school hippy numbers serving stalwart choices like soya burgers, but some are more modern with a flavoursome variety of meatless munchies on their menus. Hit Google and TripAdvisor to see if your destination has a veggie restaurant. In Madrid, even carnivores will be appeased by the tasty variety on offer at buffet restaurant Viva la Vida in La Latina's Plaza de la Paja. In Valencia, La Tastaolletes in Barrio del Carmen is a welcome respite from paella, serving creative salads and more substantial mains.

7) Know your shops
If you're self-catering, take advantage of the local markets and fruterías, which sell good quality fruit and veg more cheaply than supermarkets. When it comes to other ingredients, Mercadona and Carrefour are safe choices. The former sells houmous, tofu and a good range of cheeses, while Carrefour deals in tofu, veggie burgers and seitan. Some branches have a health-food section which sells goodies like quinoa (at a price). Herbolarios (health-food stores) often sell a selection of vegetarian products too.

8) Be brave
If you can't find a meat-free main course on a set menu, there's nothing wrong with ordering two starters. And if you can't find anything vegetarian on the menu, don't be afraid to go off-piste and ask for something you can actually eat - restaurants will usually be happy to cater to you, once they understand your dietary requirements. If you like eggs, revueltos (scrambled eggs with different ingredients) and tortillas (omelettes) are a good option. Being a vegetarian in Spain doesn't give the potentially adventurous much scope, but being a pescetarian does: don't be put off by heads, tails and shells - just get involved. Spain does fish well, so the teeth-gritting and effort will pay off.

You may not eat the most balanced diet of your life while visiting Spain, but with a bit of patience and a fondness for potatoes, you'll get by. I can't see vegetarianism becoming widespread in Spain in the near future, but more modern restaurants and tapas bars are certainly seeing the potential of the humble vegetable and the pulse, with more creative options on offer using these ingredients. It's still wise to watch out for that pesky jamón, though.

Post on restaurants in Madrid suitable for vegetarians coming up soon.


  1. Great tips, Kate! And you're right, it's always the bloody ham! In Portugal, I've found they don't eat so much meat as in Spain, and a lot of fish, but their vegetable selection with any meal is severely limited. It's usually fish with potatoes and rice (because clearly you need two huge servings of carbs with your meal) plus an anaemic 'salad' if you're lucky. I found a hipster vegetarian cafe the other day and made me a grilled vegetable salad - food never tasted so good!

    1. I had that problem in Portugal too! I have to admit the meat/fish & 2 veg concept we are so used to in the UK doesn't exist in Spain, and fish is often served with little more than a garnish, maybe a few potatoes if you're lucky. Sometimes vegetarian is the only way to go! A good places in Lisbon is Jardim das Cerejas which does a great buffet when you need something green on your plate! I also ate at a good Indian restaurant called Delhi Pleasures near the Cathedral.

  2. This is such a super duper post! We have such a hard time finding vegetarian food when we travel to Europe!


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