Take your holiday in the south of Tenerife somewhere like Los Cristianos, Playa de las Americas or Adeje, and you could be forgiven for thinking the local food of Tenerife consists of English breakfast, fish and chips or a roast beef dinner. Even the majority of Spanish restaurants in the main resort areas of Tenerife tend to serve mostly international-style cuisine rather than anything remotely resembling traditional Canarian food. Travel north to Puerto de la Cruz or Santa Cruz de Tenerife or head inland to the rural locations and you’ll start to see the more typical dishes of Tenerife appearing on the menus.
When you take into consideration the constant high temperatures of the climate in Tenerife, the traditional food is surprisingly hearty and not without reason. The cuisine in Tenerife has been historically influenced by the island’s remote geographical location, its early indigenous inhabitants as well as a scarcity of fresh water and the lack of terrains suitable for large scale agricultural purposes. In bygone days on the island, fresh food was often hard to come by so many dishes were created from dried ingredients like pulses or almonds that could be stored for considerable amounts of time. The fifteenth century Spanish conquests of the Canary Islands and the early nineteenth century migrations of islanders to Cuba and Puerto Rico and their subsequent return to home territory also had a lasting impact on the island’s traditional fare which can still be noted in many typical plates today.
So exactly what is the local food of Tenerife?
Breakfast, Snacks & Something To Pick At
Once breakfast in many Canarian homes consisted of a glass of warm goat’s milk with a spoonful of gofio stirred into it or pella de gofio with milk to wash it down with. And believe it, you need something to wash it down with. Gofio is a type of coarse brown flour made from toasted maize that has a taste not unlike burnt popcorn. To make pella, gofio flour is mixed with either milk or water until it takes on a stiff doughy consistency before it’s rolled into a cylindrical shape and sliced into rounds. Pella de gofio was, and still is, used as a substitute for bread. It’s eaten sweet or salty if it’s accompanying a savoury meal. Spoonfuls of gofio are also sprinkled onto soups and stews for additional flavour and extra nourishment as it’s rich in B vitamins.
If you’re breakfasting out or stop off in a typical cafe for a snack, you could find the names pincho de tortilla, bocadillo de jamón y queso or montaditos variadas scrawled on the chalkboard outside. Pincho de tortilla is a thick wedge of Spanish omelette served with a chunk of bread. A bocadillo is a crusty bread roll frequently filled with just ham and cheese or one of several other popular fillings like spreadable chorizo – a spicy, garlicky and very tasty, soft red sausage. Montaditos are mini versions of bocadillos made from tiny bread rolls, or sometimes croissants, which you’ll frequently find ready made up in coffee shops everywhere in the larger towns.
For fast food in Tenerife forget grabbing a burger and try a pepito instead. A pepito is a crusty roll stuffed with a grilled minute steak, topped with cheese, tomato, lettuce and then slathered with garlic mayonnaise. It’s a big away-from-home favourite snack for many Canarians. It’ll soon become one of your favourites too and you’ll be making them long after you’ve flown home.
Although tapas originated from Spain, you’ll find many rural bars in Tenerife serve a mix of different small, tapas-style dishes that are great with a beer or for a quick meal. Tapas in Tenerife could be anything from a few olives, croquettes, cubes of local cheese, hard chorizo sausage, octopus or small and sometimes fiery fried green peppers doused in sea salt called pimientos padron.
Brunch, Lunch & Dinner
One thing you may spot frequently if you’re driving around sightseeing in Tenerife anywhere from midday onwards are signs outside of restaurants saying – Menu del Dia. These are daily changing, three course menus that are comprised of typical Canarian food that are truly incredible value for money. The menus usually offer a choice between two starters, two mains and two desserts. Sit down with a good appetite because you’ll need one.
Starters are normally either a mixed salad or a potaje of some description. Potaje is a traditional and very filling type of thick soup. There are many variations though the most common are potaje de berros which is made from watercress and potatoes, potaje de lentejas made from lentils, potaje de verduras made with lots of your five-a-day or puchero canario with meat and everything else thrown in but the chef’s apron. There are also other versions of potaje that incorporate chickpeas or either red or white beans with chorizo sausage to give it a flavoursome kick. Potajes are very filling and often eaten as a meal on their own with a slab of salty goat’s cheese on the side. Truthfully, the local food of Tenerife doesn’t get better than that.
Typical main courses are usually simple dishes of grilled meat or fish with potatoes and a side of cabbage salad. A popular way of serving potatoes in Tenerife is papas con mojo. They’re traditional and unique to the Canary Islands. Papas con Mojo are mini unpeeled spuds cooked in salt water until they’re left with a white crust then smothered in mojo picon sauce. They are addictive. Mojo is a sauce blended from garlic, olive oil and red peppers that is spicy but not overly so and distinctly moreish. There is also a green version, mojo verde, made from olive oil, garlic, green peppers and fresh coriander that is used to garnish fish or to add a touch of panache to a sancocho canario, a traditional Canarian fish stew.
As in many countries stews, particularly in the cooler months, are a typical food in Tenerife. Carne con papas is a basic meat and potato dish made with either diced beef or sometimes goat. Lamb doesn’t feature much in traditional Canarian food though pata asada, roast leg of pork, is served as a tapa and main dish while cochinillo, roast suckling pig, is a favourite for celebrations like Christmas and Easter.
Sweet Thoughts To Finish
There are not many typical Tenerife or even Canarian desserts so don’t expect to be wowed by a high standard of confectionery after your meal. One sweet featured frequently both on restaurant menus and in Canarian homes is flan canario. Flan is similar to crème caramel with a dark caramel layer on top of a set custard made with condensed milk. Syrupy bienmesabe is a sticky concoction of ground almonds, honey and eggs that is spooned onto ice cream or used as flavouring in cakes. Though as it is quite an expensive commodity, you’re much more likely to be offered mousse de gofio in a restaurant than you are bienmesabe.
Pop into the local bakery or check out the supermarket shelves and you’ll find a selection of bland looking biscuits and cakes that it’ll be hard to get excited about. Don’t be fooled. Mantecadas are thick, crumbly biscuits made with dried almonds that taste like shortcake and may look boring but are totally delicious. Some of the other traditional biscuits are harder, flavoured with aniseed and topped with whole almonds – those ones go great with a cup of tea.
Truchas are a traditional sweet pasties you’ll see in all the bakeries in Tenerife. The pasties are filled with a stringy sugary substance called cabello del angel or literally translated – angel’s hair – which is made from the humble and very un-celestial pumpkin. If you’re in Tenerife coming up to or over the Christmas period, there’s no way you’ll escape being given a polvoron. Polvorones are a traditional festive sweet handed out by the box full during the Xmas celebrations. Made from ground almonds with all sorts of different flavourings from chocolate to coconut to lemon, they’re a dry bite and tend to stick in your mouth, so have a glass of water handy when you try one. If you get a gofio polvoron, do yourself a favour and put it back in the box when no-one is looking.