Photo by E Vön Zita/Flickr CC
Along with cured ham and olive oil, tortillas are probably amongst the most commonly eaten Spanish dishes you're going to find. They're served in pretty much every bar; most everyone grows up with them; almost everyone I've ever asked has strong opinions about how to make one properly.
For clarity's sake, let me say up front that in Spain tortillas are made of eggs, not cornmeal, so, despite the common name, forget for the moment about the Mexican tortillas. The term for tortilla most often used in translation is "omelet," but for me at least, omelets are a pretty different dish, both in the execution and in the eating. The closest thing I can use for visual comparison is probably an Italian frittata, but the process for making the two is different, as is the way that they're eaten.
In Spain tortillas seem to have much the same sort of emotional and family food memory associations as something like grits do down south in this country. Here in Spain country people tell stories of taking tortillas out into the fields with them. Chef Toño Perez of Atrió restaurant, one of the best known chefs in Extramadura, told me, "If somebody in Spain closes their eyes and thinks about food, they would always like to eat tortilla, it is something that comes to their mind."
"Tortillas," another Spanish acquaintance conveyed, "remind me of when I was little. Every time I prepare one and it turns golden-brown, I remember how I used to gaze with admiration and intrigue at the final result that my grandmother used to get. It was truly an adventure, and the reward was to discover at the end the golden-brown and perfectly round surface; it was fascinating."
Another friend told me how her mother "used to leave me with a slice of tortilla to eat at three a clock in the morning, after I came from a walk." Even newcomers to Spain come to love them passionately -- check out Ann Arborite Adam Pasick's piece on the subject in Foods from Spain's spring 2008 newsletter. I think the last word on this go to Carlos Galtier, who works at the Commercial Office of Spain in New York. Sharing the dilemma of any cook who's grown up in a home run by a good cook, he said, "I'll never be able to make a tortilla as good as my mother's. Her tortillas still taste better than mine. But," he added, "I keep trying, and my friends keep thanking me for letting them enjoy my efforts!"
Legend has it that the tortilla was invented by a peasant who sought to serve a particularly hungry king and that they've been made on the Iberian peninsula for many centuries. They were a big part of Sephardic Jewish cooking, prominent in the communities of Tunisia and Algeria where they were known as marcoude. Similar styles of egg dishes are found in the Sephardic communities of Greece and Turkey, though they're usually made with mashed, instead of whole-sliced, potatoes. (For more on this subject see Joyce Goldstein's excellent book Saffron Shores.) In the early years of the 20th century, the tortilla was a practical way for people without much money to eat. It called on only onions, potatoes, olive oil, and eggs--probably the ingredients most commonly available all over Spain, and allowed for the addition of most any other ingredient that the poor might have on hand.
What you really need to know, though, is that a well-made Spanish tortilla is one of the best things you'll eat in Spain, or anywhere. On top of that, they're really easy-to-make, and the kind of carefully crafted comfort food that few Americans have ever had the chance to experience.
Although the traditional potato version can take about 45 minutes to make, other tortillas with other ingredients can be ready in less time than that. And because tortillas keep well I always make more than I really need in the moment and save the rest for supper the next day--I actually like them better after they've been allowed to rest for a while.