Paella. If there is one thing tourists know about Valencia it is Paella. On the train ride to Valencia, as the rolling brown hills of the Spanish countryside quietly zipped outside my window, I imagined all the food the city would offer. There was definitely going to be an abundance of fresh seafood; Valencia is on the coast, after all. The paella would be filled with fresh shrimp, calamari and clams. Walking past the archbishop´s mansion near the basilica, Sonia stopped to describe the dish that her city takes so much pride in. She recounted the history of her favorite food as I listened, imagining the savory taste of my first paella Valenciana. According to her, paella is a product of the Roman and the Moorish powers that ruled her city. The Moors brought rice and the Romans brought the flat and shallow iron pans with the distinct ridges that allow for the rice to be cooked evenly. Valencianos used ingredients available to them in abundance. She then pointed at me and asked if I had ever tasted a paella. “Of course.” My host mom made paella for dinner the week before, and I´ve tried the paellas near Plaza Mayor. That was when she shook her head saying that I had never tried a real paella until I try an original Paella Valenciana made with rice, chicken, rabbit meat, and saffron. “That paella with other types of meat and the different seafood is what they make in Madrid. But this is Valencia; we invented Paella.” Sonia criticized Madrid and its lack of history almost as much as she praised everything about her Valencia. She, like the rest of the citizens of Valencia, considers herself a Valenciana first and Spanish after. She never failed to mention the age of every important building in her city, always emphasizing the fact that her Valencia existed at least a thousand years before Madrid was even built. Her city was built by the Romans, ruled by the Moors and was once a great center of the kingdom of Aragon. They also have a beach. Sonia is a Valencian nationalist; she will emphasize everything that shows the greatness of Valencia from its history, to its language and most importantly, its food.
There is nothing that describes Spain more than its food. The country boasts great architecture and great art, but so can France and Italy. But Spain has an authentic taste that cannot be replicated: from the toritilla de patatas, the amazing mariscos, to the culture of tapas. Each food describes its region and its people more than a great painting or an ornate building ever can. The likes of Goya and Velasquez created renowned works of art that adorn royal palaces. Spanish architects constructed the Alhambra and El Escorial for kings. But food is the masterpiece of the common people. I have tried tortilla española multiple times, and each time it delivers a different taste. This authentically Spanish dish, made with battered eggs, chopped potatoes, and onions, can differ in so many ways depending on who makes it and where it is made. My host mom makes it with a more savory flavor by adding a good portion of salt and a few other spices and serving it flat like a yellow pancake. She makes hers flat instead of the more common thick and slightly more watery tortillas I have seen in other parts of the country. She also serves it with a piece of fresh French bread and a small portion of salad with about a spoonful of vinaigrette and a pinch of salt. Her salad, instead of having the common red tomatoes, uses kumato: a smaller darker colored tomato-like fruit that gives the salad a distinctly sweet taste. On the night I first had a tortilla española I thanked my host mom for the great dinner and praised her great cooking. She responded with great pride by declaring that she makes the best tortilla de patatas. And I had no reason to disagree. It was a great welcome to this country and this city.
My host mom, also named Sonia, takes great pride in her cooking and the beauty of Spanish cuisine. I told her that according to the Travel Channel, Spain has some of the best food in the world. She nodded and put two thumbs up. On my first day at her house she asked me if there was anything that I would not eat or was allergic to, and I told her that I will eat anything she puts on the table. If my host places something suitable to feed a guest for dinner, then it must be good. The greatness of her culture´s cuisine is on the line. A week ago she served grilled chicken marinated in spices from Morocco. The exotic scent of her spices flowed slowly through my window with the wind as she cooked with the windows wide open in the kitchen. It was going to be a meal worth writing about. She used tender chicken breast grilled to perfection so as not to make the meat dry and allowed the exquisite aroma of her Moroccan spices to fill the entire apartment. She served it beautifully on a plate next to a perfectly arranged bowl of her salad topped by a ring of sliced kumato glistening in vinaigrette. She loves vinaigrette—her favorite salad dressing. The day before that we dined on a paella de mariscos filled with seafood she had bought from the market including shrimp, calamari and clams. That same week she also served a massive piece of grilled tuna served with seasoned white rice and her salad with kumato. I asked, in my most confident Spanish, whether the entire portion of fish on the plate was just for me. Of course it was. The grilled tuna covered almost the entire plate leaving only enough space for some rice. We also had extra rice and salad on blue and yellow, glazed bowls in the center of the table in case I needed more. She then asked me, as she does every night after dinner, if I liked the food and whether it satisfied my hunger. I have not said “no” yet.
Like the tour guide, my host mom takes great pride in her food—her Spanish food. Our dinners, where I practice the most Spanish during the day, always begins with an informative discussion of the food in front of us. I simply ask what it is, and she usually explains the ingredients she uses, where she buys them and what part of the country they come from. As I speak she stares intently, expecting me to ask about the meaning of at least a couple of the words she mentioned; and she seems to always have an explanation on hand. I then ask her to repeat the name of the food so I can add it to my rapidly expanding Spanish vocabulary. I suggested— putting my Spanish into practice—that she think about opening a restaurant. She then told me about her parents´ old restaurant in Madrid where she learned to cook. She never did open her own though. She studied to become a nurse; and when that plan failed she decided to study fashion and design. Maybe that explains her short, gelled, silver hair and her obsession with New York City, the best city in the world after Madrid according to her. But food never left her. She may not express the same animation that Sonia, the tour guide, gave me when I asked anything about Valencia; but she definitely maintained that same honest excitement and sense of pride in discussing the food that she knows to be an integral part of her history and her identity. Lounging on the couch one day, I stared at the glass coffee table where her keys serve as a paperweight for a ticket to a cooking class in the city, while she explained that to really experience Spanish culture one must eat Spanish food.
This country offers a multitude of options to experience. Upon arriving from Valencia, I visited El Mercado San Anton in the Chueca neighborhood of Madrid. The Mercado, unlike anything I have seen back in Chicago, is a shrine solely dedicated to Spanish gastronomy. Under the light of the central atrium are sections of independent vendors selling the innumerable types of jamón available, each one differing in price and quality based on the diet of the animal. The acorn-fed animals produce more expensive jamón in comparison to grain-fed animals. They line the entire counter hanging from the ceiling with their fat and hooves exposed; their brown color only interrupted by the red flesh finely sliced by the butcher. Across them are stands selling fruits from pineapples to kumato. The floor smelled of a unique combination of fresh fruits from the stands and meat from the counters. Upstairs, the stalls served tapas of all kinds to go along with a copa de cerveza or cava, Spain´s own and supposedly better version of champagne.
I was drawn to a counter selling fresh oysters and scallops. The oysters varied in size and price, but they were assuredly all Spanish. They smelled like the ones we used to eat in the Philippines. Sometimes my dad would grill them, but I preferred the slightly sweet taste of fresh oysters. They reminded me of the fresh ocean breeze that used to flow freely through my childhood home. Every day, the fishermen´s wives and children would walk around our town carrying black buckets filled with the day´s catch; the oysters and the shrimp so fresh that as the lady scoops the shrimp you could watch their tiny legs move around trying to resist. My dad would then make his own version of ceviche using the fresh shrimp, chopped onions, garlic, vinegar, and calamansi—a lemon-like fruit commonly used throughout the Philippines. Our town had the freshest and the best seafood anywhere.
I ordered three oysters, which the server gave to me without salt. When I asked him for salt, he explained that the oysters were from Spain and that they do not need salt because they are naturally salty. He then went on to say that the oysters I am used to need salt because they come from the Atlantic, insinuating that his oysters were naturally better. Upon tasting them, I could not deny his claim.
My experience with Spanish cuisine has shown me the relationship Spanish people have with their food. It appears that to the Spaniards, food defines their identity even more than their architecture or their language. Valencian architecture may not differ much from that of Madrid, but Valencian paella certainly does. The Spanish may speak the same language as the Mexicans but they certainly do not drink the same horchata. The Spanish are a proud people; and you cannot blame them for being so. They are part of what was once the greatest empire in the world, their heritage reflects some of the most pivotal moments in world history, their language is spoken by hundreds of millions, and their culture is known throughout the world. My host mom, the man selling the oysters and my tour guide Sonia may all come from different places and even speak different languages, but they all share a common characteristic in this Spanish community. When Sonia, the tour guide, said those words about Madrid, it did not differ from when my host mom declared that she is the best in making tortilla, or when the vendor declared his Spanish oysters to be the best. They are simply proud. Maybe we Filipinos even inherited that trait from them when we boast about our fresh seafood. The Spanish own their identities and culture, and they want the world to know. A taste of their food is all one needs to understand.