(CNN)It’s fair to say Spain was late to the table when it came to recognizing the global superpowers of food.
While Italy and France have spent years in the limelight, Spain was biding its time.
In recent years, however, people have come to celebrate the extraordinary flavors and variety of produce the cuisine has to offer.
High-profile chefs such as Ferran Adria, mastermind of the now-closed El Bulli restaurant, and the Roca brothers, founders of the El Celler de Can Roca, have brought Spain’s alta cocina international acclaim.
But the heart of Spanish cooking remains in its rustic, homespun nature, a legacy of a time when hard-pressed Spaniards had to work the land for everything it would offer.
These 14 dishes — from seafood and meat to rice and pastries — are essential meals on any trip to Spain.
Paella is perhaps the most famous Spanish dish of all, and certainly one of the most abused.
Authentic paella originates from the region around Valencia, and comes in two varieties: Paella Valenciana, with rabbit and chicken; and seafood paella.
Saffron gives the rice its color, and the base should be left to crisp into a mouth-watering black crust, called the socarrat. Always eaten at lunchtime.
Where to try? La Matandeta near Albufera, Valencia
A staple among the small dishes that make up a classic tapas menu, patatas bravas — “brave potatoes” — is named for its spicy sauce, rare in a land that generally shuns fiery food.
The potatoes are cubed and shallow fried and served the same everywhere.
The sauce can come in any number of ways, from spicy ketchup to garlic mayonnaise with a dusting of pimiento (smoked paprika), or both.
One theory holds that the dirtier the bar, the better the bravas.
“Tapas originated in southern Spain and is an adaptation to the social culture of eating and drinking outside the home, and fulfills the same social function as the English public house and other similar institutions,” explains Shawn Hennessey, who runs tapas tours of Seville.
“It’s important to note that the tapeo (tapas crawl) is not primarily a ‘drinking culture’ thing — it’s oriented to friends and family with a communal atmosphere.
“Intoxication and rowdiness are rare. Key factors are the social sharing of food, and the opportunity to try a lot of different things in one meal. In short, tapas are a way of life.”
Where to try? La Taverna del Clnic, Barcelona
A prized dish in Spain, bacalao, or salted cod, was brought back by Spanish fisherman from as far afield as Norway and Newfoundland — the fish not being found in local waters; it was salted to preserve it on the journey.
It has to be left to soak in water for at least 24 hours to remove all but the slightest tang of salt.
Bacalao is served in all manner of dishes; one of the most popular is with pil-pil sauce, made of olive oil garlic and the juice of the fish, and typical in the Basque Country.
Where to try? Bar Gatz, Bilbao
A favorite of the northwestern Asturias region and based around the white fabe bean, fabada is a one-pot feast usually served with a mixture of pork meats.
Chorizo, pork belly and bacon are common accompaniments, as is morcilla, Spanish blood sausage, which tastes far better than it should.
Where to try? Casa Gerardo, Prendes
Think it’s impossible to fry milk?
Leche frita, or fried milk, is a popular dessert made by whipping up milk, egg yolks and flour. This is left to chill and solidify, before being coated in breadcrumbs and fried.
Can be served hot or cold.
Where to try? Casa Alvarez, Madrid