Gastronomy & Cultural Excavation: The Arab Imprint on Spanish Cuisine

Scratching beneath the surface of any country’s cuisine can easily trigger a process of cultural excavation that reveals the cross-cultural influences and inspirations manifested in traditional dishes. Spain is a good example: the tortilla (potato-based omelet) only appeared after the potatoes were discovered by the Spaniards in the Americas, while the famous paella has rice as its main ingredient (the cultivation of which was introduced to the Iberian Peninsula by the Arabs).

Speaking of the Arab influence in Spanish gastronomy, it is enough to check the Spanish words for several agricultural products and food elements:
Aceite (Oil) الزيت
Aceituna (Olive) الزيتونة
Albahaca (Basil) الحبق
Alcachofa (Artichoke) الخرشوف – أرضي شوكي
Arroz (Rice) الأرز
Azafran (Saffron) الزعفران
Azúcar (Sugar) السكر
Alubia (Beans) اللوبيا
Bellota (Acorn) ثمار البلوط
Berenjena (Eggplant) باذنجان
Naranja (Orange) نارنج

These are just some examples, but the list goes on. The ‘imprint’ is specifically clear in desserts (the use of almonds, honey and ‘jarabe’ or syrup, from the Arabic ‘sharab’). In other cases, the Arabic word took some funny ‘detours’, and ended up referring to something else. This is the case with Albaricoque (Apricot) which comes from the Arabic word البرقوقة; meaning plum! The same goes for Albóndiga (Meatball) which comes from the Arabic word البندقة; meaning hazelnut.

If we move to yet another typical dish, like rabbits, we come across yet another story, much older:
One of the etymological explanations for the country’s old name (Hispania) is the Phoenician name ‘i-spn-ya’, which means the coast of the rabbits. Probably it was the first thing seen by the seafaring Phoenician navigators –who would later build Cadiz- when they first approached the Iberian coast.

Eat well, and think culture.

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