Ham, bread, ham, cheese, ham, eggs, ham, seafood, ham, chorizo. Oh, and ham. Whether it’s small plates of delectable tapas loaded with legions of different meats, or large plates mouth watering paella packed with seafood. Spanish cuisine can be quite intimidating for vegetarians, and much more so for vegans. As a vegetarian spending the semester in Madrid with mediocre Spanish speaking skills (‘mediocre’ is generous), I’ve had my fair share of awkward interactions with waiters. “Tienes algo vegetariano?” I’ll ask, yelling over a usually noisy restaurant. “Sí, el sándwich con atún” they’ll respond. “Ahhh.. tampoco no pescado” I’ll explain, feeling the daunting gaze of my friends patiently waiting to order their food. In the early weeks, this usually ended in a frustrated waiter and me settling for a crappy salad, while watching my friends indulge in a hearty Spanish meal. But, after travelling around Spain and having a myriad of these conversations under my belt, I’ve discovered that being a vegetarian in Madrid, and Spain in general, isn’t nearly as hard as it first seems. Of course, Madrid is large, diverse and modern city with ample restaurants and stores boasting cuisines from all over the world, so vegetarian or vegan food isn’t hard to find, but know what to order and you’ll be able to have a delicious and authentic Spanish meal anywhere.
Let’s start with the tapas. First up, the vegetarian delight that even the most carnivorous of my friends can’t resist: patatas bravas. Diced potatoes, roasted or fried to perfection, drenched in the nectar of the Spanish Gods. It’s the perfect appetizer, and most bravas sauces are vegan as well. Pro tip: make sure it’s a big enough plate if you’re sharing. Bridges have been burned over tiny plates of patatas bravas. Apart from patatas bravas, or patatas with aioli, your next best bet when ordering tapas is anything with bread, cheese and vegetables. Pan con Tomate is a Catalonian staple, and most places will make you a mind blowing grilled cheese if you ask. Croquetas without meat (pretty much just fried balls of cheese and potato) are a great find, but they’re rare. Champiñóns (mushrooms) are really popular, so you may be able to find them on a menu. Then there are the classics: pimientos de Padrón (fried and salted padrón peppers), tortilla de patatas (potato omelette, either served in a sandwich or small wedges) and gazpacho (a cold vegetable soup). Olives will be in abundance wherever you go, so when in doubt you can always snack on those.
Now, onto the main meal. As college students, we’re always looking to eat heavy and cheap. And eating heavy and cheap in Spain means a “menu del dia.” It’s always a bang for your buck: a two or three course meal, including a drink and dessert. They can start at €8 and go anywhere up to €20 or €30. They’re usually a great deal, but the problem is most restaurants won’t have any vegetarian options for the second or third course. But fear not, almost every place I’ve been to has allowed me to order two or three different first courses, which are usually mostly vegetarian. If you’re not filling up on a menu del dia, you have a decent chance at finding a veggie paella at a lot of restaurants. Pro tip: cream of zucchini or cream of pumpkin are popular soups, and are absolutely delicious; they are served at most traditional Spanish restaurants, but sometimes aren’t on the menu.
Being a vegetarian or vegan in Spain doesn’t mean you can’t have an incredible gastronomic experience. Spanish cuisine varies region to region, and there are tons unique dishes out there, so make sure to explore and try new things!
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<p>Industrial Engineering major from Penn State with minimal Spanish skills, finding my way through Madrid. I love to read, write, eat, and take pictures.</p>