July - Sept 2007, Spain

Moorish Heritage in the Cuisines of Spain and Portugal

By Teresa de Castro


Cuisine in the Iberian Peninsula: Moorish Heritage in the Cuisines of Spain and Portugal


The Iberian Peninsula, in south-western Europe, is occupied by Spain and Portugal. It is separated from the main continent by the Pyrennees and surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the northwest and west and the Mediterranean to the south and east.

The characteristics of the Iberian cuisine cannot be understood without the culinary influence of Romans, Arabs, Jews and Christians, and the dietary exchange that followed the colonisation of America and the colonialism in Africa and the Far East. Still, Rome never conquered the Basque Country and the Arabic heritage never reached the north-western fringe of the Peninsula. Moorish influence is particularly important in areas in which Moors and/or Moriscos remained longer, that is, in the southern and eastern regions (Alentejo, Algarve, Andalusia, Aragón, Extremadura, Murcia and Valencia) especially in rural areas.

Moorish cuisine was shaped by the combination of Andalusian, Persian and Maghribian ingredients, and had a selection of basic foodstuffs, condiments, and cooking processes. Expiración García in “La Alimentación”, Lucie Bolens in “La cuisine andalouse”, and Manuela Marín in “Cuisine D’Orient” have described this cuisine. The expulsion of Moriscos from the Peninsula in the 17th century was the end of the Moorish culinary system in Iberian lands. However, some Moorish elements are still discernible in the Peninsula’ cuisine.

The disappearance of the Moorish food system from the Iberian Peninsula occurred gradually, following the path of the Christian conquest of the Muslim territories, that happened in different dates depending on the areas). After the conquest, some Muslims areas were completely resettled with Christians; other times Muslims were set in ghettos inside the cities. The last Muslim Kingdom was conquered in 1492, and in 1501 the Moors were forced to convert to Christianity and, by the pressure of the Inquisition, they also were forced to change their dietary practices. The expulsion of Moriscos of the Peninsula in the 17th century was the end of the Moorish culinary system in Iberian lands. However, some elements of this system are still visible in the Peninsula.


The foodways of the Moors influenced indirectly Christians’ cuisine as a result of the contact that Muslims and Christians had during long periods of time in frontier’s lands in peaceful periods, mostly before the 15th century.

Christians’ cuisine absorbed Moorish influence, firstly, through the effect that Moors’ foodways had on Christian upper classes during the Caliphate and Ta’ifa’s periods (10th 12th c.), when al-Andalus (Iberian Muslim Kingdom/s) was a cultural model to imitate. This was the golden age of Al-Andalus, and for the Christian World “Moorish style” meant luxury and exoticism.

A second way of penetration was through the contact that Moors and Christians had during long peaceful periods of time in frontier’s lands, especially in the South.

A third way was the result of years of interaction between Moorish and Chistian communities in those cities where, after the Christian conquest, Muslims (Mudéjares) had been set in ghettos inside or outside the urban walls.

A final via was through the neighbourhood that Moriscos had with Christians in the Kingdom of Granada, the last Muslim territory to be conquered (1492). After the failure of the Morisco’ rebellion in the Alpujarras region (1568-1570) the Moriscos were expelled from Andalusia and relocated around the Kingdom of Castile, spreading even more their influence. Nevertheless, the resistance of the Moriscos to integrate themselves despite the pressure of the Inquisition- produced a Christians’ disgust and hostility with regard to Morisco foodways. Although this anger could not stop the culinary exchange, the action of Christian culture and foodways on Moors’ cuisine led to the disappearance, substitution, addition, modification or different combination of ingredients and culinary practices once Moorish. The outcome was a cuisine that contained some Moorish components but was different because had different flavour, smell, colours, and textures.


Expiración García in “La Alimentación”, Lucie Bolens in “La cuisine andalouse”, and Manuela Marín in “Cuisine d’Orient” have described Al-Andalus cuisine. However, contemporary Iberian cuisine has only a few elements of this Al-Andalus cuisine. In the Iberian Peninsula, these culinary features are marked by the prevalence or use of certain ingredients, dishes, methods of cooking, or ways of eating that were once typical of Al Andalus but devoid of any religious meaning. These features having a Moorish heritage are:

  • Communal sharing from the same dish. Examples of such shared dishes are paella, migas (fried breadcrumbs or semolina), and gachas and papas (porridges). This practice of sharing is no longer as prevalent as it once was.
  • Predominance of yellow, green, and white colors. Yellow is common in most rice dishes, in fish stews with rice or noodles, and in some chickpea stews. White is typical of some sweet rice puddings (arroz con leche and arroz doce), some porridges, and some soups such as ajo blanco (a white garlic soup), the original gazpacho, gazpachuelo (a fish and egg soup), and various almond soups. Green is the dominant color of some Portuguese dishes prepared with coriander, although the sopa verde (green soup) cannot be included in this category.
  • Use of saffron, cumin, and coriander. Coriander is rarely found in traditional Spanish cuisine but is very popular in Portugal, especially in dishes from Alentejo; some food writers relate this use to African influences. Saffron is used both to color and to flavor rice dishes, legume stews, and meat casseroles. Cumin seasons some legume stews, sausages, and dishes of meat or fish.
  • Spiced stews made from chickpeas, lentils, and from fresh or dried broad beans. Examples of such legume and bean stews include potaje de garbanzos, potaje de lentejas, fava rica, and favas con coentro. The consumption of broad beans, however, has diminished during the last sixty years. Bulgur, or cracked wheat, is still included in some dishes from the Alpujarras region in Andalusia.
  • Savory or sweet porridges, made from different grain flours. These porridges, such as gachas and papas, were also the basis of Roman cuisine.
  • Dishes made with breadcrumbs or slices of bread. Breadcrumbs or torn up slices of bread are used for thickening and giving texture to many varieties of gazpacho and other kinds of soups (açorda, sopa de ajo, ensopados, and sopas secas). Breadcrumbs are also the main ingredient in migas, a traditional and popular dish. There are some factors that relate the recipe for migas, in its Andalusian version, to the recipe for couscous. The first element is the way in which migas are cooked. A sort of steam cooking is produced through the sauteeing and continuous stirring of the semolina or the crumbs (these are previously soaked and drained) and gives a golden and granulated appearance to the dish. Migas, similarly to couscous, serve as the base for a wide range of other ingredients such as fresh fruit, fried vegetables, fried or roasted fish or sausages, and even sweets. Finally, migas, like couscous, are eaten from the pan in which they were prepared. The pan is placed on the table, and the whole family eats from it.
  • Spiced fritters and desserts. Various doughnut-like fritters (buñuelos, boladinhos, roscos, filhós, pestiños) and desserts (alcorza, alfeñique, alajú, nougat, and marzipan) are made by combining honey or sugar, egg yolks, cinnamon, and sometimes ground almonds.
  • Other popular foods and dishes. Flatbreads, either baked (pão estentido) or fried (pão de sertã, torta), stuffed eggs, stuffed eggplants, vermicelli stew, spiced meatballs, shish kebabs (pinchos morunos, espetada), and quince paste are current Iberian foods also mentioned in Arab cookbooks.


Recipe from “An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook of the 13th Century”.

I Have Seen a Couscous Made with Crumbs of the Finest White Bread.
For this one you take crumbs and rub with the palm on the platter, as one rubs the soup, and let the bread be neither cold nor very hot; put it in a pierced pot and when it’s steam has left, throw it on the platter and rub with fat or moisten with the broth of the meat prepared for it.


Bolens, Lucie. “La cuisine andalouse, un art de vivre : XIe – XIIIe siècle” (The Andalusian cuisine, an art of living: 11th 13th centuries). Paris, Albin Michel, 1990.

García, Expiración. “La alimentación en la Andalucía Islámica: Estudio histórico y bromatológico.” (Food in Islamic Andalusia: an historical and dietetical study) “Andalucía Islámica”, 2-3 (1981-1982): 139-177 and 4-5 (1983-1986): 237-278.

Marín, Manuela. “Cuisine d’Orient, cuisine d’Occident.” (Eastern Cuisine, Western cuisine) “Médiévales” 33 (1997): 9-21.

Martínez, Manuel. “Historia de la Gastronomía Española” (History of the Gastronomy in Spain). Huesca, La Val de Onsera, 1995.


Short version of – version modificada de: Teresa de Castro, «Iberian Peninsula: Overview», Encyclopaedia of Food and Culture. New York, USA. Scribner and Sons. 2003, vol. 2, pp. 227-22. (La Península Ibérica: Visión General) Teresa de Castro © 2005-2008. This paper is protected by copyright laws.