How to order the best fish in Spain

Here in Spain, the fish and seafood is the best in Europe. But how do you know you’re ordering the best fish when the menu is in Spanish? 

Look no further – I’ve listed English translations (in alphabetical order) for every fish I’ve come across in Spain. I’m sure I’ve missed a few though!

To check out the different ways that fish dishes are cooked here in Spain, tap here. And for a few handy words and phrases on buying fish in a Spanish shop, tap here.

Que aproveches!

A spectacular display at a Spanish supermarket fish counter

Fish (pescados) 

* signifies fish landed in our town, Villajoyosa (La Vila Joiosa) on the Costa Blanca. Look for the Cofraria de Pescadores logo to buy from local boats.

  • Acedía: a flat fish from the waters off Andalucia in southern Spain. Usually eaten fritos (fried).
  • Aguja – this translates as garfish, which I’ve never heard of. They’re a distinctive looking fish with a small spike on the snout, rather like a tiny marlin. They’re about the size of a big anchovy. Quite spiny but plenty of flavour (so I’m told by our local pescadería!)
    Aguja – about the size of a large anchovy with an unusual spike on its snout
  • Anguila: eel (often sold as ‘angulas’ – baby eels/elvers)
  • Arenque: herring. Not a fish I’ve ever come across in Spain
  • Atún*: tuna. You’ll find tuna everywhere on the Costa Blanca – from a few chunks in a salad to a full-on tuna steak. Carving a tuna is a real skill – there are so many different cuts of meat available. Ventresca, a cut from the belly, is common on menus in Villajoyosa. Pebrereta, a stew with salted tuna, pumpkin, peppers and tomatoes is a local speciality.
  • Anchoas*: anchovies. They often come in olive oil, but are also smoked or salted which gives them a unique flavour. Use sparingly! We use them in salads and even pasta dishes. Anchoas are known as boquerones outside the north of Spain.
A wonderful choice of shiny fresh fish; Mercat de l’Olivar in Palma de Mallorca
  • Bacalao: cod. Try kokotxas (cocochas) de bacalao – cod cheeks – a Basque speciality. Try bacalao al pil-pil, also a typical dish from the Basque Country. The pil-pil sauce is made with olive oil, garlic and a little chili. There’s also a great Spanish tradition of salted cod, especially in the north, but you can buy it here on the Costa Blanca in any market.
  • Bacoreta*: tunny/little tunny
  • Besugo*: red bream
  • Bonito*: Atlantic bonito. Sometimes known as skipjack tuna, though it’s not actually a member of the tuna family.
    A box of plump bonito on sale in the Mercado Central, Villajoyosa.
  • Boquerones*: anchovies. Actually, the same fish as anchoas (see above). In the north of Spain, they’re known as anchoas or bocartes, but in the rest of Spain, they’re boquerones. You’ll often find them served as tapas, either marinaded in olive oil, or fried (fritos). Delicious either way!
    Boquerones: anchovies
    Boquerones fritos
    Boquerones fritos: fried anchovies.
  • Caballa*: mackerel. Very common on the Costa Blanca, great fresh or smoked (try cold smoked mackerel fillet with horseradish sauce)
  • Chopa: black sea bream
  • Congrio*: conger eel. Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of eel – it’s something about the texture that doesn’t quite convince me!
  • A box full of small conger eels
  • Corvina*: stone bass or meagre. Often wrongly translated as sea bass, but it is a different species. Common on the Costa Blanca, great al horno (baked in the oven on a bed of vegetables and stuffed with herbs).
    Corvina – not a fish I’ve ever come across outside Spain, but a good value for money buy.

    Cofradia de Villajoyosa
    The ticket that shows the catch was landed on Villajoyosa fish quay. The label will tell you where, when and how the fish was caught
  • Dentón*: dentex. No, I’d never heard of it either, but it’s common in the Mediterranean and similar to bream. I’ve eaten it grilled in the north of Spain, where it’s called ‘machote‘ (rough translation – big man!). Delicious!
    Denton – a handsome looking fish, served as ‘machote’ in the north of Spain.
  • Dorada*: gilt head bream. Often farmed. One of my favourites: a lovely delicate flavour, especially the wild, non-farmed, dorada. The wild version is more expensive, but worth it. You’ll find plenty of different types of bream on sale in this part of the world. Besugo (red bream), chopa (black sea bream) pajel (sea bream), palometa (Atlantic pomfret) and sargo (whitehead or zebra bream).
    DORADA (1)
    Dorada: gilt head bream. These are farmed commercially, but you can buy the wild fish too.
    The difference between dorada from a fish farm (left, in hand) and wild dorada (the rest of the tray). The wild version is smaller, with more defined scales – and a better taste. More expensive though!
  • Emperador*: swordfish (see also pez espada). Often served as a fish steak, but too often it’s overcooked and dry. It’s also over-fished; another reason we avoid it.
  • Fletán: halibut. 
  • Gallineta*: redfish or ocean perch. Also known as cabra on the Costa Blanca. Cabra also means goat, so some room for confusion there!
    Gallineta or cabra in the middle, with dorada (gilthead bream) on the left and salmon on the right.
  • Gato*: dogfish or catshark (also known as musola). It is a member of the shark family, but we’re not talking Great White here. It’s small, around the size of a sardine, and doesn’t have a huge amount of flavour of its own, so  is usually served with a sauce.
  • Jurel*(or Jurel Grande): horse mackerel or scad
    Jurel – horse mackerel landed in La Vila. The fish has a distinctive yellow sheen.
  • Lampuga/Llampuga: dorado or dolphin fish (don’t worry – it has nothing to do with dolphins!). Has a delicious sweet flavour, we’ve eaten it in a rice dish.
    Dolphin fish (known as Llampuga on the Costa Blanca).
  • Lenguado*: sole. A whole sole, filleted and cooked simply a la plancha, is a joy.  
  • Lisa (or llisa): mullet
    Lubina: sea bass. For me, one of the best fish in Spain – a delicate flavour, but not expensive.
  • Lubina*: sea bass. Often farmed; the fish farm off our town of Villajoyosa breeds lubina. Try lubina a la sal – covered in salt and cooked in the oven (see the section on ‘cooking styles’ below).
  • Maragota: ballan wrasse. A new one on me, but a distinctive red-coloured fish.
  • Melva: frigate mackerel. Nothing to do with mackerel, even though the skin has a similar distinctive pattern. Melva is bigger and is actually part of the bonito family. The taste is similar to tuna.
    Melva: frigate mackerel, a kind of bonito.
  • Merluza*: hake. A classic white fish, usually served with a sauce
  • Musola*: see Gato 
  • Morralla*: assortment of small fish, often used for preparing caldo (fish stock)
  • Mero*: grouper 
    Pajel, aka sea bream
  • Pajel*: sea bream
  • Palometa: Atlantic pomfret, best described as a kind of bream
    Palometa – another member of the bream family
  • Pargo*: snapper
  • Pelaya: flounder, a flat fish, sometimes found in a dish of pescaditos fritos (small fried fish – see below)
Pargo, aka snapper
  • Pescaditos fritos: assortment of small fried fish
  • Pez Espada*: swordfish (aka emperador). We avoid ordering this fish as the World Wildlife Fund says stocks are declining because of overfishing. Served well, it’s delicious, but it’s often overcooked and dry.
  • Pez de San Pedro or Pez de Gallo*: John Dory. According to legend, the name Pez de San Pedro (St Peter’s Fish) came after St Peter picked one up from the Sea of Galilee, but then returned it to the water. The black mark on the fish’s side is his thumbprint. The alternative name, Pez de Gallo (rooster fish), comes from the spines which look a little like a cockerel’s comb.
    John Dory
    John Dory: Pez de Gallo or Pez de San Pedro
  • Platero*: a small white fish, similar to anchovy (boqueron). Platero in Spanish means silversmith; bite into this fish and you’ll see its insides are silver. 
    Platero: a small white fish from waters around Ibiza, similar to anchovy (boquerón), with silvery insides

    The silvery insides that give Platero its name
  • Rape* (pronounced ‘rap-eh’): monkfish. Firm white meat with a distinctive texture. Often cooked ‘al horno’ – in the oven. Also often served as part of a rice dish on the Costa Blanca.
    Rape: monkfish. Probably the ugliest fish in the sea, but also one of the tastiest!
  • Raya*: skate. Ala de raya: skate wing. Delicious in black butter sauce (a la mantequilla negra) with alcaparras (capers).
    Raya – skate wing
  • Rodaballo*: turbot. A really handsome flat fish which can grow to a fair old size. Rodaballo is also farmed commercially, especially in the north of Spain.
  • Salmonetes*: red mullet. Delicious grilled on a parrillada. You may see salmonetes de roca (rock) or de fango (literally, mud). Salmonetes de roca are larger, more red in colour and tastier.
  • Salmonetes: a distinctive pink-coloured fish, roughly the size of a sardine
  • Salmón: salmon. Almost always farmed in Spain.
  • Sargo*: whitehead bream. A fair-sized fish!
    Sargo – a kind of bream with distinctive zebra stripes
  • Sardinas*: sardines. Sardines don’t have a great reputation in the UK – most shops only sell them in tins. But fresh sardines really are full of flavour. Try sardinas a la plancha (on the grill) – cook for just 3 minutes each side. Delicious!
    Trucha arco iris: rainbow trout
  • Trucha: trout. Not common here on the Costa Blanca. We don’t have the rivers!
  • Trucha arco iris: rainbow trout
Skate aka raya
Skate (raya in Spanish)

Fish cooking styles

OK, so now you’ve selected the best fish, but how would you like it cooked?

  • A la plancha/a la parilla/parillada: on the grill
  • A la romana: in a light batter with egg (e.g. calamares a la romana)
  • A la andaluza: in a light batter without the egg
  • Rebosado: in batter (this could be either romana or andaluza)
  • A la marinera:  cooked in a white wine + onion sauce (e.g. mejillones a la marinera)
  • Al vapor: steamed 
  • A la sal. A whole fish with scales on, encased in coarse salt and then baked in the oven. The salt makes sure the fish doesn’t dry out, so it emerges from the oven moist and full of flavour. The salt is mixed with water, so it is slightly damp (some recipes recommend egg white) and it’s then packed around the fish. 
    Dorada (gilthead bream) covered in salt and ready for the oven. Leave the scales on! Lubina (seabass) al a sal is another favourite on the Costa Blanca.

    During cooking, the salt forms a hard crust. When the fish is cooked, the crust is then cracked open and discarded.  The skin can be lifted away easily with a knife, leaving you a perfectly cooked fish. And no, it doesn’t taste salty at all! 

    The salt shell is cracked open to reveal a perfectly cooked fish!
  • Fritos: fried (e.g. pescaditos fritos: an assortment of small fried fish). Sometimes described on a menu as una fritura de pescado.
    Pescaditos fritos
    A plateful of pescaditos fritos – a great tapa on a hot day!

How to buy fish in Spanish 

In the supermarket or pescadería (fish shop), ask the staff to prepare the fish for you – it’s completely normal in Spain. There’s a level of expertise and pride in the job that you usually don’t find in the UK, especially in supermarkets.

Some handy words and phrases:

  • Me puede limpiar el pescado por favor? Literally, ‘can you clean the fish for me please?’ – this means scaling, removing the fins and the guts.
  • Escamar: to remove the scales from a fish (las escamas = the scales)
  • La tripa: the guts
  • Me puede quitar la espina? Can you remove the bones?
  • Me lo prepara en filetes? Can you fillet it for me? (i.e. divide the fish into two fillets)

More fishy terminology!

Un pescado azul is an oily fish (like mackerel or tuna). A pescado blanco is a white fish (like cod or hake)

Un pescado demersal is a fish that feeds near the sea bed (like hake or red mullet). A pescado pelágico feeds nearer the surface (like sardines or mackerel)

How was my fish caught?

A lot of people are asking this question nowadays because it affects the sustainability of fish stocks. Some methods are a lot less eco-friendly than others.

Look at the label in the fish shop  – arrastre or red de arrastre means caught with a trawl net. Most of the boats here in La Vila Joiosa are stern trawlers, which put the trawl net into the water over the stern and then winch the net back in the same way.

A few of the smaller boats use trasmallo nets, which hang vertically in the water like a wall (gillnetting in English). More on fishing methods here.

Fresh or frozen?

The label will also tell you whether the fish is fresh (fresco) or previously frozen (descongelado). If it says ‘cria‘ it’s a farmed fish, not caught wild. Lubina and dorada are usually farmed in Spain.

Stern trawlers moored up at dusk alongside the fish quay in La Vila Joiosa
‘Trasmallo’ boats in La Vila harbour with the typical reel in the bow, used to pay out the net which hangs in the water like a wall.

Want to know more?

© Guy Pelham


3 thoughts on “How to order the best fish in Spain

  1. I dream about moving to Spain! I think it’s a sign that I found your post. Maybe I will make it happen when this pandemic is over. And will definetely will use your advice when I will be eating fish in Spain. Thanks!

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