Tapas on the Mekong: Spanish Cuisine Takes on the World

Facebookmail

The rain was non-stop.  I’m not talking about one of those perpetual drizzles, but rather about a deluge of water that shoots down sideways with a force that feels like it will penetrate your skin.  Streets flooded, tin roofs banged, and puddles began to take the size of Lake Michigan.  This is the type of rain you would expect during monsoon season in Southeast Asia and that is precisely where I was:  Vientiane, Laos to be exact.   I clumsily tried to ride a rented bike through a city overcome by what seemed to be a white squall of legend.

Spanish tapas bar Laos
Spanish tapas bar in Vientiane, Laos

Although the storm appeared to come out of nowhere that wasn’t my biggest surprise that afternoon.  In an attempt to find shelter – and quickly – I stumbled upon what seemed to be a tavern magically transported to this tiny neighborhood in Vientiane.  Cervantes, a Spanish tapas bar, led me through its door for a cold beer and a plate of croquettes.

I don’t know if the restaurant still exists and a recent Google search pulled up another option in Laos, but I realized that Spanish food is becoming the new Chinese or Italian. Whether it be a paella on the Champs-Élysées or gazpacho in Ginza, Spanish chefs and food are doing their homeland proud.

Paella in London
Serving paella on the streets of London

Why?  Good question, that.

Fifteen years ago you would have been hard-pressed to find a Spanish restaurant outside of Spain and little to no knowledge of the culinary pleasures that lie within.  Americans often associated Spanish food with that of their Mexican neighbors. Elsewhere in Europe, it seemed to be only the cuisines of Italy and Greece that were representing the southern part of the continent.

Enter the economic crisis of 2008 which saw a wave of Spanish citizens venturing far afield to start lives anew.  These 21st century immigrants included young chefs who saw opportunities to promote their country’s gastronomic assets while making a buck or two.  Add to this the number of engineers, nurses, and teachers who also left the peninsula and who were simply looking for a taste of home.  Acting as unknown ambassadors, these globetrotters introduced their new friends to the flavors of Spain thereby encouraging the cuisine’s “discovery.”

Traditional Spanish tapas
Traditional Spanish tapas

Another factor in Spain’s appeal to the gastronomic club is due to the changing habits of the way many of us consume food.  When I was growing up, the idea of sharing food could get you a fork in the back of the hand.  It was an unknown concept.  Today, restaurants are dedicated to the idea of sharing and specifically to the “small plate” movement – suddenly a tapas bar seemed a natural fit.  Add to this that many in Asia have always enjoyed this custom of communal eating and suddenly sharing a ración de boquerones en vinagre in Hong Kong no longer seems strange.

Chef José Andres Spanish cooking demonstration
Chef José Andrés doing a public Spanish cooking demonstration

While the proliferation of Spanish food has many causes, another worth mentioning is the simple fact that food has become a cultural phenomenon.  It has entered our television and media culture, our literature, and has combined with our love of travel to create a kind of Gastronomic Explorer.  These influencers travel the world for us and share their finds, enticing us to try new cuisines for ourselves.  Through these adventurers, the world has discovered that there are many hidden gems within Spanish culinary tradition and people are eager to go beyond the paella and gazpacho they had come to know.

La Mancha - the land of Don Quixote
La Mancha, the land of Don Quixote

Speaking of travel and food, while it’s fun to try a croquette in Laos, I’d rather stick to the larb they are known for.  There is no better place to try traditional cuisine than in-country and for Spanish fare, that means Spain:  the land where Don Quixote dreamed of his Dulcinea – while his partner in crime, Sancho Panza, accompanied him, all the while indulging in a humble plate of migas de pastor and a good bottle of red.