Egg on your plate

Tortilla española is something familiar, yet completely different

Bocadillo de tortilla espanola con el pimiento del piquillo.

Bocadillo de tortilla espanola con el pimiento del piquillo.

Photo by Mark Lore

I’m trying to remember the very first thing I ate during my yearlong stay in Spain back in 2003. I’m pretty sure it was beer, olives and few tapas at a small bar in Madrid. Later that day, I had a dish I’d heard about a lot prior to visiting—tortilla española, aka tortilla de patatas. It became a staple in my diet for the entire year, no matter which part of the country I found myself in.

Of course, the tortillas in Spain are not the same as the tortillas in Mexico. The tortilla española is more like an omelet, although it’s denser and loaded with potatoes and onion. Spanish tortilla is ridiculously simple, but damn is it delicious. And versatile. It can be served on its own—hot or cold—or on soft, crusty Spanish bread with roasted piquillo peppers for a classic bocadillo (a sandwich, which is the way I went with this recipe). Sometimes Spanish chorizo or dried salted cod are used in place of potatoes. Spain’s cuisine, much like the temperature, varies throughout the country’s many regions. But one thing is certain: The ubiquitous tortilla de patatas can be found at the finest restaurants, gastronomic clubs, or roadside diners throughout Spain. And it always hits the spot.

Although the history of its inception is a bit murky, there is documentation of the tortilla going back to 1817 showing that something resembling the dish was being consumed by rural farmers in the Navarre province of northern Spain, outside of Pamplona. It’s also been said that Gen. Tomás de Zumalacárregui invented the tortilla as a simple way to feed his troops during the Carlist Wars, although that scenario is less likely.

Nevertheless, simplicity is still the beauty of the tortilla two centuries on. As with a lot of Spanish food, tortillas are not heavily spiced—salt, maybe a little pepper, and lots of olive oil. But there’s still something surprisingly pure and delicious about it. Olive oil really is the key (those potatoes and onions should be swimming in it while cooking)—it’s part of what makes the tortilla such beautiful and simple comfort food.

Eating it is one thing, but making a tortilla española is the fun part. Flipping of the tortilla from pan to plate (and back into the pan) is the recipe’s moment of truth. It may take a few tries, but when you pull it off, you’ll become a true Spaniard for a day. Tortillas go well with a good pilsner or a basic red wine. And if you want to get in the full mood, I recommend listening to folk guitarist-storyteller Paco Ibañez’s 1978 masterpiece, A Flor de Tiempo. Buen provecho!

Tortilla española


6-7 eggs

6 small yellow potatoes

1/2 large yellow onion

3/4 cup olive oil

salt to taste

Roasted piquillo peppers

French bread

Directions: Heat oil in a large pan on medium heat. Cut the potatoes into half-inch pieces and gently fry for five minutes. Chop the onions, add to the pan and fry until translucent. Salt lightly and turn up the heat until the potatoes begin to soften.

In a large bowl, beat eggs and add salt. Using a slotted spoon, scoop the potatoes and onions into egg mixture. Turn heat to medium and add egg and potato mixture back to pan, and spread evenly. Cook until bottom is firm (it will still be undercooked on top). Using a spatula, lift the edges of the tortilla from the pan; tilt pan so that uncooked egg slides to outer edge.

When the bottom is cooked, place a plate over the pan and quickly but carefully flip so that the plate is on the bottom. Slide the tortilla back into the pan and cook the rest of it for 3-5 minutes, making sure it’s cooked through. Salt and pepper to taste, and place between two slices of bread with a layer of piquillo peppers.