Paella and the Perils of Shopping for Fish in Spain


What in the name of good Jesus Christ are those?!” My classmate spat out through suppressed gags while pointing at the glass of the fish case.

It was my first cooking class in Madrid and we had just arrived at the local market to pick out fresh ingredients for the class itinerary.  It hadn’t been five minutes since we got there before the disgusted student, a middle-aged Canadian woman on vacation with her husband, found something repugnant enough to beckon the name of JC to help her cope with it all. I followed her finger and found the offense in question: a heap of fleshy pink veinous blobs.

Fish that is probably human brains

A zombie's delight.

I didn’t even have an answer for her, and truthfully, I was only half attentive to what was going on around me at that point. I, too, was fixated on what I can only assume to be HUMAN BRAINS (assumedly…probably) being sold in the fish case.  The sight of cerebral matter hanging out with mackerel was almost as disturbing as when I was walking down the sidewalk earlier that morning through a stream of running water, only to look up and realize the “stream of running water” I was sloshing through was coming from an elderly bearded woman squatting and urinating on the walkway. Where was this lady’s ringmaster? I wasn’t sure what circus she ran away from that let her act like such an animal, but that is an image that will never leave my brain and may necessitate some Grade-A therapy when I get back to the States.

Fish Market Fare

Still, I’m not 100% as to what those fleshy oblong lumps are. The sign dubiously read pescado fresca (i.e. “fresh fish”) and when I asked the fish vendor he just laughed and said, “yes! Yes!” before walking in the back room. Even he didn’t know.

In any case, shopping for fish — especially in a country with a veritable smorgasbord of available sea fare — is one part dinner preparation and four parts alien identification. Some of these things have the sort of teeth you can only find in nightmares or vagina dentata, while others have unidentifiable parts and purposes that make you just wish it were taco night. Take this beauty for instance:

Monkfish / Rape

Note that the thing above is what I now know to be a monkfish, but in Spain they call it a “rape.” As if it could be anymore terrifying. Later that day I Googled “how to prepare a rape” and judging from the upsetting results, I don’t think I was on the right trail. I’m also pretty sure Google sent my search to the police.

There are also these interesting little crustaceans that keep popping up in all the markets called percebes, or goose barnacles, that are said to have a taste reminiscent of crab. They remind me of miniature geoducks, which are phallic-shaped mollusks found in northwest North America, mostly within the Puget Sound. I haven’t had percebes yet, but it’s on my list of helpless things I want to eat before I leave Spain.

Percebes / Goose Barnacles

If you note the sign, you’ll see that at 36€ per kilo (or roughly $16 per pound), these suckers aren’t cheap. There are also strict laws in Spain about catching percebes in the wild due to depletion from overharvesting from their huge resale value. If caught, you’re looking at a punishment of 5000€ in fines and being turned into a eunuch. Or maybe just the fine, I’m not really clear on how Spanish law works.

Fish Market Fare

At the market we made stops to purchase a few cuttlefish, mussels, whole unprepared prawns and produce from various vendors all while being told how to shop for each item, and then made our way back to the kitchen. During our preparation of the items we’d just bought, the chef tells us a story of how she got started in the field of cooking: when she was a little girl in Peru, her brother brought home a pet pigeon and one night she ended up killing and cooking it for her family. I eyeballed the pre-prepped poultry slices on the table and narrowed my glare back to the chef. That had better be chicken.

Paella Cooking Class

Paella Cooking Class

The dishes prepared during class were orange and cod magala salad, tortilla de patatas, and red wine poached pears with Greek yogurt, but most importantly — and central to this post — we prepared the world-renowned Spanish staple, paella. Surely I couldn’t come to Spain without dedicating a post to paella!

Though originating and flourishing in Valencia, paella is eaten heavily all throughout Spain. There are many variants in its ingredients ranging from snails and various seafood, meat from land mammals, as well as runner beans, artichokes, green beans, peppers or other vegetables, typically using what season ingredients are available. Regardless of what ingredients are put into the paella, the ingredients that are generally accepted as staples to the dish are a round rice such as calasparra or bomba and saffron. The rest is more or less available for free adaptation, though Valencians might take issue with that ideology.

Paella Ingredients

Bomba Rice

It’s believed in Valencia that only certain ingredients can go into paella to be true paella and mixing seafood with meat in paella is a big no-no. However, in other regions of Spain, the general argument is that is that the ingredients don’t matter as much as how it’s prepared and whether or not the proper pan – called a paella! – is used. I personally used a raggedy old deep frying pan and it worked just as well as a paella, so don’t worry too much about specific ingredients or tools. Use what you have on hand and paella it up!



Angry Fish

Angry fish says, "EAT PAELLA EVERY DAY."


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  • May 18, 2012 - 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Hilarious post. Fully enjoyed your vivid descriptions haha. I studied abroad in Madrid in 2009 and my homestay lady prepared all sorts of delicious Spanish food for me – her paella was to die for – truly delicious. I never got to take a cooking class while I was over there but next time I definitely will!

    • Kerry
      May 21, 2012 - 4:14 pm | Permalink

      You definitely should! My only gripe is that many cooking classes in Spain are focused around paella and sangria, since that’s what most foreign travelers associate Spanish cuisine with. I wish there was a bit more variety. Maybe a Spanish cooking school to rival Le Cordon Bleu is my calling ;)

      • May 26, 2012 - 7:22 pm | Permalink

        Indeed! in September my boyfriend and I are setting off on a 2 year backpacking trip through Europe and Asia and I really hope to take cooking classes in each country we get to (naturally this will be a lot cheaper in Asia than Europe). We’ll be blogging about our adventures at http://acoupletravelers.com if you’re interested!

  • May 18, 2012 - 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant as usual Kerry! I took particular delight in reading about your “how to prepare a rape” google search. Terrific stuff! Can’t wait for the next one!

    • Kerry
      May 21, 2012 - 4:15 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Brendan, I miss you! Hopefully we can see one another while we’re both across the pond.

  • Estela
    May 18, 2012 - 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Hi from Spain,
    those “human brains” are roe fish or said in another way, caviar but from other types of fish.
    Quite popular in Denmark too.
    Just an observation: I’m sure the woman peeing on the street was something punctual, but remarking this episode can distorsionate the image you give of Madrid.

    Funny story anyway!

    • Kerry
      May 21, 2012 - 4:10 pm | Permalink

      I’ll chalk it up to her having a few too many pints with a bunch of clowns and the World’s Strongest Man. That’s possible, right?

  • Liz
    May 18, 2012 - 6:31 pm | Permalink

    Cool post. I’ve been living in Spain for a couple years now and was similarly freaked out in the fish section of the markets. The “cerebral matter” is the sack of eggs from a female fish, called “hueva” in Spanish. It’s typically pan seared and cut into small medallions. The eggs are very small, and it has a sandy texture.

    • Kerry
      May 21, 2012 - 4:09 pm | Permalink

      That sounds much more appetizing than brains :)

  • May 19, 2012 - 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Hello from Spain!!! The pan used for cooking paella is called paella and not paellera.
    I’ve never seen a paella with chorizo or paprika… Maybe I’ll try someday!

    • Kerry
      May 21, 2012 - 4:07 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for clarifying! I heard both being used and couldn’t determine if I one was more correct over the other. Consider me corrected :)

  • June 11, 2012 - 1:27 am | Permalink

    “Still, I’m not 100% as to what those fleshy oblong lumps are. ”

    To be honest, they look a lot like salmon testicles. It’s possible that they’re roe-sacs, but they look too solid and insufficiently “grainy” for that. They’re probably from some other medium-sized species of fish, but at spawning time, some fishes’ testicles are *huge* (as much as 1/3 of a pound each in a 25 pound coho salmon).

    I’ve never been fond of them, but in my salmon-fishing years on Haida Gwaii, my dog was *crazy* for fried salmon testicles. Seemed a fair trade to me: I got the roe from the females, he got the similar goodies from the males. :-)

  • July 8, 2012 - 2:05 am | Permalink

    This post had me cracking up. Especially the part on googling how to prepare a rape. hahaha — love it!

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