Eating Vegetarian Food in Spain

If you’re used to eating vegetarian food in America, get ready for a challenge in Spain. 

Vegetarianism is still a weird concept to a lot of Spaniards, so explaining your preferences can lead to confusion. Not only do Spaniards eat a lot of carne, they often don’t consider finely shredded meat or flesh-based products (like broth) to actually be meat. (If you shred up the jamón really small, it doesn’t count, right?) Finding vegetarian food can be an adventure or a chore, depending on how you spin it. But fear not, it can be done!

Tip #1: Speak some Spanish.

I never had any major issues in Spain because, while my spoken Spanish is rough, I’m able to get “I’m vegetarian”, “does this have meat?” and “no ham, please” across with ease.  If you don’t speak Spanish, you’ll probably want to study up on some phrases (see tip #3) or bring a print-out explaining your dietary needs.

Tip #2: Have patience and be flexible

People will give you weird looks, call over their managers, accidentally bring you extra meat instead of no meat. Have endless patience, do your best to communicate your needs up front, and laugh off the worst interactions. (A waiter in Toledo flat-out told me I should stop being vegetarian.) You can always get a bocadillo (see the next tip) or mushroom tapas later.

Tip #3: Do your research and have go-to choices

Before I went to Spain I researched vegetarian tapas choices and used Pocket to save the most useful blog posts to my tablet for offline access. (I’m not sponsored by Pocket or anything, I just think it’s undervalued as an app for travelers!) Bocadillos were a favorite, even though the idea of an egg, potato, and tomato sandwich is still weird to me. I also liked mushroom and egg tapas (I asked for the jamón to be left out) and, of course, the gazpacho.

If you don’t speak Spanish, lists of food vocabulary words like this one may be helpful. I also saved this article, which is a fantastic primer on eating vegetarian in Spain. Print the lists or save them offline.

Tip #4: Eat Middle Eastern

This was the easiest compromise for our family, which includes one meat-lover, one meat appreciator, one will-eat-meat-sometimes type, and me, the vegetarian. Middle eastern restaurants are plentiful in the south of Spain and have quality choices for meat eaters and abstainers. Bonus: they seemed to be open earlier than Spanish restaurants, which was great for us since we weren’t able to adjust to Spain’s 10pm meal time.

Tip #5: If you get stressed, just try a vegetarian restaurant

Sure, eating at a sit-down restaurant can be hard on the wallet, but you know what? Sometimes it’s worth it. Vegetarian-only places can be a nice haven if you’ve had a hectic day (or few days) of struggling to find food that suits your needs. This is what we ended up doing in Toledo, where vegetarian food was especially scarce. Madre Tierra gets my family’s seal of approval for having good food, a quiet atmosphere (if you’re there right when they open), and a great wait staff (although there weren’t quite enough of them).

Best of luck to all you vegetarian travelers out there! Please share your favorite veggie restaurants, tapas dishes, and bocadillo shops below!

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Twenty-Two Years of Questionable Spanish Acquisition Techniques: A (sort of) Success Story

Note: language aquisition and travel are inseparable for me. I travel to learn new languages and I learn new languages to enrich my travels. Spanish was the first of my non-native languages and the one I’ve been struggling with for the most years. For your comfort and edification (and so you don’t make my mistakes), here’s a brief reflection on my years with Spanish.

I learned Spanish through a hodgepodge of techniques and curricula, poking at various curricula when I was younger, getting a bit more structured in high school (but still dabbling) before finally taking actual classes in college. My studies bolstered my reading abilities and my vocabulary but did very little for my ability to speak Spanish.

So far, this is probably a familiar story to many of you. Here’s where my story diverts from the path most take, the path that ends in the land of perpetually intermediate vocabulary and stubbornly stagnant speaking skills. I took two weeks between freshman and sophomore years of college to take intensive classes in Antigua, Guatemala, then spent a week putting my skills into practice while building a goat house along Guatemalan teens. It was fantastic! I loved it! I focused on the vocabulary I needed most, used Spanish for most of my waking hours, and made leaps and bounds in terms of speaking abilities.

…and then, instead of going back to New Mexico for sophomore year, I went to Taiwan and took five hours of Mandarin classes for a semester. While this wasn’t necessarily a death sentence for my Spanish, I didn’t touch my second language for four months of intensively working on my third. That, my friends? That was a mistake.

I took another Spanish course back at UNM during my junior year, a 300 level class where I was working alongside people who had been speaking Spanish from the cradle. This helped some, but not nearly enough. Chinese came out of my mouth when I tried to speak Spanish, and now there were three languages jumbled in my head instead of two.

My senior year of college we decided to head to Spain for spring break. I knew this would be a challenge on two fronts: first, I had never spoken Spanish with anyone from Spain; second, I hadn’t actually spoken Spanish for two years, and my brain had filled with Mandarin in the meantime. Time to review, I supposed, and set about trying to reclaim the language skills I had lost. Mom and Dad expected their kids to interpret, after all, and I couldn’t leave my brother to do all the hard work.

It went…okay, I guess. I had grand plans of testing out of the entire Duolingo tree and polishing off a Memrise “first 5,000 words” deck for vocabulary, watching a certain number of hours of Spanish TV, writing a certain number of words — essentially forcing my way back to where I had been before.

I am horrible at guessing how long anything will take, so needless to say I didn’t get through all that. I did, however, get some reviewing in, and got almost back to where I had been before Taiwan. Ethan and I tag teamed our way through Spain. He’d studied Spanish for a short time by taking Skype lessons with my teacher from Guatemala.* Because he primarily listened to and spoke Spanish, he was far better than me at understanding native speakers and spitting out fluent-sounding sentences. He had a much smaller vocabulary base than me, though, so I would stand nearby as he called Airbnb hosts to fed him words.

(As an aside, this is an excellent example of why I think “fluent” is a useless term for discussing language abilities. Could he ramble on fluently, talking his way around words he’d forgotten or describing them until someone got the point? Sure. He also forgot words like “old” and “butter” on the regular. I spoke slow or broken Spanish but was much more reliable when it came to translating museum labels and menus. Together, of course, we got along just fine and made my parents proud.)

So. That’s where I am right now in my Spanish learning journey. (And it will always be a learning journey, even if I live in some rural village in Columbia for ten years speaking nothing but Spanish.) Right now I’m finally about to make that Duolingo tree turn gold (review of that is upcoming), using Spanish to ladder Esperanto, and listening to more Spanish. I still desperately need to practice speaking the language, though. Once I get a job I plan on shelling out for at least monthly review sessions with a teacher. (Orrr, if you wanted to try iTalki, you could use my referral link, so we both get $10 off a lesson! That’s also an option.)

I hope to do another intensive down the road, maybe in Spain. If you have the money but not the time, I think it’s hands down the best way to learn a language fast. Which is why I’m taking a nine-month Chinese intensive in 2018 — more on that as it develops. (I don’t have the money for that, by the way, but the Taiwanese government is kind enough to pay for my tuition and living expenses.) This time, I’ll keep practicing my Spanish. What use is speaking multiple languages if some of them are constantly out of commission?


*The school is Ixchel Spanish School, by the way, which we both recommend! Professional, affordable, very flexible, good homestay experience, learned a lot.