Last issue, I discussed with Gabriela her background with cooking, as well as starting to look at her views on vegetarian food. 


She’s clearly a woman in demand. She excused herself to answer her phone twice. I’m not criticising her personal etiquette, but commenting on her authenticity. The first caller was asking if she was at an organic food market (she shrugs and answers no, I am not). And the second time it was her friend informing her she was waiting outside the restaurant, ready for their lunch meeting. Oops. 


The Lonely Planet’s World Food Guide to Spain from 2000 stated that many Spaniards “consider a dead pig to be a vegetable”. Thankfully, a couple of decades along, this is perhaps no longer the case. I cheekily put this to Gabriela to ask whether it is still true today. 

Tapas Menu

She chuckled and admitted that “You cannot think of Spanish food without pork. That is an exaggeration but it’s true”. She revealed the reasoning behind The Lonely Planet’s somewhat misleading statement: “any vegetable you ask for in Spain will come with a little ham to give it flavour”. 


Gabriela advised that when ordering salted vegetables at a restaurant in Spain, you need to request it without the ham. Otherwise your tapas dish may have an uninvited meaty guest. “Ham in Spain is like the [Japanese] umami flavour […] But you can substitute ham for fermented soybeans, but  not fish sauce because it is made of animals”.


Following up, I asked if cooking meat is integral to Spanish cuisine and culture.


Again, she caught me off guard. “Actually Spanish cuisine in general is very vegetarian except for the little bit of fat. And that is also a cultural thing. Because, normally a family lived off the killing of a pig for a whole year”. She refers back to her experience at her grandmother’s country place where all the leftovers were given to the pig. “Then, once a year there was la matanza, the killing of the pig. Some of the loins were put into lard, some of the other vegetables were salted and cured. But the pig would last a whole year. They had no chicken, they had no cows, they had nothing […] But what they mostly ate was stews in which pork was used as a flavouring agent”.

Cured meats at a butcher’s, Spain

What was most surprising from speaking to Gabriel, was how Spain was traditionally a very vegetarian country and it is only in recent years that there has been a shift. The increase of wealth and global trading has led to the democratisation of meat, causing higher consumption


In this way, rearing pigs was much more economical than buying cows or chickens for meat. She argued that “Spain has always been a poor country […] So our food tradition has been very very healthy because it is based on vegetables”. Gabriela’s understanding of food seemed to originate from Spain’s humble traditional past. She talked about the simple delights of the many traditional “poor man’s potatoes” and soups with whatever vegetables they could find. Food was held in much higher esteem, and therefore preserved and divided much more economically than it is now: “Bread was never thrown away. Nothing was wasted. Food was very expensive…nowadays people have everything. I see a lot of food going to waste […] I find it terrible”. Her genuinely disappointed tone indicated how much she cared about the valuable resource of food. 


Gabriel struck me as a purist: she wants fresh food, sourced daily- and from good sources at that. “I eat almost everything, but good quality”. She maintained that the ethical side of food production is also important. “When you see people cutting up the Amazon jungle just to grow more meat because more markets demand meat, meat meat”. 

Amazon Rainforest

She talked extensively and passionately about the corruption and flaws of the meat industry, how often animals are farmed unsustainably and pumped with unknown toxins and antibiotics. “Once you realise the poison you are putting into your body,” she reprimanded, “everyone would turn vegetarian and we wouldn’t have a problem with the meat industry’. She remarked how tuna fish is now full of lead in the Spanish regions and that octopuses are being overfished to their detriment. The traditional backbone of Spanish cuisine is suffering.  


“We’re destroying nature by eating badly. And we’re going to suffer from it. Because if there’s no earth, no nothing- what are we going to do? Eat plastic?”. She then knowingly shrugged and adjusted her glasses. True to Spanish style, Gabrielsa was saying it how it is. 


“But we need more people to turn vegetarian to start with, and to understand the dynamic until the food industry, especially the meat and the poultry industry realise what is the point of poisoning everyone”. At this remark I had to laugh, and highlighted she was not wrong. A blunt sense of humour is something both Spaniards and Brits alike can bond over. 


Gabriela’s passion exhibits itself three-fold: as a professional chef, a cooking instructor, and rustling up dinner at home. I enquired about these different cooking environments. She hates the restaurant system because of its “incredibly competitive nature”. The urgency of the environment takes away the personal touch: “You go to michelin-starred restaurants nowadays and go to the kitchen and open the fridge and everything is packed in plastic in controlled temperatures. I don’t like that- you don’t see the hand of the chef”. 

A chef’s personal touch

One of her preferred restaurants that offer vegetarian cuisine is Castelados. “They make the best artichokes I’ve ever had in Madrid.” As her favourite vegetable is artichoke, this is high praise indeed. “They are unbelievable […] grilled artichoke hearts. They put a bottle of olive oil in front of you, you drizzle it over, and they are just perfect…Of course, they only make them when they are in season. They are fresh every day, peeled and so on. It takes time and care. It takes hours…And I would rather go to a restaurant where they take the time and peel the artichokes properly and cook them”. 


And Gabriela would know. She confessed to hosting dinner parties in the past where she hand-peeled and cooked over a hundred artichokes for her lucky guests. They were amazed she had gone through so much effort to provide for them. “When you cook, you are bringing your own energy into the food, also”. Her care and attention to the artichoke pintxos, reflects and accentuates the importance of hospitality towards her guests. 

Grilled artichoke

Clearly, generosity is a strong life value of Gabriela that she has refined over her many life experiences with the people she’s met. A friend of hers, a chef working at a hospital in Switzerland. He sends his staff home when they are having mental health issues or other personal problems. The rationale behind this was that an individual’s attitude and thoughts go into the food they’re preparing. The chef argued how they can cook for sick people, nourish them, when there is negative energy going into the food. It is not healthy: “Quantum physics has revealed that the energy you put into cooking is very important”, Gabriela added thoughtfully. 


One of the best chefs in the world is the South Korean buddhist nun, Jeong Kwan, who has no restaurant but cooks for her fellow monks, nuns and the occasional lucky guests. Her talents were picked up by The New York Times, and Kwan even appeared on the Netflix series Chef’s Table. Jeong Kwan maintains a biodynamic and organic approach to farming and cooking by being strictly vegan and growing all the vegetables herself. She refers to her garden as her “playground” and her plants as her “children”. 


She does not spray the orchard with pesticides but attests that humanity shares the woods with the animals. Whatever food produced by the forest is for them, and the monastery would eat whatever is left over. Gabriela explained that the chef is the most important person in a monastery because they have to keep everyone in good shape so they can continue to worship. On the other hand, Kwan distances herself from the title of ‘chef’ and affirms that she is primarily a nun. Cooking is her form of meditation to serve her fellow nuns and monks, helping them to reach spiritual enlightenment rather than merely physical satisfaction. 

South Korean Buddhist monastery retreat

Gabriela’s philosophy on food echoes that of Kwan’s. A significant part of cooking is the energy you put into food, which Kwan achieves through nurturing her organic, borderless garden. Gabriela’s iteration about the energy that one puts into food shows the value she attaches to it.


As a vegetarian, I wanted to find out whether I would still be able to experience ‘the real Spain’ without feeling like I was substituting or subsidising. After speaking to Gabriel, I know that vegetarian travellers like me are definitely not missing out on authentic Spanish cuisine. If anything, we’re going right back to the historical roots of Spain’s culture where meat was a luxury. 

Organic tomato produce

Looking for a vegetarian tapas tour? Or in a quandary about a plant-based holiday? Send us an inquiry and we’d be happy to help 🙂


Gabriela Llamas is a writer, chef and teacher of Spanish cooking. Book a cooking class or sustainable workshop with Gabriela at Alambique Cooking School, located in Madrid. Her book, ‘Let’s Cook Spanish: A Family Cookbook’ (2016),  is available from all good bookstores.