Tortilla de patatas, one of the best known and universally liked Spanish dishes, builds on a base of sliced potatoes and chopped onions fried in olive oil, then mixed with beaten egg and cooked to form a solid omelet (similar to what the Italians call a frittata). Though it shares a name with the common Latin American flatbread, the similarity ends there. According to the book "Culinaria Spain," the tortilla de patatas has been around since at least the late 1500s, when it was mentioned in a notebook belonging to the head chef for Kings Philip III and Philip IV of Spain. Now, this mainstay in the typical Spanish diet is known around the world as tortilla española or the Spanish omelet.
Spaniards eat the tortilla española as a tapa or as the main course at dinner, but regional variations exist. For example, in one part of Spain you may find several whole tortillas of different varieties stacked on top of each other and doused in tomato sauce, while in another region, diners slather the tortilla in mayonnaise. Sometimes tortillas contain a mixture of rice and leftovers, or bacalao (dried salt cod) as in the community of Valencia. In Andalucía, lamb brains and lamb or bull testicles often make their way into the dish.
When you visit an old-fashioned meson or tapas bar, you may see a large menu on the wall listing the varieties prepared at the establishment, including:
- Bacalao - salt cod
- Pimientos - peppers
- Atun - tuna
- Gambas - shrimp
- Chorizo - chorizo sausage
- Jamon - ham
- Gambas y setas - shrimp and mushrooms
- Setas or champiñones - mushrooms
- Espárragos trigueros - wild asparagus
- Angulas - baby eels
Similar to a quiche, a tortilla can be served warm or cold and at any time of the day. You can find them on menus in nearly every restaurant and cafe throughout the country. Portable tortillas also make a hearty snack or light meal on the go. Spaniards often cut one into large wedges, put the pieces on slices of bread, and eat them while they drive. Another common way to eat a tortilla is inside a bocadillo or baguette sandwich. Simply cut a length of baguette, slice it in half lengthwise, and insert a chunk of tortilla. Traveling through Spain by train or bus, you often see bocadillos with tortilla de chorizo pulled out of travel bags or purses during the ride.
How to Make Tortillas
Tortillas are an inexpensive dish and relatively easy to make, which is good because turning or flipping a tortilla española takes some practice. Generally a cast iron skillet produces the desired browned crust quickly enough that you don't overcook the eggs, the key to achieving a custard-like texture.
Spanish Tortilla Recipes
Start with a basic potato omelet but feel empowered to add ingredients and customize your dish, same as you would a classic omelet.