Welcome to the land of lots of potatoes, even more meat, high quality (but cheap) wines, and a noticeable lack of vegetables. In my time abroad in Madrid, I have (very often) resorted to the American-style cafés, fusion food, or really anywhere that serves avocado, peanut butter or mushrooms.
However, I have learned that there are still some classic Spanish foods that cannot be missed. Whether you're in Spain for a few weeks or an entire year, make sure not to miss any of these classic dishes.
Paella is a saffron and paprika flavored rice dish originating from Valencia, Spain. The traditional Valenciana paella includes chicken, rabbit (don't be frightened, it's pretty much like chicken), snails, greens beans, and legumes (often lima beans). The real treat is when your paella is cooked to produce "la soccarat." La soccarat is slightly burnt, crunchy and crispy rice that forms at the bottom of the pan that is truly delicious.
2. Cáfe con Leche with Churros
While chocolate and churros dominate the tourist scene in Spain, the true traditional churro experience is to dip your freshly fried churros (which are thin and un-sugared, unlike the massive Costco ones) into cafe con lecho (coffee with milk).
3. Tortilla Española
You will be hard pressed to find a Spanish restaurant that does not serve tortilla española. Ask for a tortilla in Spain and you will get this potato omelet. That thing you wrap your burrito in? That's called a "tortilla mexicana." While I can't say tortilla has been my favorite Spanish food (tbh it just bores me a little), you can't go to Spain without trying it. It would be the equivalent of going to Italy and not eating pasta.
No explanation is needed for this one. The Spanish wine and juice mixture has made its way into a huge number of bars in the United States. Don't have time to travel to Spain to try the sangria? You can make this sangria with food from your dining hall.
5. Gambas al Ajillo
Gambas al ajillo = garlic shrimp. Maybe don't order this for your romantic date in Madrid since the second most important ingredient (after shrimp obviously) is garlic. Regardless, do not use this an excuse to skip this dish.
#SpoonTip: Get bread to dip in the delicious garlicky, Spanish olive oil that will be leftover after you finish the shrimp.
Gazpacho is a chilled tomato soup. Don't be deceived by the description, this is not anything like tomato soup. It's much less creamy and it's fresher tasting. While a lot of recipes already add bread into the soup, feel free to scoop up the soup with even more bread (delicious and recommended, but not exactly traditional).
7. Jamón Iberico and Manchego
Vegetarians often struggle with Spanish food and the reason is jamón (ham). Pretty much half the Spanish markets and restaurants in Spain have giant legs of ham hanging from their ceilings. The ham can cost up to $100 a kilo, but you can get it for much cheaper (tbh not that cheap but treat your self). It's perfect served with Manchego, the traditional Spanish cheese.
Pintxos are tapas (small plates) from the Basque region of Spain. The trick it to go "pintxos hopping" (like bar hopping, but with food). Pick a couple restaurants and order a different pintxos from each bar. Pintxos range from risotto, to beef cheeks to foie gras, so try everything (or whatever your wallet can handle)!
9. Pan con Tomate
A large American breakfast of pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage and anything else carb-filled and delicious that you can fit in your stomach is 0% a thing in Spain. Spaniards normally eat a small breakfast such as pan con tomato (bread with tomato). It's a simple dish of toasted bread, olive oil, tomato and salt.
10. Olive Oil
Italian olive oil is all the hype, but I think Spanish olive oil wins in terms of flavor. Spanish olive oil has a stronger olive flavor. Even better, it's super cheap compared to fancy olive oils in the US.
11. Tarta de Santiago
This is the cake for all the nut-lovers in the world (so everyone?). The base of the cake is almond flour, which gives the cake a delicious almond taste and texture.
The sparkling white Spanish wine is a must for two reasons. 1.) Obviously it's delicious. 2.) It's literally cheaper than water. While I was in Valencia, I bought a 0.5 L bottle of water for a euro while a bottle of Cava three times the size was only 1.5 euros.
13. Rabo de Toro
When you travel to a foreign, you have to try something that scares you a little. For Spain, put this "oxtail" dish on your list. While the raw meat is a bit intimidating, as it really does look like a tail, and eating a tail really isn't that appetizing, when cooked right (as in someone spends about 5 hours cooking the meat), the result is tender and delicious. It's also great for burritos or sandwiches if you want to hide the fact that it's oxtail a little more.
14. Pimientos de Padrón
Spanish dishes are normally well cooked, but involve few ingredients. These green peppers are no exception. The peppers are charred and served with salt and olive oil. They are often eaten whole as an appetizer. Don't worry, the seeds aren't even spicy enough to make you sweat.
Although I wouldn't recommend sustaining on tortilla or churros for your entire trip (the potato and meat excess does leave you craving more colorful food pretty quickly), these 14 foods will give you a peak into the traditional and world renowned Spanish cuisine. Only let yourself revert to your classic American peanut butter, kale or chicken nugget meals if you've conquered this list and still haven't been converted to the Spanish style.