Surprise: Spain’s Most Popular Dish Isn’t Paella

And while we’re at it, the most popular drink certainly isn’t sangría.

Paella Sign

Source: No Hurries, No Worries

Go to any touristy town in Spain, and you’ll inevitably see them—the signs outside restaurants offering different types of paella. Yellow, black, with seafood, without seafood, authentic, decidedly inauthentic—you’ll see it all. After all, all Spaniards love paella and it eat it all the time, right? It could even be called Spain’s national dish, no? And if you have it alongside a pitcher of sangría, all the better.

Source: The Food Network

Uh, not exactly.

Let’s not even get into what an “authentic” paella is, because the last thing I want are some angry Valencianos (or adopted Valencianos) leaving comments about how ignorant I am about paella. The truth is, though, they’d be right. Even after having lived in Spain on and off since 2008, I can count the number of times I’ve eaten paella on one hand.

Eating Paella

Photographic evidence

But people do eat paella in Spain, there’s no denying that. Obviously the idea came from somewhere. According to Saveur Magazine, the original paella “probably dates to the early 1800s and consists of saffron-scented rice cooked with rabbit, chicken, local snails called vaquetes, and three types of beans.” Rice itself has a long history in Valencia, as the Moors planted it there more than 1,300 years ago! And it thus became a ritual there, cooking rice-based dishes in the countryside over an open fire. It took a while for it to become the popular tourist dish it is today.

But I heartily believe that paella, as good as it has the potential to be, is not the dish Spaniards eat the most often, nor is it the most-consumed dish. What is? you ask. Good question. I have a theory:


Tortilla española. This egg-and-potato omelet (with or without onions) is, in my experience, the most commonly-served dish in Spain. It’s ubiquitous in bars and on tapas menus, and the truth is that it has the potential to be truly delightful, although it’s easy to screw up. It’s also—and this is key!—easy to transport, and Spaniards often make a bocadillo with it, something I at first found strange but now find genius.

There could be other contenders for the crown (jamón, cocido, gazpacho, chorizo), but I think that they are not eaten quite as often. Good jamón is expensive, cocido requires a lot of prep, gazpacho is more of a summer dish, etc. The thing about tortilla is that it’s inexpensive (potatoes, eggs, onion, olive oil, and salt are not pricey ingredients), filling, and—if made right—delicious. It meets all the requirements. (Okay, my requirements.)

But what about sangría? Do I mean to tell you that most Spaniards don’t order it when they go out to dinner with friends?

They might. I’m not saying it never happens, because I too have partaken in a jarra with friends. But honestly, I think cañas are the most popular drink to order at bars. (Or as those Sevillanos would say, cervecitas.) Wine is popular too, and gin and tonics are the thing to order at a bar de copas, but the most popular by far is the caña, a small glass of beer from the tap, generally around 200 centiliters.

Caña   tortilla

Tortilla + una caña + croquetas

So the next time you visit that tapas bar in the US, think twice about what is, as they say, “typical Spanish.”

What do you think Spain’s national food is? Drink?

20 thoughts on “Surprise: Spain’s Most Popular Dish Isn’t Paella

  1. I have to agree that Tortilla Español and Cañas are definitely the more commonly found and eaten foods in Spain, but I wouldn’t undermine the Paella. When I lived in Spain, I spent the majority of my time in the south of Spain where Paella is much more common. One of my friends there would visit his “primo” almost every Sunday and they would cook Paella for almuerzo.

    My roommate took me to her family’s huerta (farm) outside of Malaga for Día de los Tres Magos (Three Kings Day) and they served up authentic Paella cooked in the fireplace in a huge pan with a 4 foot handle for this special day.

    My impression is that it’s much more common in the south.

  2. THANK YOU for this post. I was just in Madrid last week and it drove me crazy seeing all those stupid “Paellador” boards outside every other restaurant; I literally refused to go into a place that advertised paella like that. Don’t get me wrong—I had paella in Valencia and loved it, and didn’t turn down an Andalucían friend’s offer for a Sunday paella cookout, but you’re right—it is NOT the national dish.

    And three cheers for tortilla! How I love it. I’m on the no-onions team, but that won’t stop me from eating both version hahaha

    BTW that picture of tortilla, croquetas, bread, and a caña, while carb overload, made me super nostalgic for Spain and I’ve only been back home for the summer 1 week. Soon…

  3. Trick question…there are many different “national” foods of Spain – because there are so many different Spains! I’d completely agree that for Spain as a whole a caña, some bread, tortilla, and croquetas are everywhere – and everyone seems to eat them. But Catalunya, for example, I’d say pan con tomate might reign supreme…and in Córdoba…definitely salmorejo.

  4. Ahhh tortilla and caña..yummm! I know when I lived in Malaga, Sangria was a total tourist thing it was all about the tinto de verano and of course Cruzcampo. Hmmm guess what I’m making tonight . :o)

  5. Ah Spanish food is so much more… and varies by region!
    Those paella boards always make me laugh- I’m sure they’re frozen dishes they just microwave…

  6. Nice article.I agree Tortilla española is definitely a national fav. Here in Valencia ,of course,paella is the most popular dish,by far. What is sold in the rest of Spain as paella is in general(and not always) rubbish. The tourist impression of the dish as being a national one is sad as they most of them never try a real paella….there is a campaign this year to save paella’s reputation/culinary status….if you google “Año de paella” you can see it.

  7. Tortilla espanola for the win!! Paella is great and I actually did have some decent paella in Madrid at La Paella Real when my parents came to win.

    But nothing beats tortilla espanola or jamon serrano. Nothing!

  8. I feel so sorry when I see the tourists asking for a sangría and most times all they get is a tinto de verano because sangría takes a bit longer to make, more ingredients too… so the bars just get them that instead. I think we drink more tinto de verano than sangría, which I have actually drunk only twice in my life, none of them in Spain! hahaha.

  9. I had never heard of tortilla until my au pair family last year had a spanish cook and she made tortilla every Wednesday – it was SUCH a crowd pleaser, but really, what’s not to like? So so yummy!

  10. Ahh I love tortilla! I was so weirded out by the tortilla sandwiches at first too but have grown to love them.

    I agree with Gillian, the Catalans are obsessed with pan con tomate. It’s pretty funny hearing them wax lyrical about their national dish….which, although delicious, seems an odd pick for your outstanding culinary achievement.

  11. I think I’ve had sangría twice since I moved to El Puerto almost 2 years ago…and many, many more cañas and tintos de verano! And I just had paella a couple nights ago (I have family visiting, so of course they requested it) which was great, but tortilla is so much more common.

  12. you are right Kaley!

    Paella may be the most popular amongst foreigners, but not amongst Spaniards.

    Also many don’t call it Paella but simply arroz as in “vamos a comer arroz” (we are having arroz)

    There are many other things most popular, say, tortilla, jamon and other productos del cerdo (products made from pig).

    I would say that products made from pigs are the most popular dishes in Spain whether served as tapas or on a family’s table.

    By the way, i don’t really know what exactly a Paella is, as some people say it must include several things, others will say a different thing… it might be that i have never eaten a Paella really, that’s the reason people tend to call it just arroz.

  13. Loved your article! You may be right… but also consider that Paella is a main dish and Tortilla is a tapas dish. So, basically you eat tortilla at any hour of the day. Anyway, it is hard to say what is our favorite. It depends on the day and the occasion.

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