This post is part of our Behind the Bite series, deep dives into the dishes that we can’t stop thinking about.
Apple pie is to America what the tortilla de patatas is to Spain—a national culinary icon.
Paella and gazpacho may have more international recognition, but ask any Spaniard what dish best epitomizes the essence of all things Spanish and they will, without a doubt, say tortilla.
Generations of tradition
Bear in mind, Spanish tortilla has nothing to do with Mexican tortillas. If it has a relative, it’s more likely the Italian frittata.
Tortilla actually translates to ‘little cake.’ Its layers of sliced or cubed potatoes resemble the layers of a cake.
Unlike cake though, this simple dish of eggs, potatoes and onions* is a meal in itself (*more on that later). In fact, that’s the whole point. Tortilla de patatas or tortilla española (as it’s often called) was invented as a healthy, cheap and easy way of feeding the masses.
Despite its association with the Basque region, the first tortilla was actually invented a bit further south. Recently, its origins were traced to the small town of Villanueva de la Serena (Badajoz, Extremadura, Spain) sometime around 1798. Villanueva plans to immortalize its unique and delicious claim to fame with a giant concrete slice of tortilla from which a metal fork will extend some 15 feet into the air. The town hopes the project will be done in time to be inaugurated at the city’s annual tortilla festival in June of 2019.
In case you can’t tell, the Spanish’s love of tortilla knows no bounds. It’s eaten in all corners of the country, at all meals and by members of all classes. It’s comfort food—plain and simple—the type no one makes better than your grandmother. In Spain, tortilla has the type of emotional, food-family memory association that biscuits and gravy do down south in the U.S.
Grandmother knows best
The only thing simpler than its ingredients list is its preparation. Yet, somehow, no two tortillas taste alike. Recipes are passed down from family member to family member. In fact, I myself first learned to make tortilla from my own adoptive Spanish grandmother, Pauli.
Rule number 1, she said, “always, always use a good quality olive oil.” She taught me: Not to add the potatoes until the oil was good and sizzling. To caramelize the onions to perfection. To expertly beat the eggs. And to flip the tortilla without fear.
One thing I still haven’t mastered though, is her magical ability to somehow know the exact moment when the bottom of the tortilla has cooked thoroughly enough to attempt to flip it. They call it, to dar la vuelta a la tortilla and it’s practically an art form. With the frying pan held in one hand and a very large plate (the larger the better) in the other, you give just a flick of the wrist and plop. Tortilla meets plate (and occasionally floor).
Don’t believe me? Try your hand at making your own tortilla with this tortilla de patatas recipe!
Now back to that *…Onion. Who knew one little ingredient could cause such a fuss? In Spain, there is no topic more controversial than that of whether to use onion in your tortilla or not. The diehard purists, the sin cebollistas (the without onion-ers), insist a true tortilla is pure eggs and potatoes. Nothing more, nothing less. The cebollistas (the pro onion-ers) argue the contrary. The radicals take it a step further, adding not just onion, but Spanish peppers, tuna or eggplants!
Before taking sides though, a taste-test is obviously a must. For ‘pure’ tortilla, head to Mesón de la Tortilla (Calle Cava de San Miguel, 15, Madrid). For tortilla with onion, Casa Dani in the Mercado de la Paz (Calle de Ayala, 28, Madrid) is what you want. And for tortilla with a twist, definitely try the dried tomato, arugula and parmesan tortilla at Pez Tortilla (Calle del Pez, 36, Madrid)!
A childhood classic grows up
If tortilla was born in Extremadura and raised in Basque Country, then it finally comes into its own in Catalonia. Chef Ferran Adrià, of the world-famous El Bulli restaurant, revolutionized this classic dish when he created the deconstructed Spanish omelette. Adrià pioneered this new style of cooking, one which reduces a dish down to only its elements, while maintaining all of its flavor.
For his tortilla de patatas first he reduces the classic tortilla to just its essence: eggs, potatoes and onions. He then cooks them separately. The finished deconstructed product is one-part potato foam (food-foaming being another one of Adrià’s inventions), one-part onion pureé and one-part egg-white zabaione, served layered one on top of the other in a sherry glass. Potato crumbs are added as garnish.
Adrià’s version of this classic dish breaks completely with tradition to great effect. Unfortunately, El Bulli closed in 2007 so, for now, the deconstructed tortilla de patatas will have to wait. Thankfully, Adrià isn’t the only one shaking things up. One of the latest and most creative variations on the tortilla is made right here in Madrid! At Tortillas de Gabino (Calle Rafael Calvo, 20) potatoes are replaced with….drumroll please…potato chips! Tortilla with a crunch! It’s the perfect marriage of old and new. Tortilla de patatas for the modern age.
Want our insider’s guide to eating in Madrid? Just add your email address in the form below!
A high school foreign exchange student who just never went home—Madison continues her adventure devouring Madrid one tapa at a time. She can often be found on airplanes and/or by food. She’s a coffee addict, travel writer, language lover and especially gifted in the art of siesta.