On Poetry and Culture Shock

More culture-shocking food: Spain.

There are Spanish foods that some people, mostly foreigners, find disgusting. What I’m going to catalogue next are not the controversial ones that many Spaniards hate because of prejudice or texture (brain fritters, anyone?), but things that most of us see as perfectly normal.

Fish heads. For some reason, an Irish friend of mine freaked out when I said I had bought head-on mackerel. We don’t usually eat fish’s heads, but at the fishmonger’s you see it with the head still on, since it has the best signs of freshness or staleness. Some heads are often eaten, it depends on the type of fish. I never eat the heads, but I hate having to choose already clean fish in the shop. It is enough of a reason not to buy fish at all.

Shrimp heads. Spanish treat: Shrimp or prawns (the bigger the better), lightly boiled, whole, shell on, heads on, and then cooled and served just like that, as an appetiser, in a big tray. Everyone takes their shrimp from the big tray, each person peels their own, and you can dip them in a bit (just a little bit) of mayonnaise. Headless shrimp is impossible to find in Spain except as cocktail shrimp (the very small, frozen variety). When eating boiled prawns, most people suck the heads. They contain a lot of flavour. I only do so when they are extraordinarily good and fresh, and when I don’t someone is always ready to jump and tell me “You’re wasting them! The head’s the best part!”.

Squid. There are two things you can do with squid: deep-fry them in batter, and then they are absolutely delicious, or cook them in a sauce, and then the sauce is delicious but the squid itself not so much. One of the possible sauces contains some squid ink and it gives a lovely salty flavour. “Black rice” is a cousin of paella, coloured with squid ink.

Octopus: It was a huge surprise for me when I was told that foreign people found this weird. I wish I could eat octopus every day. It’s expensive, and tricky to cook properly (meaning: soft, not gummy).

Serrano ham: ham that is first salted for a few days, then hung to dry in a place that has to be cold, dry, and with plenty of air flowing through. The pigs’ diet is extremely important. The diet gives the flavour, the breed gives the meat-to-fat proportion and the marbled appearance, and the curing method gives the texture and degree of saltiness. It’s served in very thin slivers. Foreigners like it, but they commit a sin: they separate the fat and eat only the meat. That is absolutely ridiculous, because it is much lower in cholesterol than ordinary pork, the fat has most of the flavour, and besides, you never eat a big amount of ham anyway. Someone who eats enough ham for the fat to be bad for them is a brute that doesn’t truly appreciate the delicacy.

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