The Canary Islands, situated off the west coast of Northern Africa, are a popular tourist destination, but not home to a well-known food culture. These islands are comprised of Gran Canaria, Tenerife, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera, El Hierro and Fuerteventura, which are gifted with year-round sun. I lived there for nearly 11 years and enjoyed discovering the local delicacies throughout that time. Now that I'm in Houston, I am finding a lot of parallels between Canarian dishes and Tex-Mex ones. This isn't much of a surprise when you consider Spain ruled Texas for hundreds of years—longer than it has been part of the United States, in fact!
How the Canaries Influenced Tex-Mex
The first Spanish explorers came over in the 16th century and introduced their own colonial cooking. Berber colonists from the Canary Islands settled near what is now San Antonio almost three centuries ago, and brought cilantro, cumin and chile peppers with them.
Combined with local ingredients like beef, onions, pecans and pinto beans, and the flavor of mesquite wood used for cooking, Tex-Mex food slowly sprang into existence. Many of the Spanish and Canarian settlers returned to their homelands afterwards, so there was a lot of cultural and culinary exchange between the Americas, Spain and the Canaries.
Staple Canary Island Ingredients
Fish, bananas, corn, papaya and pineapple are some staples, while ingredients from the Americas brought back with the settlers include tomatoes, potatoes, beans, papaya, maize, tobacco and cocoa. The gastronomy in the islands is certainly original, and can be described as a blend of Spanish, Latin American and African cuisine, along with recipes unique to the islands themselves.
Papas Arrugadas: Little Wrinkly Potatoes
This is a real staple and when you order a main dish in the Canaries, it usually comes with this unless you request an alternative. Papas arrugadas are small potatoes boiled in their skins until soft and wrinkled with a salty crust. They are served with mojo sauce, a tasty condiment that has made its way around the world but originated in the Canaries. Seawater was used to cook the potatoes in the old days, but in modern times, water with a pinch of salt is the norm.
Mojo sauce comes in two flavors—mojo verde which is green and made with cilantro or parsley, and mojo rojo which is red and made with oil, vinegar, chilies, garlic, paprika and cumin. The red kind is served on potatoes while the green kind is better with fish. Every home cook has their own handed-down recipe for mojo so no two are exactly alike.
Puchero Canaria: A Hearty Vegetable Stew
This garbanzo bean-rich stew also contains cabbage, pumpkin, pork, beef and sweet potatoes. The broth of the stew is drained off and served as an appetizer, while the solids from the soup are then served as the entrée.
Bienmesabe: Almond Cream Dessert
The word bienmesabe literally translates to mean "how good it tastes to me" and this almond cream made with honey, cinnamon, egg yolks and almonds is a beloved dessert in the Canary Islands.
Gofio: What Canarians are Raised On
Gofio is versatile, in that it can be added to stews or coffee, combined with almonds and raisins to make sweet sausages, toasted, used to make crème caramel or flan, added to milk and served to the kids at breakfast, or even used to replace bread. This milled grain looks like wholegrain flour and Canarians are raised on the stuff. From personal experience, I'd have to say it isn't recommended for either flavor or texture!
Queso, Por Favor
Oh yes, cheese is popular in the Canaries, but since there are very few cattle, goat cheese is the most popular kind. Known as queso de cabra this tasty, creamy cheese is enjoyed by itself or combined with garlic and served with bread to make almogrote, the Canarian equivalent of Texan queso.
More Gastronomic Treats to Try
A rabbit stew with tomatoes known as conejo al salmorejo is especially good served with papas arrugadas, while sancocho is also a local favorite. This is boiled parna, a kind of sea bass, served with white or sweet potatoes and mojo sauce. Little sweet potato and almond pies known as "truchas de Navidad" are enjoyed during Carnival and Christmas in the Canary Islands.
As for the drinks, Canary Island wine was popular with well-to-do Europeans until the 1700s when they went out of vogue, giving way to French and Portuguese wines instead. Locally produced drinks include honeyed rum and banana liqueur.
Head into any bar in the Canaries and you can enjoy some typical Canarian tapas—similar to their Spanish equivalent with the exception of the papas arrugadas and mojo sauce, and something wonderful called morcilla which is blood sausage with dates—trust me, it tastes better than it sounds!
Cooking Over the Volcano
This is something I just have to include, despite the fact that it has no Tex-Mex ties. El Diablo Restaurant in Lanzarote has a volcanic hole in the ground rather than a regular kitchen. Constructing this unusual kitchen wasn't the easiest task, and involved adding nine layers of basalt rock on top of the volcano opening followed by a giant grill so meat and fish could be cooked over the geothermal heat.
About six feet underneath the grate you have lava bubbling away at 750 degrees F. This volcano has been dormant since its last eruption in 1824, and seeing as this restaurant is usually packed to capacity on a daily basis, it's hopefully going to stay that way! Since that's one thing we can't replicate in Texas, it may be the perfect excuse for a trip to the Canaries.