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There is no national Spanish cuisine

By CLAUDE TAYAG, The Philippine STAR Published Feb 29, 2024 5:00 am

In the Madrid Fusion Manila 2015 held at the SMX Mall of Asia, one of the guest speakers was the Spanish chef Pedro Subijana. He is a three-star Michelin awardee, and one of the founders of Nueva Cocina Vasca, or New Basque Cuisine. He declared in his awe-inspiring presentation: “There is no such thing as national Spanish cuisine, only regional Spanish cooking.” 

Thus, when one speaks of the national cuisine of any country, one is offered a cross-section of the best dishes, if not the most popular, every region has to offer. Inevitably, when one speaks of Spanish cuisine in the national landscape, what comes to mind are these centuries-old iconic dishes: queso manchego ((milk from the Manchega sheep, La Mancha region), jamon iberico (southwestern provinces with dehesa, or oak forests), chorizos (national), croquetas (with regional differences), tortilla de patata (with slight regional differences), pulpo a la Gallega (Galicia), pescados fritos (Sevilla), gambas al ajillo (Madrid, Sevilla), paella (Valencia), fabada asturiana (Asturias), cochinillo (Segovia), cocido madrileño (Madrid), flan catalan (Catalonia), to name a few. 

Just last week, Feb. 22, an exclusive dinner for a select media group was organized by Vien Cortes, our kababayan, the longtime regional market analyst of the Singapore-based Spanish Tourism Board (STB) for Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.

Pulpo a la Gallega: Chef Kevin’s interpretation of the classic Galician boiled octopus and diced potato dish has the potatoes finely mashed, mixed with pimenton (paprika), and an aioli of black squid ink instead of the usual olive oil.

During her welcome remarks, she introduced Marta Fernandez, the new Tourism Counselor of the Embassy of Spain and the director of the STB. Vien also thanked guests from the media for helping promote Spanish tourism among Filipinos. She recalled that when she started her marketing campaign some 20 years ago, all that most Pinoys knew of the Spaniards was that they introduced the Catholic religion and were our former “conquistadores.” That has changed tremendously since, she said, with Filipinos discovering the richness in history and culture of Spain, and most especially the varied gastronomic offerings of the different autonomous regions.

Segovia’s signature cochinillo asado

The event was held at the Gallery by chef Chele Gonzalez, in BGC. True to form, there was great Spanish food, an impeccable Spanish wine selection, and a lively conversation on the myths and facts about some iconic Spanish dishes.

The dishes served were not far off the list I mentioned above about the regionality of each dish’s origin. They were creatively interpreted by the young Spanish chef Kevin Ian Udtujan from Cantabria. It was an evening to remember.

With or without chorizo?

Way back in 2016, the Spaniards were collectively up in arms over British chef Jamie Oliver’s incursion into an iconic Spanish domain. The “Naked Chef” was caught with his pants down (pun intended) committing a “no-no” that horrified the usually opinionated but polarized Spaniards: adding the highly spiced chorizo into his “Spanglish” version of the paella. Just as he posted a link to his unorthodox paella recipe on his Twitter account, an avalanche of ballistic outrage was fired targeting the British celebrity chef.

Paella Valenciana with chicken and rabbit: During Vien Cortes’s talk at the Gallery, she mentioned the somewhat controversial presence of chorizo in a Spanish paella. “Nunca/never!” shouted Señorita Marta Fernandez of the Spanish Embassy emphatically, who was seated among the guests.

Que horror!” “Insulting paella recipe!” “An abomination.” “Your dish is everything but paella.” “What do you Brits know about cooking, anyway?” were just some furious comments. What’s the big deal, one may ask? Haven’t we Filipinos and many other home cocineros from around the world been doing that for generations? And the dish is tastier for it, I would hasten to add.

What is Paella?

To set the record straight, the word “paella” (pronounced pa-e-ya) originally referred to the wide, shallow cooking pan, but nowadays it generally means the rice dish cooked in it. The cooking pan is now referred to as a paellera.

Paella, the rice dish, traces its origins to the rice-growing eastern Spanish province of Valencia. Called thereabouts “paella Valenciana,” its requisite ingredients are the round-grain Bomba rice (firm and loose) or Senia rice (sticky and lumpy), olive oil, saffron, rabbit or chicken, snails, some variety of beans, and chicken broth.

Gambas al ajillo: A staple in the tapas bars of Madrid and Andalusia are shrimps cooked in paprika oil and garlic.

Its popularity has spread across Spain, with each region, as well as household, having its own version, but consensually never with chorizo. The main reason for this is the chorizo has such a strong taste that it will overpower the delicate flavor of saffron, theoretically speaking. But in practice, what restaurant or even home cook has saffron in their pantries, with its price worth more than gold by weight?

Hence, most paellas cooked outside of madre España hardly has any saffron, almost always has chorizo as a flavoring ingredient, and almost anything and everything goes. (Think pizza with all its variants.) The cooked rice gets its yellow-orange color from turmeric, paprika and tomatoes.

Once, I came across a Spanish cookbook stating the tenets of an “authentic” Valencian paella. To start with, it must be cooked by a man. Secondly, it must be done out in the field or countryside, with the use of newly gathered dry grapevine branches to stoke a fire (the grapevine branches are believed to add a certain smoky aroma to cooked paella). The meat of choice is rabbit, newly caught from a hunt, and snails gathered from the wild, the beans newly plucked from a vine. I suppose the extra-virgin olive oil, saffron and Bomba rice are store-bought.

The recipe sounds more like a romanticized cooking adventure, for how many of us mortals can actually experience such an ideal setting? And if you remove one tenet from the equation—what if it is cooked by a woman, for instance—will it no longer qualify as “authentic”?

It is quite disappointing that the Spaniards raised hell over the use of chorizo in paella, considering they initiated the exchange and cross-culturalization of ingredients more than 500 years ago. Our respective cuisines wouldn’t be what they are today without these daring explorations. It is out-of-the-box thinking that produced the great minds of molecular and avant-garde cuisine—the Adrias, Arzaks, Rocas, et al —Spaniards all, to be sure. They have explored the limitless boundaries of gastronomy, revolutionizing the way we regard and eat food. Where would we be today if nobody challenged the doctrine that the earth was FLAT?

How a tradition is born

For centuries, the harsh conditions of the highland plateau, Castilla y Leon, which had no access to the sea, led to the hardy Castilian people subsisting on its pigs, sheep, jamon, embutidos (all kinds of cured sausages, including chorizo), garbanzos, beans and lentils, its robust stew olla podrida and sopa castellana (aka sopa de ajos or garlic soup) that got them through the bitterly cold winters.

Author Claude Tayag with Sr. D. Candido, throwing the plate at the Mesón De Candido, Segovia

Segovia, being one of the nine provinces of this autonomous region, is world-renowned for its as adores, or roasters. Their signature roasts are the 21-day-old cochinillo (suckling pig) and lechazo (baby lamb).

At the rustic Mesón De Candido in Segovia, located just beneath an impressive Roman aqueduct (built circa 50 AD), the cutting of the suckling pig with a porcelain plate was born here. The use of the plate, instead of a cleaver, is to demonstrate how tender the roasted cochinillo is. After which, the plate is to be thrown (discarded) by Sr. D. Candido. Urban legend has it that the Signor of the house started this practice quite accidentally. As he was customarily cutting the suckling pig with a plate, it slipped out of his hand and landed on the floor, smashed into shards, but delighted the guests. Applause!