Iberian Peninsula: Overview

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Iberian Peninsula: Overview

The Iberian Peninsula, in southwestern Europe, is occupied by Spain and Portugal. It is separated from the main continent by the Pyrenees and surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the northwest and west and the Mediterranean to the south and east.

The characteristics and features of Iberian cuisine cannot be understood without reference to the culinary influence of the Romans, Arabs, Jews, and Christians, and the dietary exchange that followed the conquest of America and colonialism in Africa and the Far East. However, Rome did not conquer the Basque country, and the Arabic heritage never reached the northwestern fringe of the Peninsula.

When former Muslim areas came under Christian rule, Muslims were forced to adopt Christianity. The expulsion of these so-called Moriscos from the Peninsula in the seventeenth century was the end of Moorish culinary system in Iberian lands. However, some Moorish elements are still discernible in Peninsular cuisine, particularly in regions where Moors or Moriscos remained for a longer time. These regions are Alentejo, Algarve, Andalusia, Aragón, Extremadura, Murcia, and Valencia.

Contact between Moors and Christians

Moorish foodways influenced the cuisine of Christian upper classes during the Umayyad caliphate and Taifas' periods (tenth to twelfth centuries), during which Al-Andalus (the Iberian Muslim kingdoms) served as a cultural model. Secondly, there was a certain amount of cultural contact between Moors and Christians during long peaceful periods of time in frontier lands. Moorish culinary influence was also the product of years of interaction between Moorish and Christian communities in cities in which, after the Christian conquest, Muslims were confined to ghettos. Another point of contact between Muslim and Christian culture was through the kingdom of Granada, the last Muslim territory in the Peninsula, conquered in 1492.

The Morisco rebellion in the kingdom of Granada (15681570), the relocation of the Granadan Moriscos around the kingdom of Castile, and their resistance to integration into Christian society despite the pressures of the Inquisition produced in Christians an aversion toward Moorish foodways. This aversion did not stop the culinary exchange, and, in fact, the influence of Christian culture and foodways on Moorish cuisine led to the disappearance of certain Moorish culinary practices. Often there was a substitution, addition, or different combination of ingredients and dietary practices. The outcome was a cuisine that contained some Moorish components but had different flavors, smells, colors, and textures.

Moorish Culinary Contributions

Expiración García in La Alimentación (Food), Lucie Bolens in La cuisine andalouse (Andalusian cuisine), and Manuela Marín in Cuisine d'Orient (Eastern cuisine) have described Al-Andalus cuisine. However, contemporary Iberian cuisine has only a few elements of this Al-Andalus cuisine. In the Iberian Peninsula, these culinary features are marked by the prevalence or use of certain ingredients, dishes, methods of cooking, or ways of eating that were once typical of Al Andalus but devoid of any religious meaning. These features having a Moorish heritage are the following:

Communal sharing from the same dish. Examples of such shared dishes are paella, migas (fried breadcrumbs or semolina), and gachas and papas (porridges). This practice of sharing is no longer as prevalent as it once was.

Predominance of yellow, green, and white colors. Yellow is common in most rice dishes, in fish stews with rice or noodles, and in some chickpea stews. White is typical of some sweet rice puddings (arroz con leche and arroz dolce ), some porridges, and some soups such as ajo blanco (a white garlic soup), the original gazpacho, gazpachuelo (a fish and egg soup), and various almond soups. Green is the dominant color of some Portuguese dishes prepared with coriander, although the sopa verde (green soup) cannot be included in this category.

Use of saffron, cumin, and coriander. Coriander is rarely found in traditional Spanish cuisine but is very popular in Portugal, especially in dishes from Alentejo; some food writers relate this use to African influences. Saffron is used both to color and to flavor rice dishes, legume stews, and meat casseroles. Cumin seasons some legume stews, sausages, and dishes of meat or fish.

Spiced stews made from chickpeas, lentils, and fresh or dried broad beans. Examples of such legume and bean stews include potaje de garbanzos, potaje de lentejas, fava rica, and favas con coentro. The consumption of broad beans, however, has diminished during the last sixty years. Bulgur, or cracked wheat, is still included in some dishes from the Alpujarras region in Andalusia.

Savory or sweet porridges, made from different grain flours. These porridges, such as gachas and papas, were also the basis of Roman cuisine.

Dishes made with breadcrumbs or slices of bread. Breadcrumbs or torn-up slices of bread are used for thickening and giving texture to many varieties of gazpacho and other kinds of soups (açorda, sopa de ajo, ensopados, and sopas secas ). Breadcrumbs are also the main ingredient in migas, a traditional and popular dish. There are some factors that relate the recipe for migas, in its Andalusian version, to the recipe for couscous. The first element is the way in which migas are cooked. A sort of steam cooking is produced through the sauteeing and continuous stirring of the semolina or the crumbs (these are previously soaked and drained) and gives a golden and granulated appearance to the dish. Migas, similarly to couscous, serve as the base for a wide range of other ingredients such as fresh fruit, fried vegetables, fried or roasted fish or sausages, and even sweets. Finally, migas, like couscous, are eaten from the pan in which they were prepared; the pan is placed on the table, and the whole family eats from it.

Spiced fritters and desserts. Various doughnutlike fritters (buñuelos, boladinhos, roscos, filhós, pestiños ) and desserts (alcorza, alfeñique, alajú, nougat, and marzipan) are made by combining honey or sugar, egg yolks, cinnamon, and sometimes ground almonds.

Other popular foods and dishes. Flatbreads, either baked (pão estentido ) or fried (pão de sertã, torta ), stuffed eggs, stuffed eggplants, vermicelli stew, spiced meatballs, shish kebabs (pinchos morunos, espetada ), and quince paste are current Iberian foods also mentioned in Arab cookbooks.

See also Africa: North Africa ; Couscous ; France ; Islam ; Italy .


Bolens, Lucie. La cuisine andalouse, un art de vivre: XieXIIIe siècle. [Andalusian cuisine, an art of living: 11th13th centuries]. Paris: Albin Michel, 1990.

García, Expiración. "La alimentación en la Andalucía Islámica: Estudio histórico y bromatológico" [Food in Islamic Andalusia: An historical and dietetic study]. Andalucía Islámica, 23 (19811982): 139177 and 45 (19831986): 237278.

Marín, Manuela. "Cuisine d'Orient, cuisine d'Occident." [Eastern cuisine, Western cuisine]. Médiévales 33 (1997): 921.

Teresa de Castro

A Link Between migas and Couscous

Southern Spain's Migas, a dish of sautéed breadcrumbs or semolina, are a derivative of couscous, a staple dish of steamed semolina. The following is an excerpt from A Recipe from an Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook of the Thirteenth Century, translated by Charles Perry:

I have seen a couscous made with crumbs of the finest white breadfor this one you take crumbs and rub with the palm on the platter, as one rubs the soup, and let the bread be neither cold nor very hot; put it in a pierced pot and when its steam has left, throw it on the platter and rub with fat or moisten with the broth of the meat prepared for it.