How To Eat Like a Spaniard
It takes awhile to assimilate into a new country’s eating habits and not make a fool out of yourself at the dining table. I still remember during my first few months in Spain, my host mom not-so-subtly telling me a story about how a high-ranking official from North America came to rub elbows with other politicians here in Spain. This person apparently sat down at the table and ate the whole meal with their hand resting comfortably in their lap; as we tend to do in that part of the world. She went on to say how this person made such a bad impression on their hosts and how they couldn’t believe how rude they had been. She said all of this as I looked down at my hand, resting in my lap too. “So, I’ve been practicing bad table manners all of this time?” I asked, already knowing the answer. Lesson learned: When in Spain, rest both of your wrists on the table (no elbows!) while eating. Keeping one in your lap is considered rude.
But, keeping your hands visible during a meal around the table is just the tip of the iceberg in the realm of learning how to eat like a Spaniard. Here is what you need to know to eat like a Spaniard:
Become a liquid gold lover. Olive oil consumption in Spain is currently around 810 grams per Spaniard per month (there are 47 million inhabitants in Spain!) That’s a little under one liter per person per month! It will be tossed in salads, dribbled in cold soups, soaked up with bread and more–but don’t worry, olive oil is good for you. Source.
Little to no snacking. Outside of La Merienda, which is the dedicated snack time of the day, (anywhere between 5 and 7 pm,) you won’t see a lot of snacking going on. Okay, well there are those things called tapas, but most just end up making a meal out of those. Coming from the U.S. where we have a food culture aimed at getting us to give in to our snack cravings, this was a bit hard to adjust to. I’m more of a several-small-meals-throughout-the-day-person anyway, but I try to stick to the Spanish way of things.
Be adventurous. Spain is the land where no part of the animal goes to waste. Squid cooked in their own ink? Ok! Cow’s tongue? Why not! Open your mind and try at least a taste of everything that’s offered to you. While braised pork/beef cheek (known as carrillada) didn’t sound too appetizing to me at first, I tried it and loved it so much that it ended up becoming one of my favorite Spanish dishes!
Make bread the other cutlery. It’s rare to see a bread plate on a Spanish table because the bread is used as another utensil entirely. Use it push things onto your fork, sop up olive oil and sauces (but not soup!), but mainly do this in a Spanish home. It’s not quite as proper to do in a restaurant, though that’s not to say you won’t see a lot of people doing it anyway.
Pace yourself. Here, the big meal of the day is at lunchtime, anywhere from about 1:30 to 3 o’clock. A typical lunch will include a 1st course (usually a stew, beans, etc.) followed by a 2nd course of meat or fish, topped off by dessert, and later, coffee/liqueurs. For the uninitiated, this is a lot of food to take in during a time of the day you’re more used to eating a sandwich–so be sure you’re keeping up with the rest of the table!
Stick around for sobremesa. A huge part of a Spanish meal is the conversation that goes along with it. Sobremesa is the time after the meal that is spent talking, long after the plates have been cleared and is one of my favorite Spanish words. Expect to stick around the table for a while–up to several hours, chatting about everything under the sun.
Know where to put your olive pits. If you’re provided a plate or bowl for your pits, put them there; otherwise, leave them on the edge of your plate–not on the table!