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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Odd Things About Spain

A fantastic vegetarian meal in Cordoba

One of the perennially interesting perks of traveling is learning what little American quirks I’ve been taking for granted. Traveling pushes us outside of little comfort zones we didn’t even know we had and leaves us pondering doorknobs, water fountains, and all sorts of other topics we don’t usually give a second thought to. So! To kick off a series of posts about my recent travels in southern Spain, here are eight quirks I ran into over spring break.

      1. Dinner is super late at night.
        It’s not unusual for Spaniards to sit down to eat dinner at 9 or 10 pm. It’s pretty standard for restaurants to open for dinner at 9 as well. I go to bed at 10:30! I usually eat around 6! We tried to adjust for a few days, but the tendency to eat late threw us through such a loop that we gave up and started finding restaurants that opened earlier. (There are explanations, but they didn’t make things any easier for jetlagged Americans used to eating dinner at 6 pm.)
      2. Corollary: nothing opens until 9 in the morning.
        Okay, not nothing. But a lot of places are closed until 9 or 10 in the morning. I usually eat breakfast around 7. What if I want to go buy yogurt at 8 am? What then, Spain? (I should just go shopping the night before, that’s what.)

        Eating churros and chocolate in Granada, Spain.
        Churros con chocolate in Granada. This “breakfast” was at 11am.
      3. Doorknobs are in the middle of the door. This baffles me. In the US and pretty much everywhere else I’ve traveled*, doorknobs are on the side of the door opposite the hinges. Opening a door is a two part movement: first you turn the knob, then you swing it open. In Spain, doorknobs are smack in the middle of the door! This is apparently done for aesthetic reasons, but it creates two problems: first, it’s harder to open and close doors, since leverage isn’t on your side, and second, it makes it impossible to use the door quietly.

        Example door (x)
      4. Their Spanish is different. This wasn’t exactly a surprise, but I hadn’t been exposed to much “Spain-Spanish” before this trip. It took me a few days to figure out that “bueno” for “okay” wasn’t going to get me anywhere — I needed to say “vale”. The accents were different, “aseo” apparently means “restroom”, and people said “cojer” without everyone in the vicinity turning red in the face. A strange world indeed.
      5. Smoking. Again, not a surprise, but not something I enjoyed. Second-hand smoke makes me cough, and I like to avoid it if I can.
      6. Weird ideas about vegetarian food. It’s not meat if it’s crumbled up really small and sprinkled in with your mushrooms! Thus goes the Spanish thinking about meat. Vegetarianism is a strange, exotic habit here. A waiter at a restaurant in Toledo actually told me I should “stop doing that” (as in, “stop being vegetarian”). Ah, well. There’s still good vegetarian food to be had, so I was happy in the end.

        A fantastic vegetarian meal in Cordoba
        A fantastic vegetarian meal in Cordoba
      7.  Lack of water fountains. Spain’s got a lot of catching up to do on this front. I pack a water bottle everywhere out of habit, so I was fine, but you really can’t rely on water fountains in Spain.
      8. Potato sandwiches. It’s not super difficult to find vegetarian food, as long as you like bocadillo de papa, the country’s ubiquitous egg and potato sandwich. Yep, that’s right, potatoes in a sandwich. They’re actually pretty decent if you give them a chance!

        *Which is mainly North and Central America and Asia and not Europe, to be totally fair.

        White text reading "Quirky Things About Spain" overlain on a picture of food.