Growing up, I thought Spanish food was tapas. I didn’t have access to many other Spanish dishes or influences, and the ones that stood out were of the pintxos variety. But as with any country deeply influenced by a history of discovery and conquest, as well as a large geographic area, the regional specialties vary widely. Geography, climate, waves of invaders, and conquests of new territories all went into creating the Spanish cuisine we know and love today. For celiacs, the country is full of quality base ingredients and interesting meals. For this gluten free Spain guide, I am focusing on the dishes and cooking techniques that are safe, as well as some spots to try in Barcelona and elsewhere in Spain.
Matt Golding, author of Grape, Olive, Pig: Deep Travels Through Spain’s Food Culture, a notes in a December 2016 interview that:
Spanish cuisine, like all great cuisines, is highly regionalized, but the homogenizing forces of modernity in general, and tourism specifically, threaten this diversity. These days you’ll find paella and sangria and patatas bravas in every corner of the country. But that just means as a traveler you need to be aware of where you are and make your food choices accordingly. Up in Galicia? Eat octopus and shellfish and gooseneck barnacles and wash it down with a crisp Albariño. When in Andaulsia, eat jamón and fried little fish and drink sherry. In Basque country, feast on thick-cut steaks and whole-grilled fish and a world of pintxos. The people who find Spanish food disappointing are the ones who order paella in Madrid and sangria in San Sebastián. Of course, there is a common language that unifies Spain’s cooking — high-quality olive oil, cured pork, an abiding love of seafood — but it expresses itself in very different ways as you move around the country.
Food is very important in Spain, and many restaurants can accommodate a celiac diet with ease. As with my Portugal guide, this post is built to remove anxiety around ordering, and help you tackle the meals of Spain with joy.
A note about eating times: Spanish people eat late. Dinner often starts around 8pm, and if you go then you’ll likely be the only ones in the restaurant. Snack foods were the ones with the most wheat in them, so my advice to celiacs who are used to eating a bit earlier would be to stock up on snack at your hotel or apartment, so you can hold off until dinner.
Gluten Free Spain: Table of Contents
Tailored Gluten-Free Translation Cards for Spain
Each of the cards in the guide has been created with celiac-specific research, mention of cross contamination, and double checked translation from locals who speak the language. The food names and dishes within the card are also double checked for accuracy with different regions in Spain.
Note: The card is available for purchase via Gumroad, a trustworthy 3rd party site that uses https, so you know your information is safe. I am not gathering emails or information for anyone who buys the card.
Why is this gluten free card different?
I have used several different translation cards on my travels, and I still got sick. I may be more sensitive than some celiacs, but even a small amount of contaminated oil for frying, or wheat-thickened sauce in the food, is enough to make me ill for days. Let alone the joint pain later that week, and the inflammation.
This card is different from other celiac cards I have used because it not only uses all of the local food names for what to eat or avoid, but makes clear mention of the cross contamination concerns. It is also researched by celiacs, and translated by a native speaker who is familiar with the disease and local food.
Because of the predominant use of Catalán within Catalunya, I have also translated the card into Catalán. For those traveling elsewhere, the Spanish card is the best option. For the Costa Brava, Costa Dorada, and Barcelona region, Catalán may be more useful for you.
An English version of the card – so you know what you’re buying! – is available on the purchase page.
Spanish gluten free card, tailored to foods in Spain:
Catalan gluten free card, tailored to foods in Spain and Catalunya:
A big thanks to Patricia and Noema for their help in confirming the translations and foods for these cards for Spanish.
For Catalan, the Costa Brava tourism board and Laura Perez both helped translate and confirm the accuracy of the English versions.
Gluten-Free Spain: Dishes and Snacks
The following dishes are commonly wheat-free in Spain, confirmed by translators and my own mealtime experiences traveling through Spain.
As with any destination, at home or abroad, it’s important to confirm on a case-by-case basis that no flour was used in the sauces, or to thicken, etc
For the basics, in Spanish trigo, cebada, avena, salsa de soja, y centeno (wheat, barely, oats, soy sauce, and rye) are what you don’t want to eat.
- Paella: a classic dish that many tourists love. It’s often safe, but you do need to ask if they make it with bouillon cubes or “caldo Avecrem“, the brand name of a popular bouillon in Spain.
- Pipirrana: a diced vegetable salad made with peppers, tomatoes, onions, and tuna or cod.
- Calamares or mariscos a la plancha: I love squid, but sadly traditional calamares are breaded and deep fried. I had great luck asking for mine “a la plancha” (grilled) instead. Bonus: you taste more of the delicious seafood this way.
- Pulpo a la gallega: boiled octopus that is sliced and topped with olive oil and often paprika.
- Escalivada: a mix of roasted or grilled vegetables. Called esqueixada in Catalan.
- Pisto manchego: a vegetable stew with onions, zucchini, garlic, salt, parsley, and tomatoes.
- Lacón con grelos: boiled ham with greens, commonly found in Galicia.
- Aceitunas, pepinillos or cebolletas: Pickled Olives, gherkins and spring onions. Ask if the olives are stuffed with “pan rallado” and if so they are not safe.
- Guisantes con jamón Serrano: peas with Serrano ham.
- Calamares/xiba na súa tinta: a Galician dish of squid or octopus cooked in their own ink. This is usually safe for celiacs, but do ask if they add any flour to thicken the sauce.
- Huevos rotos: this dish literally translates to “broken eggs” and is traditionally served over french fries, and topped with Serrano ham. Confirm that the fries are not fried in contaminated oil.
- Pescado, pollo, or carne a la plancha: As with the squid above, fish, or chicken, or meat offered “a la plancha” is usually simply grilled. It’s good to ask about marinades, and if any soy is used. In my travel experience, the meat or fish was never marinated and simply cooked with fresh herbs, garlic, butter, or lemon. YMMV, but when nothing on the menu seems safe I would ask for a protein “a la plancha” with a side of veggies or a salad. Includes cordero (lamb) and cochinillo (roasted pig).
- Marmitako: a Basque dish of potatoes, tuna, onions, peppers and tomatoes, traditionally eaten on fishing boats in the Cantabrian Sea.
- Anchoas en aceite or vinagre: Anchovies marinated in oil, or in vinegar.
- Jamón Serrano or jamón Ibérico (Cured Ham): THANK GOODNESS THIS IS NOT OFF LIMITS. A little sidebar on the differences between Serrano or Ibérico (bear with me please). Both the types of ham are dry-cured, and from the hind leg. Serrano, ham from the Sierra mountains, is from a white species of pig, whereas Ibérico (Iberian ham) is from a pata negra (black foot pig), which rummages and forages on a diet of acorns from giant oak trees. There are different types of Ibérico hams, broken down by diet and by length of curing. Suffice it to say, for ham aficionados, Spain is your dream come true. Even if you’re celiac.
- Queso (Cheese): customarily safe, unless processed.
- Garbanzos: chickpeas, often roasted and spiced with cumin and chili. Confirm that no flour is used to thicken the spice mix.
- Patatas fritas or papas bravas: Again, best to ask about contaminated oil and any wheat flour. In general — unlike in North America — the potatoes were not dredged or dusted in flour for crispiness. When asked, restaurants balked saying doing so would ruin the flavor.
- Espetos de sardinas: A Málaga specialty, this dish refers to sardines that are stacked on a skewer and grilled on a fire or barbecue. Ask about marinades, but almost always these skewers are simply seasoned with salt. Pictures here.
- Tortilla de patatas / tortilla Española: A Spanish omelette, customarily made with eggs, potatoes, onions and garlic. While North American versions of this popular dish occasionally use flour, in Spain I have not encountered it. Important as always to ask, but I was successfully able to eat this dish throughout my Spanish wanders.
- Salsa alioli casera: Many dishes are served with salsa alioli, something you’ll see on the menus around Spain. This refers to a garlic mayonnaise, made simply with garlic, eggs, vinegar, and olive oil. I used the word casera — this refers to “made in house”. You will want to make sure you know what goes into the sauce! As with any other sauces and marinades, it’s often the more processed versions that have added wheat or gluten.
- Butifarra casera: Butifarra is a Catalunya specialty made with pork meat, vinegar, cumin, and other ingredients – and no wheat. I say casera again to ensure the restaurant knows what goes into it! I bought these at the butcher when in Costa Brava and cooked them at home with white beans and boiled greens. Delicious.
- Pimentos de Padrón: Padrón peppers that are blistered on high heat and served with sea salt and olive oil. Confirm no contaminated oil. If you’re as obsessed as I am with this dish: recipe here, courtesy of Serious Eats.
- Flan, natillas, or crema Catalana: flan, custard desserts, or crème brûlée desserts, each made from eggs and sugar and cream. These often have no flour in Spain, unlike in North America. As always, important to ask and make sure that these were made in house, and safely. In parts of Spain, a version of flan is listed as tocino de cielo, which is made similarly but uses egg whites instead of whole eggs.
- Arroz con leche: Rice pudding.
- Marzipan: almond meal and sugar candies, often shaped into fruit. These are almost always pure almond and sugar.
- Turrón: a nougat candy made from almonds and egg whites, and sweetened with honey and sugar.
- Frutas en almíbar: Fruit sweetened in syrup, similar to the ones you’d find in Mexico.
- Yemas de Santa Teresa or yemas: A very dense, sweet dessert candy made from egg yolks and sugar, then covered with icing sugar. The reference to “Yemas de Santa Teresa” is to a trademark for a company in Avila (Castile-León), where the sweets originated. They are also found simply as yemas in bakeries.
- Helado casera: Ice creams made in house are often gluten free but for grocery stores it’s important to check the packaging. Gelato did (sadly) have flour thickener added in a few of the shops I checked.
Wines, sangria, sidra (cider), cava (amazing sparkling spanish wine), pacharán or patxaran (in Basque), a sloe gin liquor, and calimocho (wine and cola together) are all safe. Beers are not safe, as usual.
Shopping Options and Restaurants for Celiacs in Spain
There are quite a few places to buy gluten free ingredients, from local supermarkets to bigger chain stores and organic shops.
The following supermarkets sell gluten free products. Click on the link to be brought to their home pages, where you can search for locations:
- Carrefour (huge supermarket)
- El Corte Ingles
- E. Leclerc
- La Sirena
Spain’s Celiac Society lists many regional celiac associations in Spain here — scroll down past the map to the URLs for each.
Celiacs de Catalunya, which applies to Barcelona, the Costa Brava, and the Costa Dorada regions, has a list of stores and pharmacies selling gluten free items here, and a list of restaurants within the region that serve items safe for celiacs here.
FACE, the Federación de Asociaciones de Celiacos de España, has an English one-pager for eating gluten free in Spain, here.
Gluten Free Barcelona
- Il Piccolo Focone for pizza, pastas and risotto ALL safe for celiacs. It’s a haven, a glorious, gluten free haven.
- Copasetic has a thorough brunch menu with heaps of gluten free options. Delicious place to eat.
- Agullers is a tiny restaurant with a menu of the day. Very reasonable, and though not celiac-specific, they were happy to accommodate my food issues. The restaurant was happy to cook dishes with corn flour instead of wheat. Lunch only.
- For quicker meals, check out the gluten free sandwiches at Conesa. I ate at the one in the Gothic quarter, but there is another in Sants.
- As I was staying in the old quarter, I ate quite a few times at SushiYa2, where the salmon sashimi was extremely fresh and they had gluten free soy sauce to help this celiac out.
- Pork..Boig Per Tu for all thinks pork, as the name would suggest. Staff was very sympathetic to celiac disease, and they also have gluten free bread for pork sandwiches, if that’s your thing. The ear stew with beans was fab.
- I still dream about Mosquito‘s gluten free soup dumplings, delicate pillows filled with pork and eel and steamed in bamboo steamers.
- For gluten free bakery, Barcelona’s Baci D’Angelo is where I satiated my sugar cravings.
- I hunt down arepas in every city I visit, because these corn pockets are always delicious and almost certainly gluten-free. I got mine in Barcelona at La Taguara Areperia, a bare-bones areparia in the old part of the city.
- A reader named Christina also recommended Messié Sin Gluten, a 100% gluten free spot with no issues for cross-contamination. They’ve got pasta, pizzas, and much more.
Gluten Free San Sebastian
- For gluten free tapas in San Sebastian, head to Restaurante Ganadarias, with their own gluten free menu at their website. One of the few dedicated gluten free tapas spots I’ve found.
Gluten Free Madrid
- Arrozal – gluten free paella in Madrid, at 3 different locations.
- A new restaurant Solo de Croquetas in Madrid is 100% gluten free, and finally there is a place for celiacs to enjoy the amazing bite-size magic of Spanish croquettes. That’s all the restaurant serves, and they are all safe for celiacs.
- Also in Madrid, Devour Madrid has a long and thorough guide to gluten free eating in the city, with reference to the celiac association of Spain.
- Celiaquitos has a list of searchable gluten free restaurants and dishes from Spain, here.
Foods to Avoid in Spain if You’re Gluten Free
During your visit to Spain these are foods that you should avoid, and are not safe for celiacs.
- Chanchigorri cake, also spelled txantxigorri or chalchigorri: Spanish pastry from Navarre, in Northern Spain.
- Bombas and croquetas: breaded, fried and potato-filled. Sadly not good for your celiac belly.
- Calamares: breaded squid, deep fried. As per above, ask if you can get grilled calamares instead. Note that calamares a la romana is also unsafe — it’s a Galician dish of battered squid that is then deep-fried.
- Chicharrón or Cortezas de cerdo: Pork rinds or pork skin, deep fried. As these are often served in tapas places, I cannot add to the ‘safe’ list since the oil used is almost always the same oil as other breaded, fried tapas on this list.
- Coques: Catalan flatbreads, with or without toppings, all made with flour.
- Empanadas or empanadillas: Dough pockets of different flavors.
- Leche Frita: A dessert made by thickening milk with flour and sugar until it becomes dough, which is then fried and served with cinnamon. Looks great, can’t eat it.
- Churros: fried dough snacks.
- Polvorones: a bread from Andalucia.
- Montaditos: Snacks served on slices of bread, usually accompanied by wine.
- Embutidos like mortadela, morcilla, chorizo envasado, salami, salchichón: these are all cured or dried meats, and can have wheat in them as they do in North America or elsewhere in Europe. While I added butifarra to the safe list as the recipe never calls for flour, the ones listed here need to be checked on a case-by-case basis.
- Thickened sauces like bechamel: if it’s a thick gravy, you best be asking questions.
- Pan con Tomate: popular tapas option of grilled bread smothered in tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, and salt.
- Tortas or tortas de aceite: crisp flatbreads or biscuits.
- Bocadillos or bocatas: Sandwich, much like a sub.
- Albóndigas: Spanish meatballs, often made with breadcrumbs or breadcrusts.
- Pinchos o pintxos: small snacks (see photo below), spiked with a toothpick on a slice of bread. The name refers to a skewer — the toothpick — a customary part of the dish. There are hundreds of varieties of pintxos, but many come with bread. I have found some restaurants willing to plate a pintxo without bread and just give me the topping, but that comes with its own risks depending on the kitchen and I have been wary to do it.
- Escudella: thick stew from Catalunya made with pasta.
- Filetes rusos: This dish is a version of what English would call Salisbury Steak, or hamburger steak: ground beef and other seasoning, shaped into a patty and topped with flour-thickened gravy.
- Alfajores: a Christmas pastry very different from Argentina alfajores – but still off limits.
- Boquerones fritos: fried anchovies, often dredged in flour.
Further Reading About Spain
For those of you looking to visit Spain, here are some wonderful books to help inform your visit.
The most recent Lonely Planet is from October 2016, so it will be relatively current. I’ll update this link when their new addition comes out! Rick Steves’ Spain book also current as of November 2016.
My Suggestions for Food Books About Spain
Grape, Olive, Pig: Deep Travels Through Spain’s Food Culture – Matt Goulding’s book about Spain, quoted from at the beginning of this piece. The book not only goes into the context and history of the meals it spotlights, but also tells the kind of food stories I love. Small producers, chefs, artisans, and more, all alongside gorgeous pictures. This is Matt’s second book (his first is on Japan) and I look forward to the rest.
Pintxos: Small Plates in the Basque Tradition – Gerald Hirigoyen and Lisa Weiss’ cookbook featuring the tiny ‘skewered’ plates found in Basque country. While we cannot eat the bread, the recipes are easy to follow and a piece of gluten free bread can be used instead. The book does take these Basque recipes and rework them for American pantries, so you’ll find them easy to make at home.
The Food of Spain – Claudia Roden certainly knows her food, and this amazing book covers the incredibly variety, taste spectrum, and color of Spanish food. I love all of Claudia’s cookbooks, and this one is no exception. The pictures are just beautiful.
Spain: Recipes and Traditions from the Verdant Hills of the Basque Country to the Coastal Waters of Andalucía – I met author Jeff Koehler in Barcelona and shared some tapas with him, so it was a pleasure to cook through his own vision of his adopted country. His book focuses on simple foods with complicated tastes, and you’ll find every recipe you wanted here. A long glossary and section on cooking techniques helps make this book just about all you need for a Spanish cookbook at home.
Happy and safe eating in Spain!
For the rest of my gluten free guides, see here.