What comes to mind when you think of Spain? Flamenco, bullfighting, paella, or Picasso? What about lush and, green rolling hillsides, relics of Celtic culture, bagpipes, or seafood aplenty? Unbeknownst to many, Spain is home to various Spanish cultures, each with their history, tradition, cuisine, and language. Nowhere is that more obvious than in Galicia, and nowhere is culture more present than in the foods of Galicia.
Galicia is located in the northwest of Spain, bordered by Portugal and the Atlantic Ocean. It is an autonomous community characterized by picturesque green landscapes, wild beaches, and varying weather. Unlike most of Spain (especially the south), where evidence of Arabic influence is seen, Galicia has a connection to Roman and Celtic ancestors. The remnants of these ancient societies are present today. They’re represented not only in the ruins that were left behind but, for example, in the gaita gallega, an instrument similar to bagpipes. You won’t hear Castilian Spanish spoken throughout the region. Instead, you’re more likely to hear Gallego, another language spoken in Spain.
What’s my connection to Galicia? If you’ve read my other pieces for Dreams Abroad, you might remember that my parents are from Spain. Specifically, they are from two small towns in the province of Ourense, which is in Galicia. When I was little, I spent my summers shuffling between these two pueblos (village or town), tending to farm animals, picking potatoes (hated this!), and walking through the green mountains. I experienced the culture of Galicia firsthand on my visits, but also in my home in Toronto, Canada, where my parents maintained their cultural traditions.
Perhaps the closest connection I felt to Galicia in Toronto was through my parents’ cooking. Galicia is well known for having some of the heartiest and best food in Spain. Gallegos (people native to Galicia) really know how to eat! If you find yourself road-tripping through the region, here are five traditional must-eats that will leave your tastebuds begging for more.
1. Pulpo a Feira (a.k.a. Pulpo a la Gallega)
The word Pulpo means octopus in Spanish and feira means fair, as in the town fair. Why the fair? Because it’s the best place to grab this traditional Galician dish. Don’t sweat it if there isn’t a fair during your visit. Most restaurants will have it on the menu. It’s simple and delicious. It consists of cooked octopus (the cauldron it is boiled in is believed to add to the distinct flavour), served on top of boiled potatoes with olive oil and paprika on a wooden board. Pair the dish with a glass of red wine and a crusty baguette. My family always told me not to drink water when eating octopus to it avoid bloat. This might just be a Perez family belief, but it is a rule I have never broken.
The best place to get pulpo a feira is in Carballiño. I’ve heard that the water that the pulperas use gives the dish a distinct, delectable taste. It’s one of the best examples of unique staple food from Galicia.
Having the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Bay of Biscay (Mar Cantábrico) to the north makes Galicia one of the best places in Spain to eat fresh seafood.
Of the shellfish variety, do try percebes (barnacles), necoras (small crabs caught in Las Riás Baixas, rivers that stretch from Vigo up to Fisterra), razor clams, scallops, and mussels (a la vinagreta or stuffed). If you want a little bit of everything, order a mariscada (a varied seafood platter).
If you prefer fish, I suggest robadallo a la gallega, which is seared and broiled in white wine sauce and usually served with potatoes and carrots. I also suggest merluza or bacalao a la gallega. Sofrito is made in a frying pan and poured over the fish.
Whatever you fancy, Galician seafood will never disappoint.
Of all the traditional foods from Galicia that are in this article, filloas are the only ones that my parents never made. I have only tried them while in Galicia. Sources differ on the origin of the filloa. Some say they were introduced by the Celts, and others by the Romans. Whoever first created them, filloas are worth savoring while in Galicia.
Simply put, filloas are crepes that can be sweet or savory. You can eat them all year round, but they are typically made during Carnival season (Carnival is a big deal in some Galician towns, and is often observed as a period of celebration preceding Lent’s period of fasting). Filloas can be accompanied by honey, jam, and fruit, but there are more savory fillings. It’s said the original recipe used pig’s blood in the batter! Whatever your taste, you will find a filloa that best suits you.
One of my fondest memories of spending the summers in either my mom’s or dad’s hometown in Galicia was getting freshly baked empanadas delivered by the town baker. Empanada gallega is a salty pie filled with your choice of ingredients and baked in the oven. Many people pick them up or order them from their local baker. In my dad’s town, my mom and aunts would often prepare the empanada filling at home, deliver it to the baker, and then they would complete the baking process. This ensured that the baker didn’t skimp on the filling.
You can try many kinds of empanadas most typical in Galicia are chicken, tuna, beef, zorza, (the inside of the chorizo), and zamburiñas, which are a type of scallop. It’s one of the best foods found in Galicia!
5. Caldo Gallego
This last dish is my idea of comfort food. There are many types of stews and soups in Galicia, but my favourite by far is caldo gallego. It’s best on a cold day in winter and accompanied by a nice, crusty bread. It’s a simple, hearty soup that takes time, but the wait is well worth it. Caldo gallego is one of my favourites, and I would argue that my mom’s is the best!
The broth is flavoured with ham, chorizo, and beef, and then white beans, potatoes and berzas are added. In my opinion, it gives the broth of the soup a delicious and distinctive taste. My mom often substitutes berzas with grelos. Both options are acceptable and delightful!
From My Mom’s Kitchen
As I mentioned, my parents are from Galicia, and happen to be wonderful cooks. I’d like to share one of my favourite home recipes with you: my mom’s vieras (oven-baked scallops). I try to never miss a Christmas holiday at home in Toronto with my family. On New Year’s Eve, my mom always asks what my sisters and I would like for dinner, and vieras are what we request. In recent years, I’ve asked my mom to teach me how to make them. Along with being a wonderful cook, she is also a great teacher. I hope you all enjoy this recipe as much as I do.
Vieras (Makes 12)
12 scallops (frozen or fresh), cut them in half if they’re large
24 shrimps (frozen or fresh), peeled and cut in half
200 grams crab meat, cut into pieces
1 onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, diced
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 ½ tablespoon cornstarch
Milk, to cover mixture
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt, black pepper and garlic powder, to taste
12 scallop shells (for serving)
In a large skillet on medium heat, add the olive oil and the onions. Sauté until translucent. Add a bit of salt to release the water from the onions, then add the garlic and sauté for five minutes.
Add the scallops. Sauté for five minutes. Then add shrimp and cook for about five minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste (remember you already added salt to the onions!). Mix in the crab meat, cook for five minutes, and add some garlic powder to taste.
Now add the cornstarch and stir. Add enough milk to cover the mixture, stirring until it thickens. If the mixture appears to be too thick, add a bit more milk. Turn off the heat and stir in the parsley.
Fill the scallop shells with the mixture. Top with bread crumbs, about one and a half teaspoons each. Bake in the oven at 400º C until brown on top (about 15 to 20 minutes).
I attribute my love of eating to genetics. The food in Galicia is what connects us as Gallegos, even across continents. I have yet to meet a person with Gallego blood who is not happiest when sitting around the table with good food, drinks, and friends. The next time you find yourself in Spain, take a trip up north to Galicia. Your wanderlust (and taste buds) won’t be disappointed.
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