Eating my way through the Canary Islands has been and continues to be one of my favorite parts of living in this little corner of the world. Acres and acres of farmland and a subtropical climate provide in-season local ingredients all year, and being surrounded by the sea means that there’s no shortage of fresh and tasty seafood – and people who know how to prepare it to perfection.
Each island has their own claim to fame – Lanzarote’s sweet volcanic wines, El Hierro’s rich, smoky cheeses, Tenerife’s guachinche culture serving up fresh, homemade vino and nosh tucked away in the vineyards of the northern mountains.
There may not be a ton of different options, but what Canarian cuisine lacks in variety, it more than make up for in flavor. Read on for some of my top picks that are about as Canario as you can get…
1. Papas Arrugadas
These tiny, wrinkly potatoes are a staple in the Canarian diet, and no visit to the Canaries is complete without trying them. This simple side dish is prepared in a big, boiling pot of salted water, causing the outer skin to pucker, hence the wrinkles.
Papas arrugadas are found everywhere and impossible to miss. They’re often served as garnish or a side dish for most meat or fish entrees, but are also commonly ordered as a ración – a plate to share with friends. The best part about these tasty treats is the delicious mojo sauce drizzled on top.
Try it here: Literally anywhere. Papas to the archipelago are like schnitzel to Salzburg. You can’t go wrong.
This tasty sauce comes in 2 varieties and accompanies everything from salads and potatoes to meat and fish. Each restaurant and abuela prepares the sauce slightly differently with their unique ratios of EVOO, garlic, vinegar, herbs and spices.
Mojo verde is the milder version and gets its color and flavor from parsley, cumin and/or cilantro. It’s typically served on lighter dishes like fish, seafood or salads.
Mojo picón is somewhat spicier (at least that’s what the Canarians say… my California jalapeño-raised-buds can’t seem to detect the heat). Mojo picón gets its color and extra kick from paprika and dried red peppers. It tends to be served on heavier dishes, like papas arrugadas, meat and cheese platters.
Try it here: It really depends on your own tastes – more or less garlic, more or less vinegar, etc. My fave is at an amazing Canario tasca in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria – Bodegón Pachichi. Their mojo picón has an amazing kick and is so popular with the locals that you can buy a 1/2 liter for takeaway.
3. Queso Asado / Queso a la Plancha
Deliciously too good to be true, this ración is actually exactly what it sounds like… grilled cheese. The Canary Islands have a long tradition of raising goats and sheep and have truly mastered the art of cheese making. Queso asado is typically prepared with a soft but firm goat or sheep cheese, grilled to perfection with a crispy crust on the outside and gooey, melty deliciousness on the inside. The dish is either served savory with mojo verde and mojo picón, sweet with miel de la palma (local palm syrup), or mixed with a combination of all three. In El Hierro and Gran Canaria, the Herreños and Canariones add a special twist by using smoked cheese (queso herreño) – a specialty from the littlest island.
Try it here: Try it anywhere, everywhere, twice a day if you can. In Las Palmas I’m partial to the one served at La Otra Punta (near the auditorium) and Marsala in Vegueta. In Tenerife and La Gomera the dish is served spectacularly everywhere.
An unbelievable appetizer, often served as a starter with warm bread, small crunchy toasts, or occasionally crunchy veggies. Originating from the island of La Gomera, almogrote is a starter spread made from strong, hard, cured cheese grated and mixed into a paste with garlic, cayenne pepper, tomatoes, spices and EVOO. If, like me, you’re an admirer of fuerte cheeses, you won’t be able to get enough of this.
Try it here: I’ve never met an almogrote I didn’t like. This is a safe dish to order pretty much anywhere, especially in La Gomera. One of my favorite Tenerife restaurants – El Capricho in Bajamar – often invites guests to taste a small sample of their delightful almogrote on the house. For a less traditional taste, Arepera Punto Criolla in La Laguna puts a unique and delicious twist on the dish, serving up papas almogroteadas – french fries smothered in the stuff.
To put into perspective just how emblematic this dish is of the region, there’s an age-old expression of islander pride that says – “Soy más Canario que el gofio” literally, “I’m more Canarian than gofio.”
Gofio is a cereal grain which has been a staple from the time of the indigenous Guanches and often considered a superfood in the Canaries. It’s usually made from cornmeal, but can be any combination of ground, roasted grains. Gofio recipes range from sweet deserts and breads to creamy, savory dishes.
Though the habit is no longer as common, many Canarians grew up mixing a spoonful of gofio in their morning milk or cola cao, believed to give them energy for the day. Is it the most delicious treat on the island? Nope. But if you want a real taste of the Canaries, gofio is about as Canarian as it gets. Try is as mouse, bread with almonds and honey or the classic Escaldon de gofio (below).
Try it here: Any homemade mouse de gofio will be a tasty way to end a meal. If you find yourself in Las Canteras, swing by Las Palmas’ iconic Heladeria La Peña Vieja to try their spin on gofio ice cream.
6. Escaldón de gofio or Gofio Escaldado
One of the most common gofio dishes that you’ll find in the guachinches of Tenerife or traditional Canarian restaurants of the islands is escaldón or gofio escaldado. This dish is prepared by using gofio to thicken fish broth, usually infused with a base of onions and garlic. It’s a tasty,filling dish that can be shared as a ración and is typically served with big chunks of sweet red onion to scoop up the goodness.
Escaldón changes a bit in texture and flavor from region to region. On the westernmost islands, it tends to have a thicker consistency similar to mashed potatoes or refried beans, while on the eastern islands it tends to be more like a thick, creamy (all too often pasty) soup. I’m definitely more partial to the western variety and have more or less stopped eating the dish since moving to Gran Canaria…
Try it here: All of the best escaldóns I’ve sampled have been in Tenerife, usually at guachinches. The first one I ever tried and by far the best can be found at Arepera Punto Criolla in lovely UNESCO listed La Laguna, Tenerife.
7. Potaje de Berros
This tasty stew is most typical from the island of La Gomera, but is often offered as a starter on menus throughout the islands. The dish is made primarily from berros (dark leafy watercress greens) and chickpeas or white beans. It’s sometimes served as a thick, blended soup and sometimes with generous chunks of root vegetables and corn. A warning to the less carnivorous: while often vegetarian friendly, the broth is sometimes pork based, so be sure to ask your server!
Try it here: The dish is a specialty from La Gomera and they do it best, however anywhere offering the soup as a starter on the menu del día will give you a good idea what it’s all about. My fave was at Las Chacaras near Hermigua in La Gomera.
8. ALL the fish
I flipflopped for quite a while deciding which of my favorite Canarian fish dishes to add to this list – so much so that my next top ten list will likely be dedicated just to the goodies that come from under the sea.
After many years in mainland Spain as a mainly vegetarian/ occasional pescatarian, I’ve had all too much practice avoiding all things meaty (which in Spain is basically everything). In Madrid, this often meant eating dinner before going out to dinner and religiously frequenting any tapas joint that would grant my request for algo que no lleva carne without exaggerated eye rolling from the camarero. Needless to say, moving back to the seaside for my once or twice a week fish fix has definitely been one of life’s little luxuries.
Some of my favorites from the region include cherne (stone bass), sama (sea bream) and vieja (parrot fish). Cherne is a white fish, usually served grilled on the outside, juicy on the inside and smothered in mojo verde. Sama is a larger fish, often stuffed with garlic, doused with EVOO and served on a large platter to share with friends and family. Not sure which to choose? Try ordering a parrilada – a big mixed platter of different fish and/or shellfish, usually accompanied by potatoes or other root veggies.
Try it here: One of the most memorable meals I’ve had in the islands was at the gorgeous El Burgado in Buenavista del Norte, Tenerife – exquisite grilled sama, tuna tartare and mussels, set amidst small streams trickling down into the ocean beside us. It’s not necessary, however, to do fancy to get good fish. Most of the sea side chiringuitos will leave your mouth watering for more.
Like their fishy friends, I found it similarly impossible to pick just one or two species of shellfish from the islands. Some of the most popular shellfish dishes include chipirones (baby squid, usually breaded and fried), pulpo frito (octopus – fried instead of boiled like is common in northern Spain), langostinos (prawns), mejillones (mussels) and one of my faves, lapas (limpets).
Try it here: I love the lapas at La Hila in San Sebastian de La Gomera & El Refugio in El Hierro, and the pulpo frito in Las Palmas’ La Barbería is definitely memorable. Santa Cruz de Tenerife’s old Canarian mansion-turned-restaurant La Hierbita is known for their fish and seafood parrilladas and you honestly can’t go wrong at the exquisite Mesón el Monasterio in Los Realejos.
10. Chocos Asados
The one underwater delight that desrves it’s own special number on this list are these guys. Chocos are cuttlefish (a type of squid). When well-prepared, chocos are one of my favorite seaside treats, but it definitely might not be for everyone.
The squid are prepared whole and served lightly charred, tentacles and all – something that may be reminiscent of a sci-fi flick for the less adventurous eater. If done right, chocos are slightly browned at the top, crispy at the tentacles and smothered in mojo verde. If overdone, the texture quickly changes from soft-but-firm to chewy and more or less awful. If trying chocos for the first time, be sure it’s a place that’s well known for seafood and preferably not a total tourist trap.
BONUS! Carnivore Delights
(AKA Stuff I’ve never tried but other people seem to like)
While not my forte, I figured I’d “throw a bone” so to speak to the meat-eaters out there. While I haven’t tried any of these dishes myself, they’re typical of the region and can be found on most Canarian menus. In no particular order:
- Ropa Vieja: a stew with a bunch of meat
- Carne de cabra: goat meat
- Pata asado: roasted pork leg meat, often served on sandwiches or bocadillos
- Chorizo de Terror: Gooey sausage meat from the region of Teror in Gran Canaria, usually served in a bocadillo
- Conejo al Salmorejo: Rabbit meat in a salmorejo inspired tomato sauce
I’m not sure if it’s the pictures or the descriptions, but I’m HUNGRY! Perdóname while I head out to Las Canteras to hunt down some papas con mojo and almogrote.
Have I missed any of your favorites? Any restuarant suggestions for a hungry pescatarian? I’d love to hear from you the comments below!
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