Typical Canarian cuisine is all about using simple, fresh ingredients and doing as little as possible to them: grilled fish served with a zesty herb sauce, crinkly boiled potatoes with salted skin, juicy grilled goat, sliced tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and freshly picked fruit for dessert. Through the years, traditional Canarian dishes have rubbed shoulders with mainland Spanish cuisine and even South American specialities, giving way to unique local spins on recipes from elsewhere.
Staples & Specialities
The traditional staple or pan de los Canarios (bread of the Canarian people) is gofio, a uniquely Canario product and, it must be said, a bit of an acquired taste. A roasted mixture of wheat, barley or, more often, maize, gofio has long been an integral part of the traditional Canarian diet, though these days bread is just as common in the home – and far more so in restaurants. Gofio is mixed in varying proportions, and used as a breakfast food or combined with almonds and figs to make sweets. If you are really keen, you can seek out gofio ice cream or even gofio liquor. You can find it at supermarkets or buy directly from the few remaining mills.
The most-often-spotted Canarian dish is papas arrugadas (wrinkly potatoes), cooked in an abundance of salt and always served with some variation of mojo (spicy sauce made from coriander, basil or red chilli peppers). This sauce has endless variants and is used to flavour everything from chicken legs to cheese. You’ll soon find you’re addicted to one or another of them.
Of the many soups and stews you’ll find, one typically Canarian variant is potaje de berros (watercress soup). Also look out for ropa vieja, a chickpea stew typically utilising whatever leftovers are lying around, and rancho canario, a hearty broth with thick noodles and the odd chunk of meat and potato.
Meat plays an important role in Canarian cooking and while beef and lamb dishes are often sighted on menus, these meats are usually imported. Opt instead for the island specialities: pork, rabbit and above all, goat.
Basic foods long common across the islands are bananas and tomatoes, but nowadays the markets are filled with a wide range of fruit and vegetables. You should definitely visit at least one market during your trip. They are a real treat for all the senses with in-season produce such as plump dark figs (cut open to show their scarlet flesh), bundles of fragrant parsley and mint, bunches of brilliant-orange carrots, huge golden-yellow papayas and ropes of plump white garlic bulbs.
Markets are also a great place to pack a simple picnic. Pick up freshly baked bread and stuff it with wedges of local cheese, usually made with goat’s milk. The cheeses are renowned, particularly in Fuerteventura, where the delicious Majorero is a must for any cheese aficionado.
Latin & Spanish Influences
Canarian cuisine owes a lot to the New World; it was from South America that elementary items such as potatoes, tomatoes and corn were introduced. More exotic delights such as avocados and papayas also originated from there, while sweet mangoes arrived from Asia; look out for all three in the valleys and on supermarket shelves.
Some of the classic mainland Spanish dishes are also widely available, including paella (saffron rice cooked with chicken and rabbit or with seafood – at its best with good seafood), tortilla (omelette), gazpacho (a cold, tomato-based soup usually available in summer only), various sopas (soups) and pinchos morunos (kebabs).
Traditional Sweet Treats & Desserts
Canarios have a real sweet tooth. Some of the better-known desserts are bienmesabe (a kind of thick, sticky goo made of almonds, egg yolks, cinnamon and sugar – deadly sweet!), frangollo (a mix of cornmeal, dried fruit, milk and honey), bizcochos lustrados (sponge cake) and truchas de batata (sweet potato parcels).
Don’t miss the quesadillas from El Hierro – this cheesy cinnamon pastry (sometimes also made with aniseed) has been baked since the Middle Ages. Morcillas dulces (sweet blood sausages), made with grapes, raisins and almonds, are a rather odd concoction; perhaps the closest comparison is a Christmas mince pie.
Dining Times & Habits
Breakfast (desayuno) is usually a no-nonsense affair, with juice, coffee or tea, cereal or gofio, and toast with ham or cheese. Churrerías serve deliciously unhealthy deep-fried spiral-shaped churros (doughnuts), often accompanied by a cup of thick hot chocolate.
If you are a bacon-and-eggs breakfast person, head for one of the English-owned bars. Most hotels also have a hot and cold breakfast buffet.
The serious eating starts with lunch (la comida or, less commonly, el almuerzo). While Canarians tend to eat at home with the family, there is plenty of action in the restaurants too, starting at about 1pm and continuing until 4pm. In many restaurants, a set-price menú del día is served at lunchtime.
Dinner is served late at home, generally from around 8pm, while restaurants will normally open up at 7pm and serve until 11pm or later, especially in the tourist resorts. At-home dinners tend to be light for locals, but on weekends and special occasions they eat out with gusto.
Snacks are an important part of the Spanish culinary heritage. You can usually pick up a quick bite to eat to tide you over until the main meal times swing around. Standard snacks (meriendas) include tapas and bocadillos. Typically, this will be a rather dry affair with a slice of jamón (ham) and/or queso (cheese), or a wedge of tortilla española (potato omelette).
Cafe culture is a part of life here, and the distinction between cafes and bars is negligible; coffee and alcohol are almost always available in both. Bars take several different forms, including cervecerías (beer bars, a vague equivalent of the pub), tabernas (taverns) and bodegas (old-style wine bars).
Coffee is produced on a tiny scale in the islands, mostly in the Agaete Valley in the north of Gran Canaria. Coffee choices include the following:
Café con leche About 50% coffee, 50% hot milk.
Sombra The same, but heavier on the milk.
Café solo A short black coffee (or espresso).
Cortado An espresso with a splash of milk.
Cortado de leche y leche Espresso made with condensed and normal milk.
Barraquito A larger cup of cortado coffee.
Café con hielo Glass of ice and hot cup of coffee to be poured over the ice.
The local winemaking industry is relatively modest, but you can come across some good drops. Wine comes in blanco (white), tinto (red) or rosado (rosé). Prices vary considerably. In general, you get what you pay for and can pick up a decent tipple for about €10.
One of the most common wines across the islands is the malvasía (Malmsey wine, also produced in Madeira, Portugal). It is generally sweet (dulce), although you can find the odd dry (seco) version. It is particularly common on La Palma and Lanzarote.
Tenerife is the principal source of wine, and the red Tacoronte Acentejo was the first Canarian wine to earn the grade of DO (denominación de origen; an appellation certifying high standards and regional origin). This term is one of many employed to regulate and judge wine and grape quality. Other productive vineyards are in the Icod de los Vinos, Güímar and Tacoronte areas of Tenerife. In Lanzarote, the vine has come back into vogue since the early 1980s, and in late 1993 the island’s malvasías were awarded a DO.
The most common way to order a beer (cerveza) is to ask for a caña, which is a small draught beer (cerveza de barril or cerveza de presión). If you prefer a larger version, ask for a jarra. Dorada, brewed in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, is a very smooth number. Tropical, which is produced on Gran Canaria and is a little lighter, is a worthy runner-up and the preferred tipple of the eastern isles. There are one or two microbreweries in the islands, though the difficulty in sourcing ingredients is a hurdle to small-scale brewers.
Apart from the mainland Spanish imports, which include coñac (brandy) and a whole host of licores (liqueurs), you could try some local firewater if you come across it. One to seek out is mistela from La Gomera, a mixture of wine, sugar, spices and parra – a local version of aguardiente (similar to schnapps or grappa). Altogether easier to swallow is the rum that is produced across the islands. Dark rum is the favourite tipple while honey rum (ron miel) is a sweet concoction sometimes given after meals as a complimentary chupito (shot).
Menú del Día
The traveller’s friend in the Canary Islands, as in mainland Spain, is the menú del día, a set meal available at most restaurants for lunch and occasionally in the evening too. Generally, you get a starter (salad, soup or pasta) followed by a meat, fish or seafood main and a simple dessert, which can include local specialities or Spanish favourites such as flan (crème caramel), helado (ice cream), a piece of fruit or just a cup of coffee. Water, a glass of wine or a small draught beer may or may not be included.
Vegetarians & Vegans
The Canary Islands may seem like paradise to some, but they can be more like purgatory for vegetarians, and worse still for vegans, who may be made to feel as if they have come from another planet. This is meat-eating country, so you will find your choices (unless you self-cater) a little limited. Salads are a staple, and you will come across various side dishes such as champiñones (mushrooms, usually lightly fried in olive oil and garlic) and berenjenas (aubergines). Other possibilities include menestra (a hearty vegetable stew), pimientos de padrón (small grilled peppers sprinkled with rock salt) and of course, the ubiquitous papas. Some dishes that you might expect to be vegetarian – like stews made with chickpeas (garbanzos) or lentils (lentejas) – have often been cooked with meat, so it's best to ask before ordering.