2/15/2006

¡Que Aproveche! [FEBRUARY 12, 2006]

One of the most important things about going to another country and experiencing its culture is having an open mind. It’s a different place and, seeing as you’re only going to be there temporarily, you should try to absorb as much of the local atmosphere as possible. This is especially true when it comes to food. There’s nothing I hate more than seeing a group of Americans here in Spain, who are probably on vacation for less than a week, standing in line to order a Whopper from Burger King. Now I know Whoppers taste delicious – especially with a slice of cheddar cheese and some bacon – but don’t you get enough of that crap at home? You’re in another country for God’s sake... give the local flavor a try.

The two most typical Spanish dishes, ones that are known the world over, are paella and jamón serrano. Actually, paella is the only real dish (rice in a saffron-base with fish and game meat). Jamón is just a leg of cured ham – but it is DAMN good. Now, as a foreigner in Spain, you probably won’t want to try the jamón. I know I didn’t when I first came here. It can appear a bit intimidating under initial impressions seeing as it looks like, well, a leg of ham. And I’m not talking about that butterball processed crap we have back home and call ham. No sir. This one comes in the form of an actual pig’s leg, hoof and all, and dangles from the ceiling for everyone to see. When you first walk by your typical Spanish bar and see those dozens of legs (or even hundreds as I once witnessed in Madrid’s aptly named eatery, El Museo de Jamón) hanging there like something out of Hannibal Lecter’s twisted fantasy, don’t be turned off! Enter bravely, tell the barman to grab that hoof so he can cut you up a few slices and – seeing as they probably won’t have any fava beans or Chianti – get yourself a side dish of olives and a nice glass of Sherry to top it off.


Who needs interior design when you have pigs' legs?


Spain is the only country where you can actually see a hoof among
your neighbor's garbage and not worry if he's into Voodoo

When one thinks of jamón and the way it just hangs there with its hoof, you realize the Spanish don’t have this aversion most of us in the States do to eating food that might resemble something that was once alive. Think about it... When was the last time you went to the supermarket and saw a hoof, head, or hide? We get all that stuff chopped off and what remains is either vacuum-sealed or flash-frozen. The end result is that we take home chicken breasts, legs, or even processed nuggets, but never an actual chicken. I know what you’re thinking, "I just got a whole chicken the other day and roasted it in the oven, you dumb bastard GC." But here in Spain, it’s not considered to be a whole chicken unless it’s actually WHOLE. That’s right folks. They sell the chickens here with the head still attached. In fact, there are even a few feathers sticking out every now and then too. Imagine my surprise when I first bought a chicken at the local supermarket, came home, unwrapped the plastic and lifted it from its styrofoam tray only to find those beady little eyes staring back at me and that wattled beak drooping lifelessly. I just couldn’t get it. What’s the point of selling a chicken with the head still attached? Who eats chicken heads? What possible use can they serve? None, I thought, until my girlfriend asked one of her young students what her favorite food was. The twelve year old Spanish girl responded without hesitation, "Chicken Blood!"


Chicken heads: A rare sight for the non-Voodoo practicing American consumer

Barn yard animals aside, one finds the most variety in Spanish cuisine when it comes to seafood. Statistically, the Spanish are the second largest consumers of fish and seafood in the world. Only the Japanese outrank them. This appetite for anything from the salty sea is insatiable. Even in Madrid, the capital and largest city but geographically the furthest point from the sea on the Iberian Peninsula (it takes about 8 hours, for example, to drive there from Cádiz), this never-ending demand for seafood can only be satisfied by having it flown in at all hours of the day. Wherever you maybe in Spain – from the mountain tops to the desert valleys – you can always find a fresh plate of fish.


The local fish market is always one of the most popular places in town

Here in Cádiz though, we’re lucky. We don’t need to have anything flown in. The sea is everywhere. You can’t turn a street corner in this town without seeing a fish restaurant or fish for sale in same shape or form. But the fish isn’t the strange thing. I love eating fish and view it as one of the best things to have ever happened to the art of cooking. My problem with the local flavor is their appetite for that really strange, non-fishy, other seafood. You see, I’m not talking about shrimp, crabs, or lobster. I’m referring to everything else that thrives in the murky depths of the Atlantic – octopus, cuttlefish, slugs, barnacles and sea urchins – and it’s tough to be open-minded when these grotesque critters are staring at you from the dinner plate. They love this stuff down here and most of the time even eat it raw. If the residents of Cádiz were to have a culinary motto, it would probably be, "If it comes from the sea, it’s good enough for me!"


The title on top of this poster found at a local
restaurant reads: "Seafood from the Bay of Cadiz"
Need I say more?

Now granted, it is strange to me that they eat all of this stuff, but like I said at the opening of this article, if you’re in a foreign country you should at least give the local flavor a try. I’ve tried the octopus... not bad. In fact, the pulpo a la Gallega way of preparing the tentacled beast is delicious. But that’s just the thing – they actually cook and prepare the octopus when they make it in that fashion. As for the barnacles and sea urchins, and many times even baby prawns, they serve them raw. In fact, they normally sell these things on the sides of busy streets and in one-serving containers just like we do with nuts and potato chips back home. You can always spot a few happy faces on Sunday walking through the marketplace or doing a bit of window shopping while they expertly munch away at the raw prawns or barnacles they just bought. The only hitch is that they are continuous lyon the look-out after what they’re eating – those baby prawns like being swallowed alive almost as much as they like being out of the sea and they make a jump for it any chance they get! And yes, before you ask, I have had an open mind and given these raw "delicacies" a try... trust me, stick to the Whopper with bacon and cheese on this one.


Anyone want some raw sea urchins, barnacles, or whatever the hell that other stuff is? Makes for a great snack!


Or maybe some baby prawns (cooked variety) are more to your liking?

But don’t write off all Spanish seafood just because their cuisine includes a sea creature that you know exists only from old pirate films and Mutiny on the Bounty ("Arghh! I’ll have ye scraping the barnacles off the hull, I will!"). Raw sea urchins and slugs aside, they actually do have some damn good seafood down here. If I had ignored it all because of the jumping baby prawns, I would have never discovered this fried seafood down here, either cazón en adobo (dogfish in spice) or chocos (cuttlefish tentacles), that makes my mouth water at just the mere thought of it. In fact, I would dare say these things have now entered my top ten list of favorite foods. I would have never thought that I’d like fried dogfish or cuttlefish so much but, like I said, you never know if you don’t try. So before you sidestep the entire issue of Spanish seafood, do yourself a favor and visit the local fish market (every town in Spain has one). It’s a Mecca of every underwater creatures imaginable – all waiting to be bought and prepared at home. Take a little stroll through, see what each fishmonger’s stall has to offer, and don’t be afraid to try. Who knows? You may find yourself adding Hermit Crab to your list of favorite foods one day!


"Daddy, why are you playing with your food?"
"I'm not. It's playing with me!"

And even if seafood isn’t your thing, remember that there’s always paella and jamón serrano. The main point though is to not overlook anything just because it looks strange. Who knows when you might be surprised. Be brave! Smile at your Spanish hosts, wish them "¡Que Aproveche!" ("Enjoy Your Meal!"), and dig into the feast they have set out before you. Take a bite out of that pig’s leg, munch on a handful of raw baby prawns, suck those sea slugs out of their shells, and wash the whole lot down with some thirst-quenching chicken blood. After you’ve done all that, had your fill of the local cuisine, and wished your gracious hosts good night, step out the door and head for the nearest Burger King where you can finally scarf down that delicious Whopper with bacon and cheese. Considering what your adventurous taste buds have just been through, they deserve a good ol’ burger...

7 comments:

Lisa said...

Alrighty then. None of that scared me, not the pig leg, not the headed chicken, not the octopus (yummy!), not even the jumping baby shrimp. I would even eat the defenseless, fleeing baby shrimp.

But it still gave me pause, because once I saw a documentary about fishermen off the coast of somewhere-or-the-other, and they were eating *raw* sea-cucumber, which is like a big nasty sea slug. And the manner in which they were eating it was this: pull it out of the water, slide a knife down the length and slice it open alive, then pull out this big chunk of what looked like translucent snot with little dark-green bits in it and shove it in the mouth with strings of the still wiggling animal dribbling out the side and down the chin, grinning while they chewed.

I swear, it was enough to make me hurl on the spot, and I'm a veteran of horror films.

Gimme a choice between raw sea cucumber and a Whopper and I'll probably go hungry.

Chiri said...

Have you been to Sanlucar de Barrameda yet? Drool is probably not good for my keyboard so I'll try not to think of those gambas.

Conc Ouseater said...

a "whopper with bacon and cheese" is NOT delicious.


at least the "live baby prawns" don't have 1 million addatives and hormones injected into them before they get to your mouth.

euro-trac said...

I've been to Spain many, many times. I have relatives there! I love Spanish food as a rule, but the Sea Urchins!?? They worry me! They worry me in both the food sense and the stinging your feet on the beach sense! :-)

J.Doe said...

A lot of Americans go to Italy only to line up in front of McDonalds. I could never understand that,although I will admit that at times the smell made me hungry.

Sal DeTraglia said...

First, let me say that I loved the visual asthetic of the "Cooked Shrimp Cone." I little shot of Reddi-whip cream and a maracino cherry on top...whoo-doggie!

The other thing I noticed in reading your post is that the seafood seems to vary widely...evenb within Spain. I lived for three years in Barcelona and three in Madrid. I've never seen sea urchin, slug or dogfish. But I'd try them all in a second if I had the opportunity--although I don't promise that I'd either chew or swallow the slug.

Percebes (barnacles), however, are a slice of heaven. Really. Don't be scared by appearances.

It's quite a country that we're occupying, Don GC. You can keep your paintings, sculptures and music. For me, the best way to experience a culture is to eat it.

Don't mind drinking it, either.

Till next Sunday.

Sal

Anonymous said...

I found a Chinese recipe for braised sea cucumber in rice wine sauce. I made it once and it was delicious.