Origins of the Spanish Tortilla

First of all, the Spanish tortilla has nothing to do with its Mexican cousin. The Spanish tortilla is much more than a variety of bread: it is a traditional dish all by itself.

Known in English as Spanish omelet, this popular collation is also called tortilla española or tortilla de patata (potato omelet) in Spanish, because of its origin and its main ingredient. A traditional Spanish tortilla is basically a potato omelet, so you need eggs, potatoes, and onion, plus some oil and salt.

The tortilla is often eaten as a light afternoon snack, to wait until dinner, in a sandwich or in small pieces as a tapa among other bite-size snacks in bars and restaurants. You can also eat it as the main dish of a meal. It is a highly versatile recipe that is present in all Spanish food scene because you can make it at any time.

Origins of the recipe

Like many iconic traditional recipes around the world, it is hard to pin-point the exact origin of the tortilla. But because the star ingredient is the potato, we know it cannot be more than 500 years old, since potatoes (like corn, sugarcane, and so many other foods) did not exist in Europe and were brought in from the Americas during the colonial era.

In addition to that, we know that when the potatoes arrived in Europe they were mostly used for animal feeding, because the European mentality at the time was that food coming from the ground was not suitable for human consumption. Hopefully, they were wrong and with time that perception was changed.

Depending to which food historian you talk to, you might hear two different stories about the origin of the Spanish tortilla.

The most common origin theory rotates around the general Tomás de Zumalacárregui. The legend has it that while he was visiting a house in the region of Navarra, the poor housekeeper had nothing to cook him a meal, so she put together the very few ingredients she had (eggs and potatoes) to make something. Many traditional dishes were born out of necessity like that, rather than a thoughtful elaboration process mixing up textures and flavors. Another version of that story says the general served that to his troops during the siege of Bilbao in 1835. I believe the two versions can be merged and that he served that to his troops after he tasted the accidental culinary creation, especially since both locations (Navarra and Bilbao) are very close to each other in northeastern Spain. 

Another story places the creation of the tortilla in the town of Villanueva de la Serena, in the province of Badajoz, in southwestern part of the country, in the late 18th century, so a few decades before the first theory around the general.

We may never know exactly when or where this eggs and potatoes recipe really originated, but that sure does not prevent us from enjoying that dish. It is healthy, nutritive, economical, simple and quick to prepare from simple common natural ingredients: a perfect combination for our busy lives.

Different recipes

Similar to what happened to the pizza, when you have a long-standing traditional dish, after a certain time, varieties are created to reflect regional tastes and products or to merge in available ingredients or to match evolving tastes. The Spanish tortilla has become a basic canvas to build on more complex and elaborated savors.

Many regions of Spain have their own recipe on this classic, but you can also find many recipes available throughout the country. You can add virtually any vegetable or protein (meat, fish, cheese) to customize your tortilla experience and make it into a complete and delicious meal.

One of the most popular recipes in Spain is the chorizo version, which gives you a bit spicier taste while also providing more proteins to make it a more legitimate meal all by itself. The ham and cheese tortilla is also very popular.

Spanish tortilla on our menu!

In our Brunch menu, we offer you three varieties of tortillas, each with a star ingredient: mushrooms, piquillo peppers or chorizo. These creations will give you a whole different experience with their layered and harmonized flavors.  You can also order the traditional Spanish tortilla recipe at any time.

Come taste them and find out which one you like best.

About us

Socarrat is a Spanish restaurant since 2008 offering a wide variety of tapas, paella, sangria and an extensive selection of wines with three locations in the heart of Manhattan.


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