In my life-long quest to find new delicious, nutritious and exotic Spanish foods, I one day stumbled upon oreja. That’s oreja de cerdo. Yes, it is, in fact a pig’s ear: little bits of skin, fat and cartilage, fried on a hot skillet.
Friends from La Mancha had been telling me about oreja for years, but after having unimpressive experiences ordering it in a couple of small towns, I was still unconvinced. Until I found an old-style bar in the Huertas called Casa Toni (Calle de la Cruz, 14, just a couple of blocks from Puerta del Sol). At Casa Toni, they make the oreja crispier, without any of the sliminess or stickiness I had found in other places.
Judging from the looks I get from people when I tell them about it, oreja is a purely regional dish from La Mancha and Andalucía. People from the north are shocked at the idea, and people from other countries universally respond, Qué? Eso se come? when I invite them to share a crackling plate of cartilage with me. Even madrileños under age 60 aren’t too excited about it — they just tell me I should eat more cocido.
When it came time to learn how to cook oreja at home, I asked some friends, and nobody seemed to know. It’s something their grandmothers always make for them, apparently, or something they get at restaurants.
So, not having a Spanish grandmother of my own to ask, I did what any aspiring young chef would do: I went to ask old women at the butcher’s shop. In my unglamorous working-class neighborhood, surely people have been through times in which they would have been happy to have pig’s ear for the table. Of course, they were more than happy to share their wisdom.
According to them, it’s best if you buy oreja cocida, pre-boiled and pre-cut into bite-sized pieces. It only costs a few euros to get a half kilo vacuum-packed. After that you fry it in a little oil on very high heat, and that’s it.
To achieve very high heat on a normal stove, I highly recommend an iron skillet. They weigh a lot more than a normal skillet, and cost about double, but having one in your kitchen is a game-changer, and not just for oreja — you can also make amazing pan-fried steak in an iron skillet, which is a useful skill if you don’t have access to a barbecue. You’ll never get aluminum as hot as you can get iron!What my friendly neighborhood grandmothers didn’t tell me, though, is that as soon as you drop pieces of pig’s ear onto very high heat, they’ll jump right out of the pan at you, flying through the air at high speeds, endangering anyone who happens to be present.
The solution is a pan diffuser: a wire mesh lid you can buy in any chino store which will keep the ear from flying away. The oil still pops quite a bit, so don’t cook ear while wearing your best cashmere sweater, and be careful to keep your face away from the pan.
Serve the crispy pig’s ear with some chopped garlic and parsley on top, and a glass of red wine. Some places give you some brava sauce also, which adds a nice touch. Enjoy!
Where is your favorite place to enjoy oreja in Madrid? Let us know in the comments!
Daniel Welsch is a teacher and author who moved to Madrid at a ridiculoulsly young age. Now, he's not as young as he used to be. He writes a blog for ESL students at madridingles.es and books which are available on Amazon and many other places online. Check out his personal blog at The Chorizo Chronicles.