“Ah yes, ah yes… I’m vegetarian and I don´t eat anything that has eyes.”
Being a vegetarian in Spain is always a challenge whether you are living in Bilbao, Cádiz or even Madrid. Although Madrid has a great selection of vegetarian restaurants and the supermarkets offer a variety of vegetarian foods, going out to eat or eating at someone´s home with non-vegetarian friends-especially Spanish ones-has been a huge challenge for me.
The idea of vegetarianism in Spain is drastically different from the United States. In the U.S. when someone is a vegetarian, they typically do not eat meat, fish, or seafood of any kind. This typically includes products made with animal fats, broths and often gelatin. Some choose not to eat dairy or eggs as well. Here in Spain, all of the vegetarians I´ve met are people who eat things that just contain less meat than usual and more vegetables. Sometimes, they do not eat red meat. However, they always eat jamón (ham), a Spanish staple food, and seafood. This often leads to major confusion when I have to eat something.
Whenever I said that I was vegetariana, I was always given a plate with chicken or seafood-sometimes ham- and the food was often cooked in chicken or beef broth. I felt bad when I had to ask for something different and even worse when the person did not understand what I could eat. Once, in a paella restaurant that a professor had recommended, I ordered their “vegetarian paella,” and was a little surprised when the dish they gave me had a big chicken leg and pieces of shrimp. I explained that I was vegetariana, and the waiter angrily argued that my food was prepared as such. I decided to lie and say I was vegana (vegan), thinking that maybe that would be the closest to my diet. He brought me back a plate of rice and vegetables, cooked in water, and when it was time for dessert, he told me I could order a plate of fruit. That day, for some reason, I really wanted flan and the waiter was absolutely flabbergasted when I asked him to bring one for everyone at the table. “¡Pero usted no puede comer nuestro flan! ¡Está hecho con huevos!” (You can´t eat our flan! It´s made with eggs!)
Flan, Ni Hao
Needless to say, I needed a new tactic. I decided to avoid saying I was a vegetarian at all costs. At first, I tried naming the foods I actually could eat. This would lead to a lot of confusion and many restaurant workers would just tell me they did not have anything on their menu that suited my diet. I was familiar with common vegetarian Spanish dishes (patatas bravas and la tortilla de patatas), so I just resorted to ordering these for a while. Almost every restaurant offers some variety of these dishes. (Note: Be careful in the Basque country or in Basque restaurants because they often make a tortilla de baccalao, or a salt cod Spanish omelette.)
Tinto de verano and tortilla de patatas con salsa brava, Amigos aquí me quedo yo
As much as I love tortilla de patatas and patatas bravas, eating potatoes and eggs every single day can get very boring. Luckily, I discovered a new way to explain my diet.
The Answer is… Eyes!
The answer came to me when I was visiting a friend in Northern Spain, a notoriously difficult region for vegetarians. Her aunt was going to prepare lunch for everyone the next day and I was trying to explain my diet. To ease my frustration, my friend said, “no come nada que tenga ojos.” (She doesn´t eat anything that has eyes.)
These six words have made my life so much easier. Now, whenever I go to a restaurant or eat at a friend´s house, I just say “no como nada que tenga ojos” and, usually, the other person chuckles and completely understands my diet. A few times, people have asked if I could eat almejas, or clams, because they do not have eyes. However, generally speaking, this simple sentence seems to solve my problems.
Finding Vegetarian Food in Madrid
Montadito de tortilla, montadito de queso ibérico y nachos, 100 Montaditos
As you have probably figured out, vegetarians do not have a lot of options in Spanish restaurants. We can eat tortilla, patatas bravas, cheese, bread and junk food. If you are lucky, you can find a salad but be careful because Spanish salads tend to have bonito, or tuna, in them.
Cerveza y pintxos, Orio gastronomía vasca
When it comes to tapas or pintxos, there are typically vegetarian options as well. Usually, there is some form of tortilla and perhaps a mushroom dish or something that only contains grilled vegetables. I went to Orio gastronomía vasca on Calle de Fuencarral with a friend a few weeks ago and was pleased to find delicious vegetarian pintxos. We ate a lot of pintxos de tortilla and had some beer. I also had a delicious vegetable skewer that had grilled artichokes, sundried tomatoes and red peppers.
As for desserts and sweets, vegetarians are almost always in luck. Almost all Spanish desserts are vegetarian, depending on how strict of a vegetarian a person is. If you are vegan, however, you may want to just stick to fruit.
Un montadito de chocolate , 100 Montaditos(this sandwich is made on chocolate bread, with oreos and whipped cream!)
Where to go When You Want Variety
Although Spanish cuisine is very delicious, you will probably want something different with more variety. Due to its huge international community, Madrid has all different kinds of restaurants. There are vegetarian restaurants, American restaurants, Chinese restaurants, Japanese restaurants, Thai restaurants, Indian restaurants, Cuban restaurants and even Senegalese restaurants! There are endless possibilities and I really look forward to trying each and every one.
Crema de puerros, El Estragón
If you enjoy vegetarian food, El Estragón in Plaza de la Paja is a great place to go. Located in the heart of Madrid´s historic center, El Estragón offers an amazing variety of vegetarian and vegan dishes. It is also fairly economical. When I went, I ordered a cold crema de puerros, or cream of leek soup for my appetizer. It was delicious and refreshing on a hot summer day. I ordered one of my favorite foods, falafel, for my entrée.
Falafel, El Estragón
The falafel was homemade and had a very fresh and hearty flavor. It came with a yogurt sauce that reminded me of ranch dressing (I don´t think it was tzatziki). The pimientos verdes, or green peppers, were a really great compliment to the dish.
In addition to El Estragón, La isla del tesoro on Calle del Manuela de Malasaña and La Galette II on Calle Bárbara de Braganza are excellent vegan/vegetarian-friendly restaurants in downtown Madrid. I´ve been to both of them with non-vegetarians and they also enjoyed the food.
The best place to go for Indian food in Madrid is definitely the Lavapiés neighborhood.
Lavapiés is a very diverse neighborhood whose population is primarily immigrants. The name lavapiés means, wash (lava) and feet (pies), essentially it is the neighborhood of people who were required to wash their feet. This referred to the Jewish population. Thus, Lavapiés was the old Jewish neighborhood. Nowadays, you can find immigrants from all over the world and native Spanish people walking the narrow streets of this lively neighborhood.
Due to the influx of immigrants from India, there is a huge selection of Indian restaurants. The food is amazing and the prices are economical. All you have to do is walk up one of the main streets, Calle de Lavapiés, and you will find an Indian restaurant easily.
Lavapiés Shapla Comida Indian
Two friends and I stopped by Shapla in Lavapiés a few weeks ago for dinner. We were amazed at the quality and amount of food you get for the price. All three of us got appetizers, entrees, dessert (mango lassi), and tinto de verano for only 30,00 €! Almost all of the food was vegetarian, too.
No, it is NOT Impossible to Live in Spain if you are a Vegetarian
Contrary to popular belief, living in Spain as a vegetarian is not impossible. In fact, it is a very rewarding experience. There are options for vegetarians (and vegans, too) and I must say the fruits and vegetables here are wonderful. In conclusion, not everything in Spain has eyes.