The Great Tortilla Debate
Who knew that onion could be so divisive?
Say the word “tortilla” in the US and people will likely envision the small, circular flatbread that is used in Mexican cuisine. Come to Spain, though, and tortilla means something entirely different. According to my BFF the Real Academia Española, a tortilla is a dish made from beaten egg that is cooked in a pan with oil, is round or elongated in shape, and may or may not include additional ingredients. Essentially, a tortilla is an omelette.1
By far the most famous tortilla in Spain is tortilla de patata (potato tortilla), sometimes called tortilla española (Spanish tortilla). I can’t even bring myself to call this dish an omelette because it’s nothing like the omelette you’re probably picturing right now. The version of an omelette we’re familiar with in the US is what the Spanish call tortilla francesa (French tortilla), which is the kind that’s a rather thin layer of egg with other ingredients spread throughout and then folded in half or thirds. A tortilla de patata is more like a frittata or a potato pie: circular, usually rather thick, and stuffed with sliced potatoes.
To make tortilla de patata, often shortened to simply tortilla here in Spain, you first have to fry the potatoes. The potatoes are typically thinly sliced and then fried in olive oil until slightly golden but not crisp. The fried potatoes are then drained of the excess oil and carefully added to a mixture of beaten egg and salt so as to not break the potatoes too much. The mezcla2 is then left to sit a while, in order for the potatoes to soak up a bit of the egg.
When it’s time to cook the tortilla, a thin layer of oil is heated in a frying pan. As soon as the oil is hot, the potato and egg mixture is scooped into the pan and spread out evenly to cover the bottom. The tortilla cooks a short amount of time—a minute or two, depending on the pan’s circumference and the cook’s preference—before being flipped to cook on the other side. The idea is to cook the outside while leaving the inside moist (just how moist is up for debate, as you’ll soon learn).
The flipping of tortilla is an art form, and by far the most difficult part of making the dish. To successfully turn the tortilla, the cook places a dinner plate upside down over top of the pan and then flips both the pan and plate together 180° so that the omelette ends on the plate, cooked side up. The tortilla then must be delicately slid back into the pan so that it can cook on the other side. A final plate flip lands the tortilla on its serving dish, ready to be sliced and devoured.3
Similar to paella, tortilla is a divisive dish in Spain. Each person has their own opinion on the best type of tortilla. Some people prefer the egg to be fully cooked, while others go crazy for egg that’s barely cuajado4. There are those who enjoy what I like to call experimental tortilla; that is, tortilla that has ingredients beyond the potato, such as chorizo, green peppers, or mushrooms. Even the potatoes themselves can vary: sliced thin and mostly intact or thicker and semi-disintegrated, both have a devoted following.
But runny egg or disintegrated potatoes have nothing on the vegetable that divides friends and family alike, the allium that sparks the debate to end all debates: the humble onion. So controversial is the inclusion of onion in tortilla that the nation is divided into two halves: the concebollistas (with-onionists) and the sincebollistas (the without-onionists).
It seems the onion enthusiasts are winning the battle. According to an article published last year by Spanish news outlet El Mundo, almost 73% of people polled preferred their tortilla con cebolla (with onion). Interestingly, the age group that had the most votes for no onion, or sin cebolla, was 18- to 26-year-olds. However, onion still triumphed with almost 66% of the vote. You can check out the breakdown by sex, age, and political party (!) in the chart below.
Personally, I am 100% concebollista, a fact that would probably surprise anyone who knew me as a child. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate a tortilla without onion. Last year we visited Betanzos, which is one of the most famous towns for tortilla in all of Spain, and there they primarily serve the dish with only potato and egg. Trust me when I say that the lack of onion did not stop me from stuffing myself with tortilla until I was lamenting not wearing stretchier pants.
I also prefer my tortilla to be quite raw, although not so much that the egg runs all over the plate when you cut into it. The potato and egg need to be incorporated, but the egg still needs to be liquid enough to leave some residue on the plate (that is then sopped up with an accompanying piece of bread).
As can be seen above, tortilla is often served as a tapa. A small piece of tortilla is called a pincho de tortilla and is frequently partnered with a side of bread. Of course, tortilla can also be a meal of its own, and many restaurants allow you to order an entire tortilla to share with your dinner mates (or you know, eat by yourself, although that would be a bit much even for me).
I could lie and tell you that I’m a tortilla-making expert, but I won’t. David’s mom holds that title in our family. In fact, while I have a few favorite tortilla places in the city (which I will share in next week’s follow up newsletter), most of the time I won’t even order tortilla out at restaurants because I know 9 times out of 10 David’s mom’s will be better.
Nevertheless, in the interest of pushing my cooking skills boundaries (okay, and for entertainment value), for next week’s newsletter I will attempt to cook a tortilla de patata… all by myself. David is barred from helping me because he already makes a killer tortilla. Tune in next week to see if I end up slinging egg and potato (and onion!) all over our kitchen!
Thanks for reading Come como Kiki! Subscribe for free to receive new posts every Wednesday and Friday.
A few parting notes:
Come como Kiki will be taking a brief break in August! Next Friday, August 5th, will be the last newsletter before me vaya de vacaciones5. I’ll be back on Friday, August 19th, with a special Friday Favorites vacation recap. While I’m out, you can follow along with my adventures on Instagram and Twitter.
Don’t forget to hop over to the current Sunday Sobremesa and join in the conversation! This edition we’re talking about if and how we meal plan. The most recent Sunday Sobremesa is always pinned at the top of the newsletter homepage, too.
If you haven’t yet, please answer a couple of questions related to how you read Come como Kiki to help me out with improving your newsletter experience! The polls close this Friday. I appreciate your input!
Next Wednesday will be adventures in tortilla, part two! I’ll talk about my own attempt to make tortilla de patata (flipping and all) as well as share the best tortilla spots in Madrid.
Have you ever tried tortilla de patata? If so, do you prefer it with or without onion? Is there a similar dish in your culture (either as in a food resembling tortilla, or a controversial cuisine)? Let’s discuss in the comments. Also let me know if you have any burning questions related to tortilla that I can answer in next week’s newsletter!
Hasta el viernes!6
Random note on the spelling of omelette: Even though I’m from the US, I’ve realized that I tend to use the British spelling for a handful of words, including omelette and cancellation. Please forgive me for my inconsistencies, and don’t tell the AP Style Book.
On serving tortilla: For a casual dinner at home, it’s common to use the flipping plate to serve the tortilla. But if the tortilla is being served to others, it’s usually moved to a nicer plate.
Cuajado: Thickened (in this context)
Me vaya de vacaciones: I go on vacation
Hasta el viernes: Until Friday