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?

I’ve listed English translations below (in alphabetical order) for every fish I’ve come across in Spain – though I’m sure I’ve missed a few!

To check out the different ways 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!

IMG_0206
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 Cofradia de Pescadores logo in restaurants or fish shops to buy from local boats.

  • 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.
  • 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
  • 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
    Boquerones: anchovies

    Boquerones fritos
    Boquerones fritos: fried anchovies
  • Bonito: skipjack tuna
  • Caballa*: mackerel. Very common on the Costa Blanca, great fresh or smoked (try cold smoked mackerel fillet with horseradish sauce)
  • 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.
  • Congrio*: conger eel. A fierce-looking predator. Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of eel – it’s something about the texture.

    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! 
  • Dorada*: gilt head bream. Often farmed. One of my favourites: lovely delicate flavour.

    DORADA (1)
    Dorada: gilt head bream
  • 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 to avoid.
  • 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 
  • 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.
  • Lenguado*: sole. A whole sole, filleted and cooked simply a la plancha, is a joy.  
  • Lisa (or llisa): mullet

    LUBINA
    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.

    MELVA
    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 
    PARGO
    Pargo, aka snapper

    PAJEL SEA BREAM
    Pajel, aka sea bream
  • Pajel*: sea bream
  • Palometa: Atlantic pomfret, best described as a kind of bream
  • Pargo*: snapper
  • Pelaya: flounder, a flat fish, sometimes found in a dish of pescaditos fritos (small fried fish – see below)
  • Pescaditos fritos: assortment of small fried fish
  • Pez Espada*: swordfish. 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
    Platero: a small white fish from waters around Ibiza, similar to anchovy (boquerón), with silvery insides

    Platero
    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
    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).
  • Rodaballo*: turbot. A really handsome flat fish which can grow to a fair old size.
  • 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.
  • 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
    Trucha arco iris: rainbow trout
  • Trucha: trout. Not very 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 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 brasa: on a charcoal or wood grill (this usually refers to meat)
  • 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. 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! 
    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.

    The salt shell is cracked open to reveal a perfectly cooked fish!
  • Fritos: fried (e.g. pescaditos fritos: an assortment of small fried fish)

    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!

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

A 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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