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Spanish Cooking Vocabulary and the Culture of Spanish Cuisine

written by: Audrey Alleyne • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 8/2/2012

Spain, like France and Italy, is a country of rich culinary culture. The pleasure of going to a restaurant and understanding the dishes, as well as the talent of the chef or waiter in describing them, is one of the highlights of a tourist’s itinerary.

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    A Variety of Spanish Food

    Although foods vary from region to region throughout Spain, there is one common characteristic to all good Spanish cooking: Spanish cooks use the best and finest ingredients.

    In Spain, seafood is a mainstay of Spanish cuisine. Chicken is also important. So, too, are fruits and vegetables. Spain is also renowned for its olives, oranges and the grapes cultivated for wine. These are all grown in large quantities.

    Latin American cuisine is largely meat- or fish-based. Common elements in Latin American dishes are also corn and chili. Local specialties include steak from Argentina as well as Peruvian raw-fish, called ceviche.

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    Spanish Food Customs

    Spanish food customs differ as we move to various Spanish communities throughout the world. For example, the Spaniards--the actual natives of Spain--have breakfast as a small meal. This is followed by tapas mid-morning, prior to lunch, which is the largest meal of the day, a large meal of four to six courses. Their siesta, the time when the whole family takes a break from work and school, falls just after lunch between 2 to 4:00 p.m.

    Lunch starts with soup, like a gazpacho for example, and this is then is followed by a salad. The main course usually consists of potatoes, rice or vegetables with probably some succulent roast pork if you are in Valencia or some squid if you are in the Basque country. This is followed by dessert. A cup of coffee and a glass of liqueur for the adults usually rounds off the meal.

    Latin Americans, on the other hand, have larger breakfasts. Their dishes consist of lots of eggs, pork, steaks and rice and beans. Their meals are usually set out all in one plate, and not in different courses as is done in Spain.

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    Memorize These Words

    You may already know quite a bit of Spanish or just a smattering of basic words. To reinforce you learning, here are some words that you need to memorize and keep handy for use in a Spanish restaurant:

    • la carta - the menu
    • el menú del día - the day’s set menu
    • el agua - water
    • el agua con gas - sparkling water
    • el agua sin gas - still water
    • la carta de vinos - the wine list
    • la cerveza - beer
    • el vino - wine
    • el jugo - fruit juice
    • el primer plato - appetizer
    • el plato principal - main course
    • el postre - dessert
    • el desayuno - breakfast
    • el almuerzo - lunch
    • la cena - dinner
    • la cuenta - the check ( the bill)

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    Arriving at the Restaurant

    Here is an example of a conversation that you can practice with a friend in preparation for having a meal at a Spanish restaurant.

    • Waiter: Buenas tardes, señor, señora: Good evening, sir, madam.
    • You: Buenos tardes señor; una mesa para dos personas, por favor: Good evening sir, a table for two, please.
    • Waiter: Tiene una reservación? Do you have a reservation?
    • You: Sí, a nombre de Diaz: Yes, in the name of Diaz.
    • Waiter: Síganme por favor: Follow me, please.
    • You: Quisiera ver la carta, por favor: I would like to see the menu please.
    • Waiter: Qué quiere beber? Quiere ver la carta de vinos? What do you want to drink? Would you like to see the wine list?
    • You: Sí señor. Gracias: Yes, sir. Thank you.
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    Ordering Your Meal

    Spanish Paella 

    • You: Quisiera un vaso de vino rojo, por favor: I would like a glass of red wine, please.
    • Your companion: Yo quisiera una cerveza, por favor: I would like a beer, please.
    • You: Una sopa de lentejas madrileña: A lentil soup, Madrid style.
    • Your companion: Una ensalada para mí, entonces una paella y un pisto manchego: A salad for me, then a paella and some stewed vegetables.
    • You: Quisiera también un arroz con pollo, por favor.Qué tiene de postre? I would also like some chicken with rice. What do you have for dessert?

    The waiter gives you his selection, You choose:

    • You: Un flan para mí: A caramel custard for me.
    • Your companion: Para mi, un flan tambien: A caramel custard for me, too.

    At the end of the meal you ask:

    • You: La cuenta, por favor: The bill, please.

    There is an expression that you can use to express your best wishes to your companion before starting your meal: Buen provecho! - Enjoy your meal! This is our wish to you and your dining companions when you visit your next Spanish or Latin American restaurant.