ghosts of the PAST : The roots of Spanish cooking


Today, Spain is one of the cornerstones of the European Economic Community, but its cookery still has roots in the Near East.

The Moors, who ruled most of Spain for 400 years or so and lingered on in the south for another 400, left a powerful mark on the local cuisine. It’s impossible to imagine Spain today without the lemons and eggplants they brought from the Near East, or paella without their rice and saffron.

The Moorish influence was so strong that modern Spanish uses Arabic names even for some ingredients that were probably known in Spain before the Moors came, such as Swiss chard (acelga) and basil (albahaca). Spain had been an olive oil producer since Roman times, but the Spanish words for olive (aceituna) and olive oil (aceite) are borrowed from Arabic.

This is certainly odd, but it’s a little easier to understand when you know how the Moorish occupation worked. To us, Spain may seem a hot, dry country, but to people from the largely desert regions of North Africa and the Near East, its climate was incredibly lush. It’s not by accident that Spain was the only place where Arab poets regularly wrote nature poetry.


So the Moors settled mostly on farms, contrary to the usual imperial situation, where invaders settle in cities. Spanish agricultural terminology reflects the fact that the Moors dominated the countryside.

The Moors brought sophisticated irrigation and crop management techniques from their water-hungry homelands, and the result was a boom in Spanish agriculture. New crops were developed too, the most notable being the artichoke, which is a variety of the cardoon grown for its gigantic flower bud (the “choke” is what would develop into the flower). The name artichoke comes from an Arabic word for cardoon, al-kharshuf.

Some familiar Spanish dishes still bear Arabic names. Escabeche, the ordinary word for fish or vegetables pickled in vinegar (such as canned jalapenos en escabeche), comes from the Arabic sikbaj ; albondigas is the Arabic word for meatballs, al-bunduqa. The recipes for sikbaj and al-bunduqa given below come from a 13th-Century Arabic cookbook written in Spain and known as the “Manuscrito Anonimo.”

The French like to think that they invented puff pastry in the 17th Century, and full-blown pate feuilletee , with its hundreds of layers, definitely did appear at that time. But it was just an elaboration on rough puff paste (demi-feuilletee) , which had been invented in Moorish Spain centuries before.

We know that rough puff paste was developed there because the earliest recipes for making pastry of paper-thin layers come in Arabic cookbooks written in Spain. The “Manuscrito Anonimo” and another 13th-Century Arabic book with the classic medieval title “The Superfluity of the Table” both give the same recipe: Roll the dough out thin, grease it, roll it up and shape it into a loaf, then roll it out thin again. The recipe even mentions that you can repeat the process to create more layers.

What clinches Moorish Spain as the home of puff pastry is that this was not the only way of making layered pastry given in the 13th-Century books. Moorish Spain in fact had an obsessive interest in the whole topic of layering. Thin sheets of dough were stacked on top of each other and baked, or twisted together and inflated before baking. Or a sheet of dough would be fried on both sides, another raw sheet would be stuck to it and the resulting “sandwich” would be fried, and then a third, fourth and fifth sheet would be cooked onto the structure, building up a sort of layered cake.

This interest in layering was not limited to the Moors, because the most primitive layering method--stacking thin breads on top of each other--has a Spanish name, folyatil , which is an early form of the Spanish name for puff pastry, hojaldre. Even after the Moors left, for a couple of centuries Spanish cookbooks continued to describe several of these odd recipes for layering.

As for Christian Spain, it was writing cookbooks in the 14th Century, almost as early as France and Italy. The oldest recorded recipes in Spain, apart from those written in Arabic, are from Catalonia. The 16th-Century Catalan dishes given below come from the most famous Catalan cookbook, “El Llibre de Coch” (ascribed to an unknown Master Robert de Nola), the first cookbook published in Spain.

Catalonia lost its independent existence as a result of the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in the 15th Century, which created the modern country of Spain. Before that time, whether as the County of Barcelona or the Kingdom of Aragon, Catalonia had ruled a substantial territory in Italy and southern France. The French and Italian cookbooks of the 15th Century give recipes for several Catalan dishes, such as capirotada , a dish of layered meat and bread moistened with a garlicky cheese sauce.

But from the 15th Century until recent years, when gazpacho and paella became international crazes, Spanish cuisine had less and less influence in Europe. Occasional dishes did make it out of Spain. Sauce espagnole and consomme madrilene entered classic French cuisine, and the stew called olla podrida was popular in 18th-Century England, where it was called olio. Spanish cookery was exported to the Spanish colonies, of course, and Latin America and the Philippines still cook a lot of old Spanish dishes (such as capirotada), though with their own local accents.

The problem was that, after a literal Golden Age during which Spain became wealthy because of the gold from its colonies and was ranked as the great military power in Europe, it remained backward and feudal while other countries were making economic and political progress. The Inquisition, which added to Spain’s cultural stagnation, even affected cooking. The presence of bits of ham in a surprising number of Spanish dishes isn’t just due to the high quality of jamon serrano --since pork is forbidden to Muslims and Jews, it was a way of declaring your religious orthodoxy.

But there was a good side to all this. Spanish cooking has remained vigorous and individual, a good basis for its current renaissance.

This meat dish is the ancestor of all the Spanish vinegar pickles called escabeche. The name comes from two Persian words meaning “vinegar” and “stew,” and it is dauntingly sour when hot. When it gets cold, though, it becomes a sort of meat jelly and is just sweet-sour.


1 onion, cut up

1 cup cilantro leaves

1 1/2 pounds lamb

1 1/2 cups wine vinegar, about

1/2 cup raisins

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon salt

1 clove garlic, minced

3 hard-cooked egg yolks

1 cup toasted bread crumbs

Puree onion with cilantro and set aside.

Trim fat and tendons from lamb and cut into 1-inch cubes. Place lamb in saucepan and add wine vinegar to cover, about 1 1/2 cups, and raisins. Bring to boil. Add pepper, coriander, pureed onion mixture, salt and garlic. Bring to boil, reduce to simmer and cook until meat is done, about 1/2 hour. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Puree or sieve egg yolks. Mix with bread crumbs and sprinkle over contents of pot. Makes 6 to 8 appetizer servings.

Each serving contains about:

249 calories; 533 mg sodium; 192 mg cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 24 grams carbohydrates; 21 grams protein; 0.47 gram fiber.

The Spanish word for meatball, albondiga, comes from the Arabic al-bunduqa, which means both “meatball” and “hazelnut” (suggesting that the original meatballs were on the small side).


1 pound ground beef or lamb

1 tablespoon onion juice

Salt, pepper

1 1/4 teaspoons ground coriander

3/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon saffron

6 eggs

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon wine vinegar

1 clove crushed garlic

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Mix meat, onion juice, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, 1 teaspoon coriander, 1/2 teaspoon cumin, 1/4 teaspoon saffron and 1 egg. Shape into meatballs using generous 1 teaspoon for each.

Heat olive oil, vinegar, garlic, cinnamon, remaining 1/4 teaspoon coriander and 1/4 teaspoon cumin in 10-inch skillet. Add and cook meatballs until done and well browned.

Beat well remaining 5 eggs, remaining 1/4 teaspoon saffron, 1/8 teaspoon pepper and salt to taste. Pour over contents of skillet, tilting pan to spread eggs. Cook over medium-low heat until eggs are set but not dry. Cut in wedges. Makes 8 appetizer servings.

Each serving contains about:

186 calories; 409 mg sodium; 191 mg cholesterol; 14 grams fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; 12 grams protein; 0.11 gram fiber.

A rich 16th-Century appetizer, like protein pancakes.

ROROLES DE FETGES (Fried Chicken Liver Mousse)


1 pound chicken livers

5 slices toast

1/4 cup vinegar

1/4 to 1/2 cup rose water

4 eggs

4 ounces grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 teaspoon dried mint, crushed

Heat 1 tablespoon butter in non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Fry chicken livers. Soak toast slices in vinegar and rosewater. Puree chicken livers with toast, eggs, Parmesan and mint.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in skillet over medium heat. Drop liver mixture by tablespoons, single layer at time, and fry on both sides until golden brown. Add more butter as needed. Makes 7 to 8 appetizer servings.

Each serving contains about:

246 calories; 465 mg sodium; 356 mg cholesterol; 13 grams fat; 11 grams carbohydrates; 20 grams protein; 0.03 gram fiber.

This is a somewhat rich sweet-and-sour soup with a complex Renaissance flavor, aromatic with pears and honey and crunchy with toasted almonds.


2 quarts chicken broth

1 (3 3/4-pound) chicken, cut up

2 onions, minced and sauteed in butter

8 pears, peeled, cored and cut into eighths

3 quinces, peeled, seeded and cut into eighths, optional

3/4 to 1 cup honey or to taste

4 ounces almonds, toasted and crushed (about 1 cup)

6 slices bread, toasted and soaked in 1/2 cup white wine vinegar

2 chicken livers, cooked

Bring broth to boil in large pot. Add and simmer chicken and onions until chicken is tender. Remove chicken and set aside to cool. When cool enough to handle, bone and skin chicken. Skim broth. Return chicken to pot.

Separately poach pears and quinces in water to cover until tender. Drain fruit and add with honey to soup. Puree almonds, toast and chicken livers and stir into soup. Heat to serving temperature. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

751 calories; 1,293 mg sodium; 210 mg cholesterol; 22 grams fat; 88 grams carbohydrates; 55 grams protein; 3.85 grams fiber.

BLEDES AMB PANSES I PINYONS (Swiss Chard With Raisins and Pine Nuts)

1 pound Swiss chard


1/4 cup pine nuts

1/4 cup raisins


Olive oil

Cook chard in boiling salted water 10 minutes, then drain. Toast pine nuts in ungreased skillet until golden. Stir pine nuts and raisins into chard. Season to taste with salt, pepper and olive oil. Serve hot or cold. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

114 calories; 314 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 14 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 1.09 grams fiber.

EMPERADOR EN CASSOLA (Swordfish With Currants and Almonds)

12 slices swordfish, about 2 1/4 pounds

1/2 cup currants

1/2 cup ground almonds

1/2 cup chopped mixed herbs to taste: marjoram, parsley, mint

1 cup lemon juice, bitter orange juice or sour grape juice

1 1/2 teaspoons ground toasted almonds

1 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper

Poach swordfish in water to cover with currants, 1/4 cup ground almonds, herbs and lemon juice. When fish is done, reduce poaching sauce to 2 cups.

Toast remaining 1/4 cup almonds. Place fish in serving dish with reduced sauce, sprinkle with toasted almonds and pepper. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

253 calories; 122 mg sodium; 52 mg cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 8 grams carbohydrates; 29 grams protein; 0.69 gram fiber.