Chef Tim Says...

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Chef Tim Says....

Spain: Portion Size

Because of my work with food it's important for me to get out and see what others are doing in the world of cooking. Given that Spain offers one of our best examples of Mediterranean cuisine, it seemed the perfect choice. While there I kept track of some of my observations about the cuisine here from the one end of the spectrum to the other. These comments were originally posted to my blog at

One of the main things that I have noticed over and over is portion size. It's just plain smaller in Spain vs. the U.S. (or the U.K. for that matter). For instance, the croissants are about 2/3 the size of those found in America. Other pastries are similarly compact.

At lunch, sandwiches are smaller too. I have been recommending for years that folks limit the amount of meat or cheese in their sandwiches to about 1 or 2 ounces. That's standard in Spain and more often it's only about a single ounce. As I have mentioned before, the quality of the ham, cheese and sausage is so much richer that only a little is needed to make a delicious sandwich.

There are chain fast food places in Spain, but for the most part they're based on this model of smaller sandwiches. Some will have tapas style small plates with tortillas (Spanish omelet) of various kinds, plates of thinly sliced ham and salads.

Oh yeah, the salads are really great - lettuces, tomatoes, olives, asparagus, peppers and all really fresh, even in the fast food joints. Interestingly, I don't believe that I have seen a creamy type salad dressing yet. There are great olive oils and vinegars or vinaigrette type dressings. Again, the salads are not huge but a reasonable size.

In the fast food places there's almost always a refrigerator case with drinks. As I've mentioned before, there's a few soft drinks and a lot of bottled water, juices and smoothies. Almost every one of these refrigerators has yogurt and fresh fruit. There are 20 ounce bottles of soda available, but they are more rare than the standard 12 ounce can or 8 ounce bottle.

Put simply, there's just not any supersizing.

Overall you get the feeling that the food in Spanish fast food chains is freshly made from quality ingredients. There just is not a place that I found that has the awful, prepackaged, frozen, mass produced products that are sold at junk food places like McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy's and KFC.

The closest that we might have in America to Spanish style fast food is Subway. I like Subway OK and do eat there occasionally, but even the 6 inch sub sandwiches are about half again as big as a bocadillo (Spanish sandwich) in Spain. There's no such thing as a foot long size. And the quality of the ingredients at Subway pales in comparison to fast food places in Spain.

There are also a few alternatives for dinner. Tapas is widely available. While we have specific restaurants for small plates in America tapas is everywhere and the range of dishes is just as broad. Three or four plates make a great dinner for two people and most of these are lighter fare (there are a few that are richer or are deep fried). Even so, when you order something fried like croquettes there's only a few on the plate.

Seated dinners are also remarkable for the smaller portions. I read so much in the medical literature about how large portions are a major issue in the obesity epidemic in the U.S. and U.K.. I am sure that you've seen the same reports in the newspapers and on T.V..

In Spain I don't believe that I saw a portion of meat, fish or chicken served at the dinner meal that was larger than about 6 ounces. The servings were lean and full of flavor. There wasn't a huge baked potato or a big pile of pasta as there is in America -- starch choices were smaller. Every entree was served with fresh, fresh veggies.

Even sweets and desserts are smaller. As I mentioned before I believe that this phenomenon explains the "French Paradox" more than any other. Small portions made with full flavored rich ingredients that are amazingly satisfying. The cookies are small, ice cream servings are a single small scoop, and cakes and pastries are about half the size of what you would get in the U.S. or U.K..

I don't order dessert often because I don't find much of what is made in restaurants in America all that special - and it is usually over the top as far as size and elaborate silliness is concerned. Our last night in Spain I had a coffee mousse because it sounded so special. It was a small portion served in an espresso cup and was light and rich but not overwhelming. It might have been about 150 calories, tops.

I've been talking about "portion control" on the Dr. Gourmet site, in books and on T.V. for years but I think that it's clear the Spanish have it right. It's not about portion "control" but the right sized portion.