I’ve always wondered why Spanish cuisine has never really taken off in India. It has the most amazing ingredients—some of the best saffron in the world, dried fruits, olives and olive oil, seafood, cheeses, mouth-watering Iberian ham and outstanding, value-for-money wines.
Fiery start: Lead with garlic chilli prawns
Just back from a quick trip to the south of Spain, I found that the culinary treat you are first greeted with is tapas. The south of Spain is their home although you’ll find them all over Spain now. They somehow go with the Spanish way of life—nibbles of several small delicacies, usually placed along or behind a bar in small, unpretentious establishments. You snack on them leisurely while sipping your first evening drink or the famous tinto con casera—simple red wine fizzed up with a clear lemonade (a more modest version of the sangria, which is also modestly priced here).
Tapas now remind me of many a sleepy summer holidays in Spain, of the smell of the sea and whitewashed little villages in the Andalusian mountains.
Tapa literally means “lid”and, traditionally, drinks were served with a tiny plate over the top of the glass carrying a bite-sized morsel of food. Tapas (plural) can be in salad form (cold), fried and served piping hot or cooked, but served at room temperature.
The greatest thing about them is their reliability and price. And if you don’t care for a particular one, you can always leave it and try another, as the portions are always small. Every region in Spain has its typical, regional variations but you will always find hams (jamon serrano) and sausages from the Iberian pig (cerdo iberico); olives; Russian salad; mushrooms fried in olive oil; garlic and parsley; roasted peppers in olive oil or escalivada; chicken livers fried with sherry; a deep-pan potato omelette known as tortilla; crispy calamari; croquettes of various kinds; tinned white asparagus; and my favourite, boquerones or pickled white bait-like anchovies.
They are nearly always quick to prepare, have endless possibilities (many of which are vegetarian), are appropriate at any time of the day and will almost certainly satisfy the most exigent palates. Tapas are becoming increasingly popular all over the world. For all their variety and proven nutritional virtues, tapas are the quintessence of Mediterranean cuisine.
Most of them rely on olive oil which, if pure, is cholesterol-free, making them pretty healthy as well as satisfying. I often serve a variety of these snacks as a full meal. They are wonderful to look at in terms of colour and texture and save you from getting up and going to the kitchen during dinner. They also represent a kind of camaraderie, as everyone picks from the same plate.
Gambas Pil Pil (Prawns with Garlic and Chillies)
½ kg prawns peeled and de-veined (you can also use prawns with their shell and heads on, but you must still de-vein them by cutting the shell along the back).
6 large garlic cloves, lightly crushed
2 Kashmiri chillies, toasted and roughly crushed
½ cup olive oil
Dash of white wine or lemon juice
Marinate the prawns with the chillies, white wine or lemon juice and 2 tbsp of olive oil for, at least, an hour. Heat the remaining olive oil in a heavy frying pan and toss in the garlic. Let the garlic sizzle and when it turns golden, add the prawns and fry on high heat if the prawns are with shells, and on medium heat if the prawns are peeled. Turn once. If using large prawns, cover and cook for two more minutes. Small to medium prawns need not be covered. They will take three to four minutes to cook. Once they turn pink, remove and serve hot with crusty white bread.
In Spain, this is often served as a first course with small prawns and cooked in an oven in individual terracotta dishes.
Roasted Red Pepper Salad
2 large red peppers (capsicum)
4 large garlic cloves, crushed
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Wash and dry the peppers and score the skin in a few places. Place in a pre-heated oven in 220°C. Turn occasionally until the skin begins to darken and split and the peppers look a little wilted. This will take 15-20 minutes. Cool and remove the skins. If you are lucky, the skin will come off in two or three pieces. Remove the core and seeds. Reserve any juice. Cut into one-inch strips lengthwise. Mix with the olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. Serve at room temperature as a salad or appetizer. For a really wicked salad, add two heaped tbsp of garlic mayonnaise or aioli on top. Once roasted, peppers will last up to a week in the fridge.
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