The Taste of a Thousand Octopi, or, The Culinary Monopolies of Galicia: Pass Go, Collect 200 Cephalopods

Spain, the country of my current residence, is rather pointedly different than that of the United States. Consequently, various aspects of life and the average day to day are, well, different. From my short time in Lugo, Spain, there have been some rather interesting discrepancies in culinary techniques and interests that I find interesting to place the most brief of spotlights upon.

Primarily, I feel a pervasive need to stay on the good side of the people of Galicia, as they all seem to be masters of the knife. Not strictly Culinary Institute of America-approved techniques, either. No special knife-grip, fingers curled in and firmly placed upon the intended cutting material, cutting away from yourself for the sake of control and security. No, no, not here. Often, it is knife in hand with the intended cutting base being their own fingers or the flesh of the vegetable, fruit, or meat itself. It’s impressive, if not nerve-racking to my personal sensibilities and culinary teachings/inclinations. Freaks me out. Yet its simplicity and functionality is impressive: they are cutting, peeling, coring, cubing, slicing, and dicing all with one tool, when any number of American families will have any number of devices for each of these acts. Think of the countless products in countless cooking magazines, all paling in comparison to Galician utilization of one stout knife. It’d be more inspiring if the thought of doing it didn’t scare the hell out of me.

Additionally, it appears as if Galicians have a different approach to spices than what I’ve come to know in my time of culinary consciousness. Possibly a different approach, if I were to make a more broad assumption, than that of many Americans as a whole. What I mean by “different utilization” of spices is roughly “usually absent.” With my parents in the U.S., we ate with a rather large degree of variation. Different favours, different styles, different ethnicities (or crude approximations thereof), and so forth. In Galicia, it seems to follow two far more basic core tenets of preparation:

-To cook/fry/sauté: olive oil.

-To garnish: Maybe salt. Maybe.

For many dishes, that’s about it. A point in it’s favour, you’re able to more genuinely taste the quality or characteristics of the meats and produce locals take so much pride in, but I would be staunchly lying if I did not hanker for the pique of black pepper now and again. Perhaps the particular savour of oregano in tomatoes, or the roasty musk of garlic amidst the olive oil. Perhaps (likely) I come from the bias of elaborately dressing my food. Not the horrid encrusting of spices so often found in American restaurants, but as a whole spices are something I’m quite fond of utilizing. A peek inside my spice cabinet is akin to an apothecary of seasoning: a taste, scent, and effect for your every ache, whim, and desire.

In Galicia, cured meats are quite popular – supermarkets will usually have large sections devoted to different types, brands, and qualities, all connected to the deli. There are, too, dedicated shops specializing in cured meats of all shapes and sizes. The meats themselves are usually huge slabs of pork, usually legs, with a seemingly leathery texture, and a yellowed, waxy patina. My initial observations, if you can imagine, tended to reside towards “less than appealing.” However, cutting into the slabs reveal its true nature: a smooth, super-tender meat, and trimmings of fat that simply melt in your mouth as you chew. I was initially put off by the fat trimming on most of the pieces, as I’m one of those people than can’t stand gristly meat or fat in my steak, but this, this works. The satiny texture the fat gives to the aged, salty taste of the meat itself is usually a heavenly combination. The taste itself is usually a bit strong, but there is a real character to the taste of the ageing within every slice. Think of it like a wine or an oak-aged liquor, the age gives it a distinction that fresh meats simply cannot give. It may give initial tastings a little odd, but really can grow on you.

An interesting side note is that these meats are usually totally sans wrapping. Not a scrap except for a price tag and/or company label. It was initially shocking, as I can’t think of any meats left uncovered in the average American supermarket, never mind in such large quantities. Can’t say I complain, but interesting nonetheless. Some cured meats are in bags, too, so whether there is a rhyme or a reason to it is something I have yet to get an answer for.

In supermarkets, international food is usually represented in small aisles, and even smaller selections. Mexican spices and ingredients in my local supermarket consist primarily of the Tex-Mex “Old El Paso” brand. Not the worst in the world, but I’d hardly call it a first choice in any stretch of the imagination. Hot sauces, too, are apparently not common, the only brands I’ve seen so far are Tabasco, and… Heinz. Hot sauces are like spices in my family. Our fridge almost has more hot sauces than any other sauce or condiment combined. It’s a point of special importance to my grocery excursions in new countries (like during my time in the Czech Republic, I discovered spicy ketchup – so far the only country that I’ve encountered with it). As so far as Asian food, luckily, some Asian-style noodles are available, I was surprised to see sesame oil, but other choice ingredients for, say, a proper stir fry, are in relatively short supply. Of course, my caveat is that I have not seen every market in Galicia, and I can’t speak for other cities in the region. Santiago de Compostela or A Coruña very well may have spectacular ethic foods, I just don’t yet know of them.

I recently had Chinese food for the first time here in Lugo, at a pretty nice buffet-style affair. Not exactly authentic, but one can hardly complain for variety in life. I can, however, report on one particular oddity. White rice, as it seems, is a strange indulgence. In the most bizarre flavour-reversal, the “Asian” rice of choice for people in Lugo is a seasoned rice with peas, carrots, and onion called “Tres Sabrosas (or three delicious flavours, basically).” Imagine fried rice but, well, without being fried. So when seasoning would otherwise be shunned, it seems there is an exception, quite strongly so, for Chinese food. Attempting to ask for white rice was met with confusion from the Spanish waiter, and one of the owners had me reiterate what rice I wanted; it became quite the odd situation. My Spanish dining companion found this hilarious, though she did help explain what I was meaning, as I can only think of so many ways to explain plain white rice in Spanish, or even in English, for that matter. When the owner understood what I meant, she seemed to have a rather interesting mix of confusion, amusement (and I perhaps saw the smallest hint of what I could only sense to be respect?) before bringing a heaping plate of plain white rice, to the further amusement of my companion. In the great check list of things I anticipated to encounter during travelling, I never figured I would have to explain liking white rice with Asian dishes, never mind in Spanish. So it goes.

Ethnic restaurants in general are also in relatively short supply in Galicia, or at the very least, in Lugo. There are the two so-odd Chinese food restaurants, a couple of Italian joints, a couple Mexican diners, one “German” diner (I’ve yet to find anything particularly German about it short of the name), and a few kebap shops, but otherwise, it’s basically Galician, Galician, Galician. For every one ethnic eatery there’s ten pulperias (restaurants that specialize in selling an extremely popular Galician octopus dish). Hamburgers are also wildly different. If you come expecting the massive, fresh(ish) ground beef burgers of America, you’ll be rather sadly mistaken. While having a rather decent taste, the patties are far thinner, so much so that they often leave quite a lot of elbow room within a bulkie roll. Whether they are fresh or frozen is also a small wonder, as they have the appearance of frozen patties, but with how much local beef is readily available, I’m not sure if it’s just a particular style. I can’t fathom why they would be using frozen patties; I’m almost scared to ask.

I guess there is sort of equal comparisons to small American towns. For every good restaurant, there are about four or five interchangeably mediocre/awful pizza parlours. Substitute awful pizza for delicious octopus and steak, and you have an idea why other restaurants typically have a hard time establishing themselves in Galicia. Part of the idea is the intense cultural pride Galicians have, part of it, I believe, has to do with the locally available materials. They lend themselves perfectly to this Galician-tailored cuisine. Chain restaurants are also in quite short supply, so the near monopoly of Galician food is sort of a double-bladed sword. The wonderful dearth of McDonalds, Burger Kings, Applebees, and Starbucks in this city is a relief I forgot I knew existed.

So sums up some of the more poignant observations to this point, and I have no doubt that I will encounter yet more interesting differences, whether they come at the sake of my dignity or not, I shall be happy to report back.

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2 thoughts on “The Taste of a Thousand Octopi, or, The Culinary Monopolies of Galicia: Pass Go, Collect 200 Cephalopods”

  1. Hey Derek. I just read your blog and it cracked me up! Your experience with white rice is unbelievable, Well, in MY case, believable because I am not devoted to white rice myself.; I like mine in a subtle shade of brown, or maybe even a hint of rust. I made a copy of this,and will show it around to some of my neighbors here in Shrewsbury. One of my closest eighbors is our local “reswtaurant food critic” and I think she will hang her hat on this one. Keep on doing what you’re doing because I think you are talented and that we will see or read more of you in the near future. You already have a job worth writing home about, now include us in.

    Ann Seaton

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