Eat out in Madrid and you will be faced with a variety of regional and international cuisines that is unparalleled anywhere else in Spain. Everything is represented here – Valencia’s paella and fideuá (vermicelli-based paella), intricate Basque pintxos (tapas), sophisticated Catalan concoctions like veal terrine with fig puree, cured meats from Extremadura, Galician seafood, Castilian suckling pig, and old stalwarts like cocido a la madrileña – the Spanish capital’s beloved stew.
On top of all that, the formally unapologetic bastion of meat is experiencing an infusion of vegetarian and vegan cuisine. And umpteen international restaurants have opened in recent years, with gastronomic diversity that spans from Asia to the Middle East and from North Africa to South America.
For centuries, Madrid survived on simple, hearty dishes built for harsh winters and blistering summers, such as cocido a la madrilène, a chickpea-based hotpot, and callos a la madrilène, a tripe-based dish with chorizo, suckling pig and cow hoof and snout. But thanks to the constant migration of outsiders, la cocina madriléña (the cuisine of Madrid) has slowly evolved over the years, resulting in a diversity of culinary traditions from all over Spain, a proliferation of late-night tapas bars and increased sophistication of the city’s gastronomic offerings.
Basque cuisine, which was inspired by French nouvelle cuisine and embraces simplicity, technological advances and shorter cooking times to preserve natural flavours, came to the capital in the form of pintxos in the late 1970s. These tapas became an art form and the Basque star has yet to set. Some of Madrid’s most sought-after morsels are the colourful octopus skewers at Sagaretxe and the langoustine croquettes and tiny 'Unai' hamburgers (fried in tempura with foie gras) at Txirimiri (Calle Humilladero 6, La Latina; 913-641-196).
Between the mid-‘90s and the early 21st Century , Spain’s surge in economic growth led to a wave of immigration from Asia, South America and North and West Africa, each bringing their own ingredients and culinary traditions to the table. These new cultures gave rise to restaurants such as Japanese Tsunami, as well as fusion Sula Madrid and O’live, the former drawing on influences from all over the Mediterranean and finishing with a twist you’re unlikely to find elsewhere in Madrid, and the latter dazzling its clientele with dishes displaying daring combinations of classic ingredients, such as a goat’s cheese, fig and anchovy salad.
At the same time, the city saw a creative upsurge of Catalan chefs who have been cultivating their own brand of Spanish nouvelle cuisine, largely drawing on the concept of molecular gastronomy – changing ingredients into unconventional textures and forms using new technology. Sergi Arola, Ramón Freixa Madrid and Santceloni are just three Catalan institutions that have helped increase Madrid’s cosmopolitan quotient.
Until very recently indeed, the idea of vegetarianism – not to mention veganism – would have been met with suspicion and bewilderment. Non-meat eaters were frowned upon during the regime of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, given vegetarianism’s associations with the left-wing movement, and it is only over the last few years that vegetarian restaurants have been popping up all over the capital. While this new trend is due in part to the influence of visiting foreigners and the expat community, large numbers of madrilènes also frequent the likes of Yerbabuena and Al Natural, drawn by the flavourful dishes that incorporate edible flowers, vegetables, spices, fruit and different types of seaweed into one colourful melange. La Isla del Tesoro’s internationally-inspired dishes show an understanding of flavours and pairings of ingredients, with changing daily menus and superb vegan platters.
Madrileños know good food, and it seems even vegetarian cuisine has finally become diverse and innovative enough to titillate their palates.
This article was first published in June 2012 and was republished in July 2013.