You vs. Ham
How to survive - and thrive - as a vegetarian in Spain's markets, tapas bars, restaurants, and while traveling.
Let this be an opportunity to participate in the grand tradition of the Spanish tapas crawl.
Vegetarianism can be an admittedly difficult feat in ham-loving Spain. The country has had an undeniably long, proud love affair with meat for as long as anyone can document or remember. (Just look in on any Museo del Jamón
location for proof.)
But take heart. Spain today is an undoubtedly hip Western nation and good vegetarian fare is now a question of where you go and who you ask. Surviving, or dare we say it, even thriving, as a vegetarian in Spain can be easy enough once you know what to look for.
Here’s your vegetarian and vegan guide on navigating your way through Spain’s four main food environments:
Markets and supermarkets
As is probably the case back in your home country, any market or supermarket is a safe bet for everyday shopping if you keep your eyes open and you’re prepared to read the ingredient lists on the back of packages. However, if you’re looking to find tofu, soy, and wheat gluten in all their forms; milk alternatives; and other vegetarian foods, you’ll need to make your way to a health food store or an herbolario
Health food stores
The health food stores in Spain generally carry a wide variety of organic, gourmet, and vegetarian items, both classic Spanish (such as jars of organic pisto
) and international (such as sushi wraps and organic tiramisu). Soy, rice, and almond milk are easily available, as are a myriad of meat alternatives, including seitan, tofu, and soy crafted into hamburgers, kebabs, filets, and other faux creations. You might also be able to get your hands on delicacies such as Catalan butifarras
made from soy.
Aside from health food stores and supermarkets, such as NaturaSì
in Madrid, a number of vegetarian restaurants have health food stores on the premises or next door. Here’s a list of vegetarian restaurants and health food stores throughout Spain
Though the selection can be extremely limited, most herbolarios
have a dietética
section where they sell vegetarian products such as almond milk, soy milk, rice milk, tofu, and a veggie burger or two alongside low sugar, wholewheat, and diet foods.
Vegetarian and vegan tapas
Going out for tapas is the quintessential Spanish experience you won’t ever want to miss. But before you despair upon finding that most tapas places have only one or two vegetarian tapas on offer, let this be an opportunity to participate in the grand tradition of the Spanish tapas crawl. Go ir de tapas
and have a tapa or two at one place, then move on to the next, and so on until you’ve had your fill. Just follow your nose with our quick guide to vegetarian and vegan tapas.
Note: While these tapas are usually suitable for vegetarians or vegans, unless you have a chance to see the tapa in front of you, make sure you ask if it contains any meat or shellfish. One tapas place may put bits of ham in their cheese croquettes, and another won’t. One place might try to put ham strips on your pan con tomate
, and another wouldn’t dream of it.
tortilla de patata
= potato omelette, often containing onions
tortilla de pimientos
= potato omelette with bell pepper
tabla de quesos
= an assortment of cheeses
berenjena con miel
= fried eggplant strips drizzled with honey
croquetas de patata
= potato croquettes (breaded, deep-fried, and cylinder-shaped)
croquetas de queso
= cheese croquettes (breaded, deep-fried, and cylinder-shaped)
= fried potatoes served with spicy tomato sauce and garlic mayonnaise
quiche de rocquefort
= a Rocquefort cheese and egg mixture cooked in a light pastry shell
buñuelos de queso
= cheese fritters
empanadas de queso
= cheese-filled turnovers
aros de cebolla rebozados
= batter-fried onions
= small roll sandwiches; bread choices include white and wheat; vegetarian filling choices include a variety of cheeses, omelettes, and sometimes vegetables
= a tapa on a slice of bread; vegetarian choices include a variety of cheeses, omelettes, and sometimes vegetables
= zucchini, tomato, bell pepper, and onion stew
= grilled eggplant, onion, and bell pepper
champiñones al ajillo
= garlic-sauteed mushrooms
alcachofas al ajillo
= garlic-sauteed artichokes
= roasted bell peppers
pan con tomate
= bread rubbed with ripe tomato, olive oil, and salt or garlic
= zucchini and onion stew
Traveling as a vegetarian might well be considered a test of your resolve and resourcefulness.
There are two types of restaurants for a vegetarian in Spain: a regular or vegetarian restaurant. At a regular restaurant you may feel like you’re foraging for the one vegetarian item on the menu, but at a vegetarian restaurant your dining companions may feel the same frantic impetus searching for that magical meat and potatoes combination. But whether you opt for mainstream risk or sure-fire subculture, be assured that the quality of Spanish gastronomy
is high and dining is one of Spain’s many pleasures.
To get the most out of your restaurant experience, it pays to strategize.
Strategy #1: Tame the menu del día
The menu del día
’s second plate options are notoriously meat only. To compensate, order two vegetarian-friendly firsts. Or ask if you could substitute the meaty second with a tortilla
or other item they’re bound to have in their repertoire.
Strategy #2: Knowledge is power
“What’s in that anyway?” you may ask. Be sure to find out! Common vegetarian pitfalls include soup broth made from meat stock (even in vegetable soups) or salads and plates of vegetables that arrive with bits of ham in it. Ask if they can skip the ham.
If you’re concerned about vegetarian or vegan wines
, keep a list on you of permitted brands.
Strategy #3: Go Italian
A vegetarian favorite and fall-back rolled into one, pasta is everywhere and often makes for a good vegetarian meal. Think spaghetti, gnocchi, and fettuccini with cream- and tomato-based sauces. Just be sure to confirm that it really doesn’t come with meat.
In Spain, vegetarian restaurants generally offer three varieties of cuisine (and décor) for varying vegetarian and vegan tastes: haute-gourmet, hippie, and classic.
Let’s examine three illustrative case studies:
Haute-gourmet: With an exotic decor, say elegant South Seas shipwreck meets Greenpeace, Madrid’s vegetarian restaurant Isla del Tesoro offers up a creative, internationally-inspired menu with names like Volcán castizo
, El buen rollito
, or Cesta del pecado
. Ingredients may include seitan, quail eggs, bulgur, algae, and yucca. (But not all at once.) Food is artistically presented with edible garnish.
Hippie: With a brightly-colored, psychedelic décor and a juice bar at the front, Barcelona’s vegan restaurant Juicy Jones serves up a variety of wholesome food, including hearty soups, salads, and Indian-inspired dishes.
Classic: With a fairly typical Spanish décor of dark wood, painted tile, and brick, Madrid’s El Estragón serves up substantial, down-home Spanish food that just happens to be vegetarian. Think no-frills Spanish comfort food.
As you would expect, there’s a greater chance of finding good vegetarian options in Spain’s bigger cities, but more and more vegetarian restaurants are popping up in smaller towns these days. Some vegetarian restaurants offer one or two menu items for your meat-eating dining companions, but most don’t.
Traveling as a vegetarian might well be considered a test of your resolve and resourcefulness. If you’re catching a late-night flight, taking an early bus, or find yourself needing to eat outside of Spain’s proscribed mealtimes, you may feel like you’re out of luck. Food, however, is just around the corner.
When all else fails (read: you forgot to pack snacks and the vending machines look about as appetizing as foam), you’ll be able to count on at least two things for sustenance in Spain: falafel, and bocadillo
For a falafel, head on down to any Döner Kebab. Spain’s answer to fast food, Turkish-inspired Döner Kebabs are found just about everywhere. Though at first it may seem counterintuitive to turn to a restaurant with large slabs of meat on a rotisserie in the window, falafel sandwiches or falafel by itself with salad and rice make a good, cheap, late-night vegetarian option. Vegans should ask for no white sauce on the falafel.
is Spain’s ubiquitous sandwich made from barra bread (baguette’s larger Spanish cousin) or baguetina
(a sandwich-sized baguette). Every local bar
, café, upscale joint, or hole in the wall will be able to procure a decent sandwich. Vegetarians should ask for a bocadillo de tortilla
(bread with a hunk of Spanish potato omelette inside) or bocadillo de queso
(bread with what will most likely be thickish triangular slices of manchego cheese). These bocadillos
travel well so you might want to buy a couple for the road.
If the sandwiches are not pre-made, vegans could ask for a bocadillo vegetal
prepared without the meat and mayonnaise, which means that you’d most likely end up with lettuce, tomato, and maybe some onions on two slices of bread. Not what you’d consider ideal, but it’s serviceable vegan fare in a pinch.