Updated: Jul 22, 2021
"no one made patatas bravas at home: 'They go to bars to try them. It is a social dish.'" Barcelona bar owner
It's also one of those dishes that you think is ancient but isn't, and which is open to so many different interpretations that 'authenticity' is a bit of a joke.
"patatas bravas is a real hot potato (sorry) amongst Spanish chefs because, although it's a simple dish, there are a million possibilities to explore within the basic formula of potatoes in a tomato sauce – "the potato will absorb whatever you give it," one Barcelona bar owner explained." Felicity Cloake
The picture above is my original inspiration for this post. It was from one of the recent Guardian newsletters and is Thomasina Miers recipe for Salt-crusted jersey royals with spiced tomato sauce and watercress aïoli, which she describes as "Patatas bravas with a British twist". I was struck by it because, being a rabid potato lover, if I am ever in a Spanish restaurant (not very often) I will order patatas bravas, which is always on the menu, and this did not at all seem like what I had encountered. Now that I have investigated a bit I see that actually Thomasina Miers' dish does encompass the three main features of patatas bravas - crispy potatoes, a spicy tomato sauce and an aioli kind of sauce. She just doesn't serve them up the way you expect, doesn't cook the potatoes how you expect and the aioli has watercress in it - very unexpected.
Then - mini coincidence - there in the latest Coles Magazine was Courtney Roulston's Patatas bravas with tomato sauce and cashew aioli. Same basic components but similar in some ways to Thomasina Miers' version, in that the potatoes are roasted, and the aioli is not very traditional. And seeing the dish featured twice in the same number of weeks made me think of it as a post subject.
So I was off on the search for more information about origins, variations and what we are doing with it today.
The first surprise was to find that, like Felicity Cloake, who, of course does a 'Perfect' version - shown below - my Spanish cookbooks contained no recipes for Patatas bravas, which, you would think, considering its ubiquity would be in every cookbook claiming to be Spanish. And the biggest surprise was that it was not included in Claudia Roden's The Food of Spain - in many ways the most authoritative of my Spanish cookbooks, indeed of any Spanish cookbook. Neither did my old Time-Life The Cooking of Spain and Portugal, or my cheap The Joy of Spanish and Mexican Cooking which I bought back in 1979 because I had very little on the subject. Elizabeth David does not mention it in her Book of Mediterranean Food either, or Robert Carrier in Great Dishes of the World. Well I guess it's a humble dish. As for the moderns - well The Basque Book which makes a huge thing about tapas - well pinxtos - does not mention them at all. But then the Basque country is a long way from Madrid and Barcelona and also fiercely different from the Spanish in general and basically wanting to be independent. I bet you will find it in the bars of San Sebastian though.
Eventually however, I found that Claudia Roden had an earlier recipe in her Mediterranean Cookery, tucked away on the corner of a page in the Vegetables section with no picture. She does indeed recognise it as a humble dish by giving it peasant origins. And I suddenly remembered Robert Carrier's Great Dishes of Spain which did indeed contain a recipe. And interestingly he mentions in his introduction that it is often served with chorizo, although he prefers not to. But he doesn't mention the aioli component and he suggests serving the potatoes and the sauce separately - the idea being to dip the potatoes in the sauce.
And finally - because the Brits are obviously into Patatas Bravas, here is Jamie's version from his Jamie Does Spain book (which I don't have) - no aioli but I have to say it looks pretty tempting. Perhaps you can pour tomato sauce over the potatoes if it's not too much. Moderation in all things.
As to origins. Well as always the real origins are probably lost in history in some peasant farmhouse some time after tomatoes had been introduced into Spain of course. Culinary tradition, however, has it that it was invented in Madrid in the 1950s, although nobody seems game to name an actual creator. Nowadays it is more synonymous with the tapas bars of Barcelona - maybe even more with the small plates kind of places you will find in the English speaking world these days.
But back to those three basic components. The potatoes. The general opinion seems to be that they should be crispy - but you can obviously achieve that in many different ways, and of the recipes I found all those ways were covered. Maybe you could even cook them in an air fryer. And until I come to the 'fancy' versions I will show you later, just about everyone seemed to think they should be small chunks. No - the Coles version, for example, is wedges. So a free for all really. Let's not get into what kind of potatoes you should use. In my youth potatoes were just potatoes, unless they were new potatoes. These days there is a bewildering and ever-changing choice. Crispy potatoes anyway.
The tomato sauce. Tomatoes obviously and onions and garlic too. I think chilli seems to be almost a given, in spite of one chef saying that this was virtually the only Spanish dish that featured chilli. Not huge amounts though. Paprika - well I confess I thought that this was also a given but this also seems to be a variable thing, with all the types of paprika - standard, hot, sweet and smoked - all being used - or not as the case may be. Somebody added cinnamon and I think there might have been various herbs. But spicy anyway. Bravas means 'fierce' or 'brave' even 'wild' according to who you read.
What you do with the tomato sauce seems to be endlessly variable, from serving it as a kind of dip, sitting the potatoes on it, pouring it all over, and even roasting the potatoes in it in the oven - a variation from Bon Appétit Baby. Which I rather fancied. They were then served with the aioli, as shown here. Felicity Cloake doesn't really like Papatas bravas because: "spuds in tomato sauce will never set my world on fire", so maybe she would take a shine to this, although in the end she seemed fairly happy with sitting the potatoes on the sauce.
The aioli sauce. Well quite a few recipes ignore this altogether although the more you look the more you find it is indeed a common addition, and one that Felicity Cloake heartily endorses.
"the intensely garlicky allioli is a lovely foil to the tomatoey reduction"
And aioli, as we saw with the two original recipes, like pesto, is open to all manner of additions and subtractions - not garlic or olive oil though. Subtracting I mean. You must have those two.
How to serve it? Well here you can go wild. Stephanie Alexander is relatively modest, although I did not see anybody else mentioning cheese, although you would have to wonder why as tomato and cheese are a pairing made in heaven really:
"Serve with other tapas-style dishes, such as olives, roasted almonds, anchovies on fingers of toast; I would also serve small balls of mozzarella with a drizzle of the best oil, even though they are not Spanish." Stephanie Alexander
But here is a gallery of options if you are feeling in an haute cuisine mood:
The tall things are potato cases deep fried and filled with, or sitting on the tomato sauce. And one of those tall versions looks as if the potatoes have been baked and hollowed out. I'm not sure how you get a long strip of potato. Mashed I guess, though you would need something to keep it from falling apart.
Or soup - yes somebody made a soup - Susanna Booth from the Guardian made Patatas bravas soup with egg-free allioli
A tomato soup with crisp potatoes on top (instead of croutons) and a dollop of the allioli. Well it has all the components but it's a long way from the original - whatever that was. It's interesting is it not, that all of these traditional dishes which have existed, in some cases for centuries, are now being played with to sometimes ridiculous extremes? Although sometimes something amazing happens.
A FURTHER THOUGHT ON THOSE MAGAZINES
Last night, as I lay awake, my thoughts turned to some of those comparative recipes I featured yesterday - and particularly to the tacos recipes. Those two demonstrated the two different approaches to recipes in the book - from ones that used a whole bunch of off-the shelf components - preferably home brand, and those which could challenge the recipes from more credentialed cookbooks, in that you did the whole thing - making pestos, and curry pastes, etc. Why do they do this? There is no immediate benefit is there? Well yes there is - it's the difference between marketing and PR. Selling your product and raising your profile. Why not establish a reputation for tempting and 'real' recipes? It shows you are serious about raising standards in what we serve our families, which as a by-product, raises the profile of the stores themselves. And all of those cooking tips and How to sections do the same. It also makes you pick up the magazine, see all those ads from the companies that provide the food on the shelves - and provide income to the supermarkets so that they can offer their magazines for free. And a large quantity of those ads of course are for their own products. It's all win win really. And now there are all sorts of digital add-ons to draw you in further.