The Bocadillo de Calamares Is the Spanish Sandwich That Should Take Over the World
All you need is some calamari and a hoagie roll
The beauty of the bocadillo de calamares is in its simplicity: rings of fried squid on a demi-baguette. Maybe a squeeze of lemon juice. That’s it. No mayo, no marinara, no tartar sauce.
This deceptively delicious sandwich is a staple in Madrid, where it’s a specialty at a variety of eateries in the city center. That’s where Madrileños flock during the holiday season to shop and take in Madrid’s startling abundance of Christmas lights. Pausing for a bocadillo de calamares from one of the hole-in-the-wall bars clustered around the Plaza Mayor is just part of the experience.
“It is something that people do as a tradition, something that you’ll do with the family on a special occasion where you’re out and about in the streets,” says Lauren Aloise, co-founder and CEO of the Madrid-based Devour Tours, whose signature guided trek through the city’s culinary highlights includes a stop for bocadillos de calamares.
The concept of fried squid on bread doesn’t always resonate with everyone. “It’s hard to explain to people,” Aloise says. “We have a lot of guests who come from the States, and they might be used to having fried calamari with sauce, like a marinara sauce or a spicy Rhode Island-style pepper sauce. But it’s like with all classic Spanish dishes: they’re simple, they’re made with really good ingredients and they’re eaten in context.”
A little background about the bocadillo. It’s pronounced “boke-ah-DEE-yo,” and it’s ubiquitous in Spain. Bocadillos are available everywhere: bakeries, bars, train stations, highway rest stops. People bring them wrapped in foil to soccer games to scarf down at halftime, they’re a popular mid-morning snack, school children eat them for lunch, and they’re inexpensive: 4 or 5 euros, tops, or somewhere in the range of $5 or $6.
If there’s a standard bocadillo, it’s probably the one with jamón serrano — thinly sliced cured ham tucked into a baguette. There are plenty of variations on the theme, and bocadillos can come filled with chorizo, cheese, bacon or tortilla de patatas (a Spanish potato omelet). You can ask to dress yours up with olive oil, or maybe sliced tomato, but condiments and sauces are rare.
For all the permutations of bocadillos, the one with calamares is a distinctly Madrid creation. Though the Spanish capital has a vibrant food scene, represented by cuisine from across the country and around the world, there are only a handful of dishes considered native to Madrid. The bocadillo de calamares is one of them, along with callos — a tripe dish — and a hearty garbanzo stew called cocido madrileño that is often served in stages.
It seems like a quirk of geography, or maybe history, that a seafood sandwich would take hold in a city two hours by high-speed train from the nearest sea. Yet Madrid boasts the second largest seafood market in the world, after Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market, and fish have played an important role in the city’s culinary life for centuries. Catholicism is part of the reason why, says Ana Benavente, whose grandfather served bocadillos de calamares in El Brillante, the no-frills bar he opened in 1952 opposite the Atocha train station in Madrid. Because the church discouraged eating meat on Fridays, as well as on the plethora of holy days that filled up the Catholic calendar, “fish was in great demand,” Benavente says.
There’s another reason, too: in the days before high-speed trains and reliable refrigeration, squid kept well enough on ice to make it from the coast to the interior of a country that is hot for considerably more than half the year. Frying squid and other seafood helped to mask any ill effects from the journey. “If the taste had started to turn, the batter helped to hide it,” Benavente says.
These days, achieving the perfect simplicity of Madrid’s iconic sandwich is more of an exacting process than a salvage job. The best bocadillos de calamares combine fresh squid, a high-quality extra virgin olive oil and — of great importance — breading that’s just the right consistency.
“If you do that, you’re in the first division, the top 10,” says Alfredo Rodríguez, the current owner of El Brillante and the son of the founder (and Benavente’s uncle). He likens the bocadillo de calamares to “Spain’s hamburger,” helpfully picking an example every American can understand.
A sign in the window at El Brillante boasts, “Famous for its bocadillo de calamares,” and there’s no denying that. The bar serves as much as 12,000 kilograms (about 26,000 pounds) of calamari every month, with a preference for warm-water squid fished off the coast of Peru, says Rodríguez, who knows roughly as much about squid as a marine biologist. He can talk at length about the variations in squid from different parts of the world, their growth patterns, their water content and, of course, how to fry them. For breading, he uses a 50-50 blend of all-purpose flour and garbanzo flour for the way it fries.
“Garbanzo flour expels the fat,” Rodríguez says. “Instead of absorbing it and turning the bread yellow, garbanzo flour expels it and the bread stays white when you take the squid out of the fryer and drain it. The result is a better product.”
Though it runs counter to bocadillo best practices, El Brillante will include condiments, if you ask for them. “Lemon is the best combination with a bocadillo de calamares,” Rodríguez says. “Some people like mayonnaise, or garlic aioli. Americans want to put ketchup on everything.”
Making bocadillos de calamares at home is more labor intensive than just going to the source: “It’s easier to get it from the person who’s been doing this for 40 years,” Rodríguez says. Yet, given that COVID-19 restrictions make traveling to Spain difficult at the moment, to say the least, Rodríguez has provided El Brillante’s recipe, which we’ve augmented with a step from a recipe on Aloise’s food blog, Spanish Sabores.
El Brillante Recipe (Makes 4 or 5 bocadillos de calamares)
What you’ll need:
- 1 kilo (about 2.2 pounds) of calamari cut into 1/4-inch rings
- 62.5 grams (about 2.2 ounces) of all-purpose flour
- 62.5 grams (about 2.2 ounces) of garbanzo flour
- Extra virgin olive oil, for frying
- Four or five sliced demi-baguettes (or hoagie rolls)
The Spanish Sabores recipe, by David Pope, suggests soaking the calamari in milk for two hours before patting the rings dry with paper towels and breading them.
Mix the all-purpose and garbanzo flours in a bowl. Dip the calamari rings into the flour mixture to coat them.
Put an inch or so of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot (a deep one will minimize splatter) and heat on medium high until it starts to bubble.
Fry the rings in the olive oil, a few at a time, until golden. Place on paper towels to drain.
Divide the fried calamari rings among the rolls and add a squeeze of lemon. But no ketchup.
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