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Patatas Bravas: My Dirty Spanish Secret

Patatas BravasThere is a romance to Spain that is all its own.  From Bizet‘s Carmen to Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, the world has a vision of Spain steeped in exoticism that draws many of us towards this fascinating country; myself included.  But one of my most cherished elements of Spain has little to no romance to offer: patatas bravas.

Although I’m certain that this dish is a constant accompaniment to all of the more romantic events that happen in Spain – bullfights, flamenco concerts, festivals of all kinds – they don’t amount to much more than fried potatoes.  Some of the best fries around, sure, but fried potatoes can’t be said to inspire the same kind of mystique that fluttering fans – abanicos – and dancing white Andalusian horses can.  And yet…

Flavor over romance

Maybe it’s the fact that patatas bravas is one of the only Spanish dishes with a bit of a kick to it.  These cubes of fried potatoes may not inherently speak to gastronomical excellence, but the sauce – or sauces – that are served with them can be fantastic.  But, to tell you the truth, it’s not the finer examples that compel me to eat them again and again.  I tend to like the more basic, cheaper versions.  They really are my dirty Spanish secret – well, not so secret I guess.

Here in Valencia, patatas bravas are usually served with two sauces; a red, chilli and paprika sauce, and a type of allioili. I love mayonnaise and garlic, so this last sauce is as important to me as the first.  The comparison to mayonnaise isn’t entirely accurate as the sauce is traditionally made with olive oil and garlic, though the shortcut of using egg is often taken today.  And again, it’s the cheaper versions that attract me; I’m sure that my favourite alliolis come from a can or a squeeze tube.  What can I tell you?  This is what pleases me, in a dirty kind of way.

Like many other foreigners living here in Spain, I sometimes find it a challenge to find appealing, well presented vegetable dishes when eating out.  I live by the Mercado Central – Central Market – here in Valencia, which is always full to bursting with vegetables of all kinds; it’s hard to reconcile that image to the menus of the tapas bars around town where a mixed salad is about the best you can get.  Of course, if you sit down to an elaborate dinner, you will find a wider range of vegetable options – Spain isn’t a vegetable-free zone, it just looks that way at times.

But I shouldn’t make a fuss; after all, it’s the lack of healthy options at the quick-fix tapas bars that give me the excuse, time and time again, to indulge in my favourite vice: patatas bravas. This is a dish that can be found anywhere in the country though, like most things, it varies from region to region.  Madrid is said to be the home of patatas bravas; there they are served without the allioli and if memory serves (a decade since I’ve been there – have to go soon), they tend to be a bit spicier.

And there are lots of places around that will add other things to augment the simpler version: chorizo, chistorra…­even vegetables on rare occasions.  Thankfully, I’m not obliged to taint my favourite unhealthy dish with any pretense of a balanced diet.

My wife, Katie, remains true to her purer instincts and avoids patatas bravas.  The first thing that I did when my parents-in-law got here to visit was take Larry out for a doble – you can get an overview of beer in Spain here – and a small plate of bravas. It was nice to be able to share the experience, but he did eat more than his share by my count…


Ivan Larcombe

Ivan loves wine and food almost as much as he loves writing about them. Next on the list is hearing from interested readers: he welcomes comments and visitors to his blog, Ivan In Valencia.

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  • JLibbey

    Your memory serves you right, alioli is not served with patatas bravas in Madrid. When there, you would have to order the two dishes separately: patatas bravas and patatas alioli. Buen provecho!

  • gabriellaopaz

    I'm a red chili and paprika fan myself. And oddly enough, when I first moved to Spain, I wasn't keen on these little fried treats, but over time, I've become mildly addicted. Fried calamare is another one of my dirty little Spanish secrets, especially when the squid is a little thicker around the sides. In regards veggies, I'd suggest that there are slim pickings in Spain. Sure, you can get Pimientos de Padron and maybe an asparagus dish here and there, but if you're a die hard vegetarian, eating out can be really boring, while shopping in all those fabulous open air markets filled with fresh produce can be dreamy!

  • Olaf

    In Valencia is really hard to find good bravas. But if you go to Requena, for example, that's a place where they really know how to prepare them!