A tortillita de camarón is one of my favorite things to eat in Andalusia, but deciding whether or not to order one is a decision that I tend to weigh carefully. To the dismay of my eating companions, this process can take some time. It’s not whether or not I want one, because invariably I do, and usually more than one. But I’d rather not have a bad tortillita, and sadly, they’re more common than good ones.
Of course, that doesn’t mean I won’t eat a so-called bad one, because I have done so and I think it’s safe to say that I have not had my last. Bad ones, by my criteria, are doughy and oily, which masks the flavor of the shrimp and sit heavy in your stomach. They’re okay as you eat them, but you tend to regret them afterwards. Which is to say that when they’re there, you’ll eat them, but if you knew they were going to be like that you wouldn’t have ordered them in the first place.
I have seen them called fritters on menus, but this is not strictly accurate. As English translations on menus go, however, it’s pretty good. I’ve seen a lot worse. My favorite example harkens from when foam emulsions were fashionable. For the Spanish word for foam, espuma, the translator used the not-quite-accurate-in-this-context English version, scum. Fritter is close though, except that a fritter is some kind of food covered in batter then fried, whereas a tortillita is, if we’re going to be honest about it, mostly batter. There are camarónes, or tiny shrimp, sprinkled throughout and it’s clear they play the starring role, but they’re more than just coated in batter. They’re swimming in it. (Oftentimes literally–many recipes call for using live camarónes.)
You can find tortillitas all over Andalusia and indeed, across Spain, but they are native to the province of Cádiz and any trip there would be incomplete without having them. Plus, they are a little piece of culinary history on a plate. In Cádiz they have been eating tortillitas for over five centuries, says a respected scholar on the history of food in the region, a certain Manuel Ruiz Torres. He also adds that it was Spanish and Portuguese monks that took the recipe to Japan, and thus sowed the seeds of Japanese tempura. That there are scholars on such matters as shrimp fritters gives me a warm appreciation for academia. Knowing these things doesn’t improve the flavor any, but there’s no denying it adds something to the experience.
A camarón, in case you don’t know, is a kind of shrimp common in estuaries of the Bay of Cádiz. (And also a legendary flamenco singer who was skinny and blond as a kid, so his uncle dubbed him Camarón, which stuck.) They are very small, so small that there’s no point in peeling them so you just eat them whole. They are not to be confused with the camarónes from Galicia, which are bigger, dazzlingly expensive, but possibly the same species depending on who you ask. That is a matter I consider mundane in comparison to eating them, so I happily and thankfully leave it to the taxonomists to figure out. The important thing is that basically, they’re shrimp.
The batter is a mixture of regular flour and garbanzo flour. Add a little chopped sweet onion, parsley, camarónes and enough water to make a very liquidy batter. Pour them in a pan with abundant hot olive oil and wait until they’re golden brown and crispy. Such a simple recipe but it takes a fair bit of practice to get it just right.
I recently spent a few weeks in Cádiz, revisiting some favorite spots and searching out some new ones as well. On my previous forays around the province I had left the matter of good tortillitas up to chance but this time I felt the occasion demanded a more earnest quest, particularly since my family was visiting from Canada and I knew that my father would bring to the project the kind of enthusiasm it deserved. My father’s love of Spanish food knows very few bounds. Actually, only one that I can remember–deep fried sheep’s brains, but that’s another story.
Anyway, back to the quest. After a week on a daily supplement of tortillitas, things were not looking good, and I’m not just referring to the fact I was now down to the last hole in my belt. Despite the advice of many respected locals and friends, we had yet to find perfection. The ones we had in the city of Cádiz were downright disappointing, as in, bad tortillitas that we ate anyway. Then we had some okay ones in Conil. The best up to that point were the tortillitas we had in my favorite bar in Barbate. On our last day, in a last-ditch effort, we drove farther south to Zahara de los Atunes, a small, humble, former-fishing village that is now the resort of choice for Sevillanos who want just the right mix of authenticity and high style.
We tried a famous and very expensive restaurant which I will not name because I don’t think it’s fair. Who knows, the chef might have had an off day. But they were bad. And yeah, we ate them anyway, but that’s beside the point.
Later on, after we walked for a bit on Zahara’s immense beach (which is, coincidentally, the color and texture of garbanzo flour), I thought to call my cousin Borja in Malaga. Somehow I had forgotten to ask him before. He’s been in the restaurant business his whole life, and knows all the right people and all the right places. Not to mention, I’ve eaten with him enough to know he’s got impeccable taste.
“Bar Juanito,” he said, as though he had been carefully considering the matter just before I called. “Bar Juanito.”
We left the beach and walked through a warren of whitewashed houses, stopping on a few separate occasions for directions after the previous ones wore out. And finally there it was. Not a secret, judging by the number of people there, but we were happy enough to land a high table in the shade.
There was more beer involved. And a generous plate of gambas blancas that were sweet and tasted like the ocean. Then at long last the waiter put in front of us the tortillitas we had come for all along. When we tried them we realized, happily, that our search was over.