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Spanish cuisine: Best food in the world right now?
Modern Spanish cuisine conquering the world, one plate at a time. Here's how to grab a bite of the trend
What's your favorite tapas?
Garlic shrimp? Stuffed mussels? Ham croquettes? Bravas potatoes?
Chances are even if you don't have a single fave, you know exactly what we're talking about and why we're asking. And, no, it's not because it's your turn to decide where to eat dinner.
You don't have to be the director of a gastronomic trade organization to see that Spanish cuisine is on the rise.
But since we happen to have one handy, why not let her tell the story?
"Spanish food exports to the rest of the world in 2012 recorded an increase of 11.9% and a total value of over €30 billion -- which in turn represents 16% of Spain’s total exports," says Ines Menendez de Luarca, director of Gastronomy of Spanish Trade and Investment (ICEX). "These figures certainly indicate a significant growth."
Where Spanish food thrives ... besides everywhere
Given its world-city reputation, it's little surprise that Hong Kong has become a hotbed of Spanish cuisine.
With the highly anticipated Catalunya Hong Kong opening earlier this week, local foodies have yet another reason to fiesta.
Catalunya Hong Kong joins a fierce competition with fellow Spanish places in the city -- popular Spanish places include 22 Ships by Maze former executive chef Jason Atherton, View 62 by Ferran Adria disciple Paco Roncero, Boqueria (you might know its sister tapas bar from New York) and Vi Cool from Michelin-starred chef Sergi Arola.
Despite the boom in supply, the demand for Spanish food appears limitless. After a soft opening earlier this week, Catalunya says its tables are fully booked into May.
The restaurant has assembled a team of celebrated experts from five-time San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurant list-maker, elBulli, as well as three restaurants -- El Celler de Can Roca, Mugaritz and Arzak -- that consistently rank among someone's top 10 world's best restaurants.
Headed by Barcelona chef Alain Devahive Tolosa, an elBulli veteran, Catalunya serves authentic Spanish cuisine with a modern twist.
Hong Kong isn't the only city with an insatiable demand for Spanish food made by Spanish chefs.
"Countries ranging from Brazil to Hong Kong, Poland and the United Kingdom have seen Spanish chefs opening restaurants in the last five years, along with foreign investors in different countries -- London, New York, Melbourne -- opening Spanish restaurants," says Menendez de Luarca.
According to Menendez de Luarca, Spanish chefs have opened more than 30 restaurants abroad in recent years and a few Spanish companies have opened worldwide franchise tapas bars, such as Lizarran, which operates in the United States, from New York to Florida to California.
More on CNN: Best new restaurants in Hong Kong
In Singapore, 10 new tapas bars opened last year alone, including chef Alain Devahive Tolosa's Catalunya Singapore, which debuted nine months before Catalunya Hong Kong.
“When we were sourcing and researching the trend before the opening of Catalunya Singapore, we could see a big trend of Spanish cuisine also in Hong Kong,” says Tolosa. “That’s why we opened Catalunya Hong Kong (shortly) after Catalunya Singapore.”
“From the traditional tapas scene when we opened the city’s first Spanish restaurant 21 years ago, we’ve seen a big change in the Spanish food scene,” says Anna Chau, CEO of King Parrot Group in Hong Kong. “Now people are expecting great presentation, new cooking methods and skillful details instead of just straightforward Spanish cuisine."
King Parrot Group owns four Spanish restaurants in Hong Kong, including View 62 by Paco Roncero, which opened in 2012, and its 21-year-old Spanish flagship, El Cid.
In gastronomic capitals of London and New York, critics are also reporting on the evolution of modern Spanish cuisine.
The New York Times has called Spanish cuisine a major trend, thanks to its intense flavors and the technical skills of its leading chefs.
New restaurants keep opening in the States, as well.
Owned by Boqueria founder Yann de Rochefort and led by acclaimed Spanish chef Dani Garcia, modern Spanish restaurant Manzanilla opened last month in New York to great excitement.
Often credited with bringing the tapas concept to the United States, awarding-winning chef José Andrés operates his four Jaleo restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area and Las Vegas -- each continues to do brisk business.
London's luxury Halkin hotel recently opened its own Basque restaurant, Ametsa with Arzak Instruction (that's a bigger mouthful than you'll get on some tapas plates).
“The Spanish food scene [in London] is evolving -- foodies continue to expect innovative cuisine but with top quality and locally sourced produce,” said a hotel spokesperson, explaining the decision to go Spanish.
More on CNN: Small plates, big appeal: Tapas craze hits Singapore
Surpassing French and Italian cuisines?
Those looking for an explanation of the tapas boom need only look at the noisy tables.
“The way that tapas allows sharing among a group of friends helps boost its popularity,” says King Parrot Group CEO Chau. “In recent years, people are looking for ambiance more than just the food. We often see people coming to eat in groups of eight or 10.”
More on CNN: Insider Guide: What to do in Barcelona
Menendez de Luarca attributes the rise of Spanish cuisine around the world to a culinary revolution that began in Spain.
"The evolution of the restaurant sector in Spain -- the rise of a modern cuisine built on tradition and prime fresh produce -- and the international fame of Ferran Adrià and many others after him, all contributed to the success of Spanish food in the last 10 years," says Menendez de Luarca.
“Spanish food has been the leader of world cuisine for the last 15 years,” says Tolosa. "Spanish and Catalan cuisines have advanced to a much higher level than other cuisines, like French and Italian. Just look at the list of the top 10 restaurants in the world ... three of them are Spanish."
Tolosa's former employer, elBulli, a five-time winner on San Pellegrino’s World’s Best 50 Restaurants list, may be the most obvious example. The temporarily closed restaurant in Roses, Catalonia, was the leader of a culinary revolution, known for its molecular gastronomy.
“A culinary revolution is not just creating 100 new dishes, but a new way of cooking,” says Tolosa. “It began in Spain and has given Spanish cuisine very good marketing.”
As long as those marketing efforts continue to pay off, we'll continue trying our luck booking a table. Anyone got the number for Catalunya Hong Kong? Oh, yeah, right here.
During its soft opening (now through the end of April), Catalunya Hong Kong will serve dinner only; G/F, Guardian House, Morrison Hill, 32 Oi Kwan Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong; +852 2866 7900; firstname.lastname@example.org; catalunya.hk