I have been in Shanghai for 5 years and Asia overall approaching 10 years now. And one of the things that is starkly apparent is the meteroric rise in the popularity of Spanish tapas, all over Asia, but most notably in China. Why is this? I wondered… so I decided to talk to some local diners and Spanish chefs to understand what is driving the appeal of this style of Western cuisine over all others.
The flavour profiles are wildly different than Chinese, Thai, Indonesian or Malaysian cooking… that said the style of layering flavours is quite similar. The complexity of multiple spices and fresh herbs layered to make a dish that evolves in your mouth is typical of many Asian styles of cooking. But the flavours are still unfamiliar, no? In speaking to 30-year-old Shanghainese Lucy, she tells me.. “Yes, different, but the intensity of flavour and the punch of spiciness are somehow familiar to me. It makes my mouth smile.”
There is no direct flavour corollary in China to multi-dimensional smoky Pimenton and the aromatic Galician Padron chile, but the floral Chinese Sichuan peppercorn and Southeast Asian sambals do offer a different but also multi-dimensional sweet, smoky, spicy punch in the palate.
The essential ingredients between Spanish and Asian cooking are quite similar. A reliance on rice, eggs, fresh seafood, garlic and onions as the essential “pantry” of a Spanish or Asian kitchen are most definitely shared. The judicious use of dried spicy sausages, salty bits of ham and aromatic oils to flavour simple vegetables is also also common ground.
And roast suckling pig is an essentially Spanish as much as it is essentially Balinese or Chinese. So maybe there is more commonality here than we originally suspected…
The Serving Style
This might be the strongest link that truly demonstrates the appeal of Spanish tapas and Spanish food to Asians – the serving style of shared plates of food, each presented in small bite sized pieces.
I spoke to Willy Trullas Moreno, owner and head chef of 3 wildly popular Spanish . Mediterranean restaurants in Shanghai (El Willy, Elefante and Tomatito) about the popularity of Spanish tapas in China. He said, “While the tapas concept already fits quite well with the Chinese tradition of sharing dishes, the key is the bite-sized style of serving. The food can be easily eaten with chopsticks!”
At a recent meal at 22 Ships in Hong Kong, we were soaking up the chili oil left from a presentation of chorizo with our bread – not dissimilar at all to the practice of letting the oil and sauces from the dish flavour the rice in Chinese / Asian eating.
So with a little bit of research, it wasn’t hard to understand why Spanish food, in particular tapas, is doing so well in Asia. I, for one, count myself lucky… I can have amazing local Chinese dishes at my fingertips with world class Spanish within arms reach. What’s not to like about that?
Our favourite Spanish restaurants in Asia are: