Spanish Food Words with Arabic Origins

When the Moors arrived in Spain in 711 C.E. they brought with them advanced agricultural methods in addition to introducing many new crops including sugar cane, rice, ginger and saffron as well as orchards of previously unknown fruit and nut trees.

They called the region they conquered Al-Andalus and in the 800 years that the Moors remained in Southern Spain these foods were incorporated in the Spanish diet, and their Arabic names ultimately became part of the Spanish language.

  • Aceite (oil). The Moors introduced cooking oils made from olives and almonds, and as these oils can withstand high heat, they also introduced the new cooking method of deep-frying. The result was many a favourite tapa like these patatas bravas and deep-fried ‘chipirones’ (deep-fried squid), now an intrinsic part of the Spanish diet.

Patatas Bravas and Deep-fried Squid

  • Aceituna (olive). Translating as ‘oily one’, olives are everywhere in Spain. The early Spanish were already growing olive trees, but with the superior agricultural methods of the Moors there was a much greater production of these oily treats. In Spain, the word olivas is used as well – this comes from the regions of Spain that spent more time under Roman rule. Since most of the conquistadors of the New World were from Moorish Spain, the Arabic-influenced word aceituna is used in Latin America. Olive Tree in SpainDeli with olive tidbits for sale at Mercado San Miguel in Madrid, Spain
  • Albaricoque (apricots). Albaricoques -Apricots
  • Albóndigas (meatballs). This sign advertises ‘Swedish meatballs’ but the word ‘albondigas’ is Arabic as is the word ‘jarra’ (jar/mug).

Sign advertising a lunch consisting of a jarra of beer with a half dozen Swedish meatballs in Mansilla de la Sierra in Spain

  • Alcohol (alcohol). Spain already produced wine from grapes but the Moors introduced them to the technique of distilling. The Moors used distillation to make medicines and perfumes, and the Spanish used it to make brandy. The Moors also introduced the word alcohol even though, being Muslim, they did not typically drink it. Copita de brandy
  • Alizarin (red). Not a food but a name for a gorgeous red originally obtained from the root of the madder plant, from Arabic word al-usara meaning “the juice”.


  • Almendras (almonds). Groves of almond trees meant masses of almonds, part of sweetmeats such as mazapán, the pulverized almond cookies polvorones, or just plain as a healthy snack.
  • Arroz (rice) plays a significant part in Spanish cuisine, and what would paella be without rice?

Paella with seafood and saffron rice in Spain

  • Paella also requires azafrán (saffron), the precious golden spice that comes from the stamens of the crocus flower.Azafran (Saffron) for sale in Toledo, Spain
  • Azúcar (sugar). Before the Moors arrived most Spanish desserts were sweetened with honey. They brought with them sugarcane as a viable crop, and from the sugarcane came sugar and the beginning of a sweet time in the history of Spanish desserts. Sugar cane for sale in a market in Mexico

watercolour sketch of eggplant

  • Berenjena (eggplant). Below is an ‘international’ meal I had in Madrid that consists of fish from Spain, roasted eggplant from Arabic Africa, tomatoes from Mexico, potatoes from Peru and is garnished with gulas (baby eels), a uniquely Spanish treat although I think I may have had something similar in Japan.Fish for dinner with roasted eggplant, tomatoes and potatoes, garnished with gulas (baby eels) in Madrid, Spain.

roasted coffee beans

  • Café  (coffee). There is Café solo, espresso; Café doble, double espresso; Café con leche, coffee with milk, usually 50/50; Café americano, a café solo with hot water added to make it fit into the larger  cup size that North Americans prefer; Café cortado, espresso with a dash of milk.A café con leche as served in Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain
  • Escabeche (cooked or preserved in vinegar). This is often used as a pickling method but produces a subtle but distinct flavour when cooked.Tapas: sardinas en escabeche
  • Fideo (noodles). Noodles are less popular in Spain than in Italy; however in the Catalan region of Spain there is a dish called Fideua which is a paella made with pasta instead of rice.
  • Gazpacho (cold tomato soup). Another inheritance from the Moors is the preference for cold soups in hot climates.
  • Jarabe (syrup, mostly used for medication).
  • Limón (lemon).  etching of a lemon
  • Lima (lime).

    key limes

    key limes

  • Mazapán (marzipan). A confection made of ground almonds and sugar. Although its origin is disputed, it almost certainly came from Persia where sweetmeats of ground nuts and seeds dominated desserts. Mazapán is most commonly found in the city of Toledo where the nuns raised money by producing it along with another lesser-known rich sweet called Yema de Santa ‘Whoever’, yema meaning egg yolk. Many of the sweets produced in these convents have religious-sounding names such as cabello de ángel (angel’s hair), suspiros de monja (nun’s sighs) and huesos de santo (bones of a saint).Mazapan (marzipan) for sale in Toledo, Spain


    • Naranja (orange). Some oranges are currently named after cities in Spain, such as the Seville and the Valencia oranges. But originally they came to the peninsula via the Moors, who also brought the word zumo for juice, whereas the rest of Spanish-speaking countries call it jugo.

      Fresh-squeezed 'zumo de naranja' (orange juice) in Mansilla de la Sierra in Spain

      Fresh-squeezed ‘zumo de naranja’

    • Sandía (watermelon). watermelon or sandia
    • Taza  (mug/cup). Una taza de chocolate con churros, the chocolate from Meso-America and the churros a Spanish variation on the donut-like dough of the Mexican version.

Hot chocolate and churros in Sevilla

  • Zanahoria (carrot).

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