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Moor Impact On Traditional Spanish Food Than Many Know

posted on: Jun 3, 2020

Moor Impact On Traditional Spanish Food Than Many Know
A crowded tapas bar in Spain; these customers can thank the Moors for some of their favorite dishes

By: Noah Robertson/Arab America Contributing Writer

In 1492, the last stronghold of the Al-Andalus kingdom, the Arabic name for the Iberian Peninsula, fell in Granada and the Moorish influence began to fade, but not without leaving lasting impacts on Spanish food, culture, architecture, language, and its people. Though we are going to talk mostly about food today check out the many articles from our contributing writer Habeeb Salloum to read a lot more about the lasting Arabic influence in Spain.

During the time of the Moors (Arabs in Spain), there was an explosion in innovation within the Iberian Peninsula, especially, in the new types of plants and agricultural systems that were introduced, as well as methods of cooking. The Moors may not have created the majority of the classic Spanish dishes we know well today, but without their influence and the introduction of many types of food, spices, and cooking methods the “typical” Spanish food would be quite different.

Why Does Moorish Influence Matter?

This past semester, I was lucky enough to participate in a study abroad program in Sevilla, Spain. In just a quick walk down any street in the city, I was almost guaranteed to see at least one tapas bar on each block if not more. The unique part of tapas is that because they are smaller dishes and less expensive, one can easily sample a wide variety of cuisine available in Spain. As a tourist, it is easy to assume most of this food is completely Spanish in origin, and many dishes are branded as such in tapas bars to entice tourists into trying, “a classic Spanish tapa”, “the original Spanish recipe”, or some similar marketing tactic. Fortunately for me, I had the chance to live with a Spanish family and study with Spanish professors, so I learned the true origins behind many of these dishes and how strong of a Moorish influence there is on Spanish cuisine. Because of the amazing food I had in Spain, I made a decision to research the Moors past contributions.

Thanks to the Moors: Staples of Spanish Cuisine

One of the best parts of Spanish food is the almost religious use of olive oil and the serving of olives with most meals, in salads, and as an appetizer. According to, there are 2.4 million hectares (~6 million acres) of land dedicated to olive trees. Very few know that such an abundance of olive trees can be credited to the Moors. Although the Phoenicians (original inhabitants of some of this land) were the first to plant olive trees, the innovative Moorish irrigation techniques helped the olive trees multiply and become the staple they are in Spanish cuisine.

Another staple of Spanish cooking is the almond. Introduced by the Moors, it has become a major part of Spanish deserts and the base of the delicious “Ajo Blanco,” which is made from almonds, garlic, and bread pureed in water and served chilled. While olives and almonds are essential to traditional Spanish cooking, it is also impossible to imagine Spanish cuisine without rice which is a core ingredient in many dishes and without its introduction by the Moors, it may not have found its way to Spain for a long time and Paella along with many other classic dishes would not exist. The Spanish may not have copied Moorish dishes, but many of their traditional foods could not exist without essential ingredients the Moors introduced and cultivated.

Moorish Influences On Spanish Cuisine
Image of olive trees at the Basilippo’s olive farm and production center in Sevilla, Spain (image by Noah Robertson)

I would be remiss if I did not mention one of my favorite dishes in Spain, “Espinacas con Garbanzos” (spinach with garbanzos). This dish and garbanzos were introduced by the Moors and can be found at almost any tapas bar in Spain; however, my host mom made the best ones I ever tried.

Typical Cooking Techniques with a Moorish Touch

Not only did the Moors have a lasting influence on some important ingredients used in most traditional Spanish dishes, but they also contributed greatly to common cooking techniques in Spain. In Arab cooking today, the heavy use of spices to create mouthwatering dishes is quite well-known; this history of using a wide variety of spices to create extremely flavorful dishes has been around for centuries. The skill of masterfully using spices to create unique flavors is yet another Moorish influence that is still seen in Spanish cooking today, though it is not nearly as effective as an Arab chef using spices.

Moorish Impact On Traditional Spanish Food
A local selling spices outside the cathedral in Granada, Spain (image by Noah Robertson)

While the Moorish techniques of using a large variety of spices have had a lasting impact on Spanish cuisine, what is even more important is the Moorish technique of using a light coating of flour for fish and meat and frying it in oil. All over Spain, one can find a wide variety of fish and meats on menus saying, “Pollo (chicken) Frito”, “Bacalao (cod) Frito”, “Boquerones (anchovies) Fritos”, and much more “Frito” dishes meaning they are fried in the technique the Moors introduced. This is a cooking technique that defines a major way in which Spanish chefs prepare fish and meat, but without the Moors who knows if it ever would have become popularized.

Spanish Food Would Not Be the Same

After the Christian armies pushed the Moors out of their last stronghold in Granada, they attempted to forcefully convert Muslims and erase the influence of the Moors, but it clearly did not work. The lasting influence of the Moors can be obviously found in nearly all walks of life in Spain, but the impact on the now traditional cuisine is not always recognized. Even in the names of popular Spanish food, especially those beginning with “a”, the Moorish influence can be seen. Albóndigas (meatballs), arroz (rice), aceite (oil), almendras (almonds), and many other non-food words derive from Arabic. The impact of the Moors in Spain is obvious but also hidden as a tourist tries a bite of tarta de almendras (almond cake) or digs into paella they do not know that their meal might not exist without the lasting Moorish influences.

Moor Impact On Traditional Spanish Food Than Many Know
A homemade Spanish paella made by my host mom (image taken by Noah Robertson)

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Can I have Some Moor? A Look at Moorish Influence on Spanish Cuisine