The Spaniards love their ham. They really do. Meaty gastronomical delights are in abundance in Spain, but vegans and vegetarians usually enter the country expecting to have a hard time. We screw up our resolve and plunge into the country in much the way a bull fighter would enter the arena of a corrida de toros.
But actually, we discover, finding vegetarian food in Spain is not actually the equivalent of humouring a raging bull. Over the course of our two weeks in Espana, this visitor found delectable vegan options across menus - from soup to dessert. One sure was grateful after having survived on chocolates, instant noodles and the occasional pizza slice in Southeast Asia and parts of Europe.
Sure, at times one had to explain to the chef that even ingredients like chicken broth were to be avoided or substitutes found, but that was really no big deal as the Spanish people are accommodating and charming, and Spanish chefs even more so.
Among the first observations a vegetarian makes is of Spanish cuisine's love for olive oil and tomatoes. And we thought that all they do with their tomatoes is crush them and enjoy a community slugfest at La Tomatina!
That brings us to our first dish, a vegetarian soup, which is a variant of the Txangurro gazpacho with crayfish jelly, lemon cream and trout caviar, at Restaurant EL Bodegon in Madrid. A little chat with the gentleman waiting at our table and the chef of the restaurant does the trick. He simply replaces the chicken broth with vegetable broth and drops the fish altogether.
The gazpacho (soup) itself is simple, tangy and serves as the perfect appetiser. Essentially a tomato-based preparation, its other major ingredient is cucumber, apart from green pepper, onions, lemon, wine vinegar and mayonnaise. The chef also makes up for the absence of seafood with some fine Albarino Naia wine. Yes, even soup can be paired with wine and no one does it better than the Spaniards.
And now for the twist in the gazpacho tale which may take some warming up to: the soup is served cold. But it surely delivers the punch that is expected with a 27 Euros per-person dish. Another piece of friendly advice - although it happens quite naturally with us Indians considering our location on the global exchange rate scale, try and refrain from calculating the price of these magnificent dishes in rupees. All for the love of gastronomy.
Now, some may scoff at the idea of equating "indulgence" with a salad, but it really takes a diehard vegetarian to appreciate this concoction of veggies and delight. Let there be no doubt - when it comes to vegetarians scrambling for something edible in faraway lands, salads have perhaps saved lives. So the search for the perfect vegan salad takes us to AC Hotel Cordoba Palacio in the beautiful and historical city of Cordoba. Their White Bean Vegetable Salad - which comes at 15 Euros a pop for a group of four to five hungry vegetarians-is of somewhat celebrity status. Best paired with white wine, OD Rueda, Verdejo-Borno Palace, the salad essentially contains boiled white beans, spring onions, and pealed and cherry tomatoes, apart from basil, mint, and lime. The salad indeed is tangy and very filling.
Among the vegan main course dishes we have dug into, Paella with seasonal vegetables at the Casa Palacio Bandolero restaurant, located in the Jewish quarter of Cordoba is a hot favourite.
Paella is a rice dish that originated in its modern form in the mid-19th century in Valencia. The variant, which only sets us back by 12 Euros per person, is quite simply a preparation that involves cooking sauteed vegetables and rice in vegetable broth. Believe it or not, the only flavouring agent for this dish is salt, while a gram of saffron lends it its brilliant colour.
The flavours, just like the preparation are simple and uncomplicated. Casa Palacio Bandolero recommends Vina Amalia Fruity DO Montilla - Moriles as the wine of choice with this Paella. The recipes in the restaurant are based on the most careful local cuisine heavily influenced by Arab culinary reminiscences.
We then decide to give this sumptuous Spanish vegan meal the grand climax it really deserves - the sinful dessert cake Affrica at Restaurant Dos Cielos, Barcelona. A flourless cake layered with crunchy chocolate, creamy tanariva, manjari mousse, crumble, and ginger and honey ice cream, just the mention of it sends us into a frenzy of anticipation. Well it simply melts in the mouth.
So dear vegan traveller, don't fret. If Spain calls, you should definitely answer. There is really no dearth of decent vegetarian options in the country. All it requires is a little bit of research and at times negotiations with chefs. And if you're still at a loss, there's always a pizza slice available at every nook and corner to save the day and your tummy.
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