An update and a handy vegan survival guide.
Maintaining a vegan diet should not dampen the experience of visiting a foreign country and immersing yourself in a new culture. Still, it is wise to research your options before visiting a new country to best prepare yourself and help your body adjust to its broken food routine. So, let’s take a look at the evolution of veganism in Spain — a typical holiday destination for many Britons and a country deep-rooted in its traditional cuisine.
How Vegan-Friendly is Spain?
The Spanish are known as heavy meat-eaters, and as a consequence, Spain is not as advanced as other countries with regard to the accessibility of vegan options. However, over the years, I have noticed an increase in veganism.
Back in 2016, my Erasmus semester abroad took me to Córdoba, Andalucía, for six months. I was vegetarian at the time, and when dining with friends, I was frequently slapped with "Wait, you don’t even eat chicken?" followed by an exclamation of "Not even fish!?".
Only two and a half years later, I was surprised at the lack of shock I was met with as a transitioning vegan when interning in Málaga and Barcelona during the summer of 2018. In comparison to Andalucía (and, in my experience, Madrid), Barcelona appeared to be further ahead with regard to vegan culture. In truth, vegan food options were still certainly limited. Despite the expenditure, however, and to my surprise, eating out was no more difficult than eating in; I even encountered a wider range of options in restaurants than in the average supermarket. Notwithstanding the longing for Tesco's 'Free From’ aisle, I am now better equipped to tackle vegan life in Spain.
Upon entering a supermarket, one of the first sights likely to hit you in the face (and not just figuratively) is dangling pigs legs. I often become squeamish as I speed-walk through the meat aisles, averting los ojos (my eyes). The number of easily-made vegan comfort meals can be restricted as a result of the limitations in the typical Spanish supermarket. I often search the frozen aisles in the hope of finding a vegan pizza or potato croquettes sin jamón (without ham), and luck is rarely on my side.
Fret not. Vegetarians and vegans can still flourish amongst the traditional Spanish gastronomy. I recommend taking advantage of the selection of in-season succulent fruit and brightly coloured vegetables available in supermarkets and local street markets. My go-to every morning is a healthy glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. You can buy ‘oranges for juicing’ to squeeze yourself at home or, for convenience, you can fill up a bottle at the juicing machines present in the majority of supermarkets. I do not recommend this, of course, as it adds to your level of plastic usage; if you are visiting Spain for longer than a short break, it’s easy to pick up a cheap manual juicer.
Aside from soup-making, my go-to vegetable dish when in Spain is simple: all of my favourite vegetables tossed into a frying pan. I fry sliced potatoes with a diced pepper, spinach, a handful of cherry tomatoes, and some courgette and aubergine in some olive oil; add a pinch of salt and a few garlic cloves and enjoy with a fresh baguette. A spoonful of vegan pesto is also a good addition. Experiment with what is in your kitchen, and you may just whip up a nutritious and satisfying veg-based meal. Another straightforward dish is garlic butter spaghetti. All that is needed is your desired amount of spaghetti or pasta, dairy-free butter, a few handfuls of fresh spinach (or a few cubes of frozen), garlic, salt and pepper.
As previously mentioned, some cities in Spain, like Barcelona, are better prepared than others for the evolution of veganism. I found there to be many more vegan options and vegan restaurants in Barcelona than in Málaga. Still, although eating out can have its limitations, it becomes easier when you know your options.
Firstly, let’s consider breakfast. An easy and filling breakfast is one very typical of Spaniards and available in almost all cafés: tostada con tomate. Simply, this is a toasted baguette drizzled with olive oil and with a spread with tomato puree. It is often eaten sprinkled with pieces of jamón (available on the side), but you eat it plain and pair it with some fresh orange juice for a satisfying first meal of the day.
Lunch in Spain is more like dinner to us Britons, and dinnertime is more like our lunchtime. Lunch often lasts a few hours, whereas, in the evening, it is common to have only a few tapas and beer. When in Spain, paella is my most favourite food in which to indulge. Although there is not always a vegetable option available, there is, more often than not. When it comes to tapas, the most common vegan options are as follows:
patatas bravas – fried cubed potatoes with hot sauce
gazpacho – cold tomato and red pepper soup, sometimes served in a glass
salmorejo – similar to gazpacho, although typically thicker, includes garlic, and is served in a bowl with bread to dip
champiñones al ajillo – fried mushrooms with garlic oil
espinacas con garbanzos – spinach and chickpeas
pisto con huevo – lightly pureed roasted vegetables with a fried egg on top (You can, of course, ask for this without the egg, and sometimes chips are provided as a substitute.)
The Evolution of Vegan Culture in Spain
Published in 2000, Lonely Planet’s ‘World Food Guide to Spain’ advised vegetarians visiting the country to pack "a small stash of vitamins and a big sense of humour". Vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Spain, however, have doubled in recent years. In the past, it was unusual for restaurants to cater to vegans, but businesses can no longer deny the growing vegan community and it is only sensible to meet the desire and move with the times.
With vegetarians and vegans on the increase, so too is the level of support for animal rights in general. In Spain, the younger generation is fighting for bullfighting to cease, and 2017 saw the largest-ever protest against this 'barbaric sport'. Thousands flooded the streets of Madrid to denounce this tradition as 'a national shame'.
Disturbingly, thousands of bulls are killed annually in Spain at the hands of matadors. The bulls experience significant stress and torment and are stabbed multiple times before suffering a slow, painful death in front of audiences that include children. Thankfully, injuring and killing an animal as a form of entertainment is increasingly being viewed as unacceptable, with attendance at bullfights at an all-time low. Humane Society International urges tourists to help by not attending bullfights. Additionally, although these events still occur throughout the country, bullfighting was banned in the region of Catalonia in 2010, and the great volume of people in Spain and throughout the world who believe this to be a cruel, outdated sport are gaining recognition and a powerful voice.
Unfortunately, the evolution of vegan culture and animal rights in Spain is still faced with many obstacles and limitations. For example, although Catalonia banned bullfighting, the ban was overturned by the central government. In addition, supporters of bullfighting organise their own rallies in favour of this tradition. It is particularly members of the older generation who wish to hold onto what they describe as an 'ancient art form' rooted in Spanish history. It is also mainly the older generation that wishes to cling to Spain’s traditional non-vegan foods.
The level of impact anti-bullfighting and pro-vegans will have on Spanish society in the coming years cannot, at present, be determined. However, vegan cultural awareness is increasing, and positive changes are certainly in place.