23 Jul EATING VEGETARIAN IN SPAIN
Please, try it…for me? Just put it on your tongue. Just for a second. It would mean so much to me. I promise, you will not regret it. Just the tiniest bit.
This is the first real sentence anyone spoke to me in Spain, by a purveyor of artisinal Jamon at the Mercado San Miguel in Madrid, on my first night on my two week long culinary adventure in Spain. I knew this would happen, but I did not expect it to happen so quickly, and for the message to be spoken with such sadness: she truly was heartbroken that I chose to live a life without ham and would not just have one taste of her beautiful cured pig.
In the time leading up to my trip, when I told the people in my life that I was determined to eat my way through Spain, only dining on Spanish cuisine and avoiding all vegetarian restaurants along the way, I was met with sighs and smiles and subtext of “aw, aren’t you so cute that you think that’s actually going to work”. Every single person I spoke to cautioned that all I would find to eat would be carbs. They warned that every dish would be laden with pork, and fish, and all things animal. They cautioned that Spainiards would look at me like an alien when I admitted my vegetarianism. They laughed when I was steadfast in my belief that I would not starve to death on my journey. They assured me that by the end, I would no longer be living a plant-based life, that I would be forever changed.
I have to admit, I was scared. I loaded up my bag with protein bars and vitamins. I prepared for a life of cheese and bread and unending hunger.
Eating vegetarian in Spain is EASY, especially in the bigger cities where there are endless plant-based restaurants, gluten-free bakeries, signs advertising organic or vegan-friendly, sections on menus dedicated to plant eaters, international cuisine that is naturally vegetarian friendly, and tons of organic markets to pick up meat-alternatives, fresh grains, beans, and vegetables. The amount of times I saw quinoa and seitan and tofu and veggie burgers had my head spinning. Most locals don’t even eat at the Spanish restaurants but instead haunt the hot new Sushi place or Italian fusion restaurant down the street. There’s even American chains glaring at you from every other corner.
But that was not my plan.
For two reasons. One: I wanted to soak up every ounce of the traditional Spanish flavors, spices, smells, styles, and tendencies that I could manage in two short weeks. I needed a new injection of culinary inspiration to bring home to my kitchen for myself and my clients. I longed to be inspired by the food of an incredible culinary culture that we don’t see much of in LA (I can go to a restaurant from every cuisine imaginable, including innovative vegetarian and vegan spots, at home in Los Angeles, so no need to eat Thai in Spain). Two: Most vegetarians that travel to Spain are more likely than not going to be travelling with their omnivorous companions, and while those travelling partners may be game for one night out at a vegan joint or Indian restaurant, they are most likely going to want to eat “real” Spanish food and as a vegetarian you have to roll with it and find something to eat. Even though I was travelling solo, I wanted to bring back a list of places where everyone in your caravan would be satisfied.
And it honestly was not that hard. Sure there were nights where I had to wander and try several places before I hit the jackpot. Sure there were times when I couldn’t find any protein. Sure I hate a hell of a lot of bread, cheese, eggs, and potatoes. But more times than not, I had some truly innovative, delicious, and balanced plant-based dishes that the people I was with liked far more than their meat filled plated. The key to my success was planning. I didn’t just walk around going into any restaurant and scanning the menu until I could find something. I would have starved. I found places in advance that I was pretty confident would be amazing and have things for me to eat, just like I do when I go out to eat at home. If you follow the following tips and tricks, or eat off of my list: YOU WILL BE OK. You will not starve. The protein bars and bags of nuts came in handy on trains and during endless sightseeing days, but other than that you won’t even need them.
TIPS + TRICKS
Make sure you plan where you want to eat BEFORE your trip. I wasted way too much time when I could have been exploring sitting on Yelp reviews and translating Spanish menus trying to find great places that also served great vegetarian food.
Many restaurants are closed on Sunday and Mondays, during siesta time, or random holidays: check ahead for hours (Yelp is the best resource for this)
IGNORE tripadvisor.com reviews. I hate to say it, but you don’t really want to take advice from someone who only eats at the local Denny’s at home and is staying in Holiday Inn’s in Spain. They’re generally tourist traps, way overpriced, and just not high quality. Condenast traveler, NYTimes 36 Hours, and TimeOut are excellent jumping off points for restaurant choices. Then go to Yelp, check the menus, reviews, and hours (and that they still exist) and plot your choices.
Don’t be afraid to deviate from your plan. Some of the best places I ate were ones I discovered while on my way to another restaurant. Look for crowded places with tons of locals. If you see a bunch of people with maps and backpacks or an empty spot- run.
Don’t be afraid to eat three dinners. Do a tapas crawl, have a bite and a drink at a few places to you get to try more.
Trust in the Gastrobar. Super old school places are incredible, but more often than not they’re not going to have very many vegetable options. Gastrobars are more modern interpretations of Spanish cuisine and often treat their vegetarian dishes as well as they treat their meat dishes. If you find an incredibly fancy Michelin star rated restaurant and cannot afford to go, google the chef. They more often than not have a “lower-end” gastrobar concept restaurant that ends up being incredible.
Ask if there is meat, fish or ham (they often don’t consider ham as meat, it’s a category of its own) on things even if it doesn’t say so on the menu. If there is, they will almost always leave it off for you if you ask. If you don’t speak any Spanish at all, at least learn the phrases 1. I do not eat meat or fish 2. Can you make it without meat or fish?