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How the Moors Influenced Spanish Cuisine

GazpachoWith every bite of their Sunday paella, Spanish families—whether they realize it or not–are paying homage to the old Moorish kingdom of Al-Ándalus, one of the greatest civilizations that Iberia has ever known.

How did this relationship evolve? It began in the year 711 C.E, when the Moors soundly defeated the post-Roman Visigothic Christian rulers of the land that was then known as Hispania. General Tariq ibn-Ziyad crossed the strait of Gibraltar—a mere 15km gap that separated Islam-dominated North Africa and the new Christendom of the Iberian Peninsula—and his army moved progressively across modern day Spain and Portugal, spreading their influence as they went. It was not until they reached the Pyrenees mountains eight years later that their march was halted by military defeat, marking the northernmost frontier of Islamic Iberia. (photo by cyclonebill)

From 711 C.E to 1492 C.E, the Moorish kingdom ebbed and waned, celebrating its “Golden Age” in the southern regions of their Al-Ándalus empire (now modern day Andalucía) in the 10th century when their capital of Córdoba became the premier city in the West for scientific and intellectual discovery.

In their final centuries of rule, before the eventual banishing of Islam in the Iberian Peninsula, the Moorish civilization went into a slow decline as their land was re-conquered by crusading Christian forces. Though much of peninsula was only under Moorish rule for a matter of centuries (or in the case of Catalunya, less than 100 years), their longer legacy in the south left an indelible impression on the language, architecture, academics, and gastronomy of Spain; an impression that can be seen in the names of the most common Spanish culinary staples and tasted with every bite of some of the most iconic dishes associated with Spanish cuisine worldwide.

As with all traveling and migrating peoples, the Moors (a general term rooted in Latin that has evolved from the word “maurus”, once used to describe a person from the Roman province of Mauretania, in North Africa) brought many facets of their cultural along for the journey. Not only did they impart their Arabic tongue, Islamic religion, architectural prowess, infrastructural ingenuity, and mathematical fortitude to the Iberian Peninsula, they are also responsible for many of the agricultural products (and cooking methods) that form the foundation Spain’s famous “Mediterranean Diet”. (photo by PincasPhoto)

Among the Moor’s important gastronomic gifts to Spain, none can have greater significance than rice. This humble grain, together with the precious and delicate delicacy saffron (also a Moorish contribution), plays an indisputable role in the classic Mediterranean paella, an omnipresent dish on nearly every “Spanish” menu on earth. However, the Moorish connection to rice runs deeper still. In modern Spanish, many words beginning in “a” stem from Arabic. These include “arroz” (rice), “aceite” (oil), “algodón” (cotton) “aceituna” (olive), “albaricoque” (apricot), “azafrán” (saffron), “almendra” (almond) and even, algebra!

For many, no stand-alone ingredients capture the cuisine of Spain more memorably than the olive and the almond. Though olives were first introduced to the Iberian Peninsula by the far-reach of the Phoenicians, the Islamic civilizations used their advanced irrigation techniques to propagate this quintessential crop to its current day magnitude. Almonds, on the other hand, are a blessing to the Spanish table for which the Moors can claim full responsibility. One ingredient famously lacking from pre-Colombian Spain was the tomato, and it’s not widely known that the refreshing summer soup Gazpacho is actually rooted in a much older (tomato-free) dish known as Ajo Blanco — a chilled soup of almonds, garlic, and bread pureed with water. Once Columbus introduced tomatoes to the Old World, their addition to this simple but filling soup spawned one of the most iconic and popular Spanish dishes.

That said, the Moorish influence on the cuisine of Spain exceeds mere ingredients and cuts to the very core of some of the most important flavor-building techniques used in kitchens throughout the region and beyond. The Arabian palate was one of robust herbs and spices like cinnamon, cumin, anise, nutmeg, mint, and cilantro; of vinegar used for preservation of meat and fish; and of a powerful taste combination previously unknown to the Western world: the combination of sweet and savory in the same dish!

The Moors brought sugar cane to Spain but also loved using fruit in their savory dishes, especially dried fruits like apricots and various citrus fruits, which they also introduced. Up until then, Europeans had only prepared very sweet confitures, often with honey. Eventually, the Spanish brought sugar cane to the New World. In the realm of dessert cookery, the Moorish chefs shared their practice of using ground almonds to make marzipan—an ingredient essential in many modern Spanish pastries—and various other almond flour-based treats. And if you haven’t tried the delicious and sinful “polvorones” that are eaten at Christmas throughout Spain, these pork lard and sweet almond cookies should be at the top of your list. (photo by aurélien.)

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In addition to vinegar preservation and modern confectionery cooking, the Moors brought oil frying to Spain, something for which fans of the endless variety of fried potato, seafood, meat, and vegetable dishes found on a typical tapas menu should be eternally grateful. What other vice did the Moors bring to Spain, in addition to sugar? Distilled alcohol (another Arabic-rooted word, by the way).

While Muslims did not drink alcohol, they did use their technological aptitude and scholarly pursuit of science to develop the modern Alembic, or “still” (Alambique in Spanish, more Arabic-based terminology). Invented by Arab alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan in the 9th century, the alembic made its way to the Iberian peninsula, where non-Muslims soon discovered the power of distilling grape must (leftover seed, stems, and skins of grapes pressed for wine production) and created neutral flavored brandy. The Galician Orujo (similar to Italian grappa) is the closest relative to this first Spanish spirit.

Clearly, the influence of the nearly 800 years of Islamic rule in Spain has left a delicious, lasting effect on every course of the typical Spanish meal, whether those who champion the sublimely simple Mediterranean diet realize it or not. Yes, for many visitors to Spain, the most visible and marketable remnants of the Al-Ándalus can be found in arabesque arches and spires of Granada’s Alhambra or the Mosque of Córdoba. Even so, we must remember and honor the rich and lasting impact that Arabian cooking has left in the land of jamón (arguably the King of Spanish gastronomy, and NOT an Islamic contribution). (photo by Contando Estrelas)

Next time you have the pleasure of digging into a steaming saffron-infused paella under the summer sun, or sipping a smooth Spanish brandy, or savoring a tasty pickled anchovy, take a moment to give thanks for a people who, after helping bring Spain to the brink of the Renaissance, were then summarily banished from its borders. Luckily, they left many pieces of their culture and their cooking behind for future generations to appreciate and savor.

If you’re interested in experiencing the delicious culinary legacy left from the Moors in Spain, be sure to contact us! We’re happy to put together a fantastic customized tour for you!


Sam Zucker

Custom Wine and Food Tours Portugal Spain

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