Can I have Some Moor? A Look at Moorish Influence on Spanish Cuisine
By Leigh Ann Copeland • December 10, 2017
Spain has a long and complicated history with colonization. Most, when thinking of Spain’s history of colonization, imagine the years of invasion by Spaniards into foreign lands and the imposition of Spanish language and customs upon the locals in what is now modern day Hispanic America. However, before Spaniards were the colonizers, they were the colonized. The area of the Iberian Peninsula was once invaded by the Moors, a group of Arabic colonizers who were settled in Africa. Once invading, the group settled in what is now modern-day Spain for approximately 900 years. With this invasion, they brought their own culture including their food. This Moorish influence impacted the cuisine of Spain by causing an integration of new foods from Arabic regions, new cooking techniques, and the creation of dishes which combine the traditions of Spain and the Moors.
The beginnings of the cultural intertwinings of the Moors and the Spanish began in 711 as a consquence of war. Moorish rule began after the battle at Rio Barbate. The battle was led by Muslim general, Tariq ibn Ziyad. As he invaded from the Strait of Gibraltar, he overtook the lands which now constitute the region of Andalusia. Thomas J. Abercrombie and Bruno Barbey write of this battle in their article, “When the Moors Ruled Spain;” “Whole battalions deserted, and the Christian army crumbled. The Islamic conquest of Spain was thus set in motion.” The beginning of this Moorish rule would come to define much of Spanish culture and heavily influence the cuisine of the southern regions.
One area the Moors were unable to conquer is the northern region of Spain beyond the Pyrenees. As Sam Zucker states in his article about Moorish influence on Spanish cuisine, “It was not until they (the Moors) reached the Pyrenees mountains eight years later that their march was halted by military defeat, marking the northernmost frontier of Islamic Iberia.” Abercrombie and Barbey state, “The Christian armies, those left, were pinned in the northernmost mountains of Spain.” This land consisted mostly of the Basque region and smaller portions of other regions in Spain. This has left a unique situation concerning Spanish cuisine. Through comparing the cuisine of the Basque region with other, southern regions, the true influence of the Moors can be seen and more importantly, tasted. For instance, many of the spices incorporated into dishes throughout the majority of Spain, simply are not present in Basque dishes.
Paella is one example of a prominent dish in modern Spanish cuisine that exudes Moorish influence. By mixing cooking techniques and foodstuffs from both cultures, Paella has become representative of Spain’s past. The dish itself consists of rice, meats, some vegetables, and spices. The meats are typically some assortment of chicken, rabbit, and seafood. The seafood of the dish is especially important when talking to the mix of these two cultures as much of Spain is dependent on seafood as a resource considering the country comprises 4/5th of the Iberian Peninsula.
Paella has two prominent components that can be attributed to the Moors: rice and spices. The Moors brough rice into Spain and implemented it into a variety of dishes. Modern day Spain now has an assortment of plates which rely on rice as its main component. It is clear that as the country has adapted and grown, so has the implementation of foodstuffs not originally found in Spain. Many prominent spices in Spanish culture were also missing from the cuisine before Moorish rule. One of the key spices in much of Spanish cuisine is Saffron which was originally introduced during this period. Other foods the Moors introduced into Spanish cuisine include almonds, eggplant, and sugar cane (“Arab Influence”). However, one of the most important impacts Moorish influence had over Spanish food was not necessarily introducing a new food to the culture, but rather, finding a way to cultivate an already prominent food.
Olives were introduced into Spanish cuisine long before the arrival of the Moors, however, with their arrival came new technologies and techniques for cultivating crops. According to the article “Arab Influence”, olives have been cultuvated from pre-historic times. However, under the Moors’ innovative technology, such as irrigation ditches, cisterns, and draining systems, the crop flourished. These improvements have led to olive oil remaining a prominent portion of production of foodstuffs for Spain and the country being world-renowned for the quality of the olive oil. More efficient crop production allowed for the implementation of new crops successfully and to push more growth for all foodstuffs overall causing a period of positive growth.
This increase in olive production benefited both the Moors and the Spainish, especially where cooking methods are concerned as the Moors introduced oil frying into Spanish cuisine; another cooking technique they introfuced was the process of distilling alcohol (Zucker). Today fried foods are found throughout the southern regions of Spain as a plethora of meats and vegetables are fried for quintessential dishes of the cuisine. However, as the Moors were religiously Muslim, it was against their beliefs to drink. The alcohol was instead used for medicinal purposes. Spaniards, on the other hand, used this new technique of fermenting to create their own alcoholic beverages as it was not against their beliefs to consume alcohol.
The division of religion was a driver of issues between the Spaniards and the Moors. Spain was Catholic and strictly identified as thus while the Moors were Muslim. The original invasion by the Moors was divided between Muslims and Christians with each side claiming religion as a motivator. However, this division carried over into culture, and subsequently, cuisine. Jillian Williams writes in her book, Food and Religious Identities in Spain:1400-1600, “Unlike Jewish and Muslim slaughter, Christian practice did not require the use of a sharp knife. This allowed Christians… to stun the animal with a large blunt instrument… The practice of stunning animals, however, was strictly forbidden in both Jewish and Muslim slaughter” (65). This type of discrimination with meats led to an increase in using foods which were forbidden to eat by Muslims, such as pork, so as to distinguish Christian Spaniards from Moorish Muslims.
All of these techniques and foods which were contributed by the Moors to Spain have truly shaped the modern cuisine of the country. The Moors introduced a number of new foodstuffs and spices which transformed the cuisine from fairly undeveloped into the savory and delicious dishes that are layered with subtle hints of spices throughout. Furthermore, the culture of Spain and its history were massively changed by the Moorish occupation. The shaping of the cuisine around their occupation caused foods to be incorporated locally, but also for some foods to be used as tools to determine religion. However, despite that Spain eventually reconquered their land and eventually became the conquerors themselves, the lasting effect of Moorish occupation is obvious in the everyday happenings of the country. From the spices to the olive oil exports, the Moors truly left their mark.
“Arab Influence.” Spanish Food, 2017. http://www.spanish-food.org/spanish-food-history-arab-influence.html.
Barbey, Bruno, and Thomas J. Abercrombie. “When the Moors Ruled Spain.” National Geographic Magazine, July 1988, p. +. National Geographic Virtual Library, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5czB29. Accessed 5 Dec. 2017.
Williams, Jillian. Food and Religious Identities in Spain, 1400-1600. EBSCOhost, Routledge, 2017, libdata.lib.ua.edu/login?url=https://search-ebscohost-com.libdata.lib.ua.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=1481115&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Zucker, Sam. “How the Moors Influenced Spanish Cuisine.” Catavino, 2017, https://catavino.net/how-the-moors-influenced-spanish-cuisine/.