Gambas al Ajillo

I think the first meal that hit me as “Spanish” is a classic tapa called gambas al ajillo. At that moment I realized it was going to be harder to navigate a Spanish menu than I anticipated. This was quite a surprise to me. I speak and read Spanish passably well. I hardly ever have a problem reading a menu written in Spanish when I am at home in Texas. Well, Spanish in the Americas and Spanish in Spain are two different beasts.

The differences make sense in some ways. There are ingredients in Spain that are not that common in Latin America. They are thousands of miles apart with very different climates. The food traditions share a common root, but many dishes have diverged wildly from their sources. In the case of the word “gambas,” I had never once heard this word until I arrived in Spain. The word has always been “camarón.”

There are Actually THREE Words for Shrimp

So in the United States, we use the word shrimp. On rare occasions, we may say prawn. For most of us, a shrimp is a shrimp. The Spanish have a much deeper love affair with fish and seafood and for them, using one word is not enough. There are three main words, and each one indicates a SIZE of shrimp. The largest version of shrimp is a langostino. Say langostino in Central America or Mexico and you can expect to get a lobster. But in Spain, it is a jumbo shrimp. The next size down and most common is the gamba. This is the average size of shrimp. The size of any shrimp you might find on an American table. The smallest size is camarón. Except if you say camarón to a Spaniard, they have no idea what you mean. It is a gamba. So while in Spain, order gambas.

About the Shells

One thing you take away from this is that shrimp shells bring a lot of flavor to the party. I hate peeling shrimp before I cook them. But, lots of people DO NOT LIKE to deal with the peeling the shrimp when they eat their meal. For me, I love the messiness of it. I love licking all the golden spicy, garlicky, shrimp infused olive oil off my fingers. I take great pleasure in the silky oiliness of it all. Leaving the shell on makes me happy. This may not be a great pleasure for you. You may even serve these to guests. In that case, shell the shrimp before you cook them. Its ok, it is still a delightful little plate of food.


Gambas al Ajillo

Spanish Style Shrimp and Garlic (Gambas al Ajillo)

Yield: 4 people

This recipe is a magical combination of shrimp, garlic, olive oil, and chili. I like a squeeze of lemon juice too. Play around with the basics of this, but no matter what it will be tasty and delicious.


  • 1 lb Shrimp, med, shell on
  • 3 cloves Garlic, peeled
  • 1-2 fresno or jalapeño pepper, red
  • 1 cup Olive Oil, EVOO
  • 1 Lemon
  • 1/4 cup Parsley, chopped
  • 1 tsp salt, kosher


Prepare all your ingredients

  1. If you are shelling your shrimp, remove the shells, but leave the tails on.
  2. Peel your garlic being careful to keep them whole. If you have a mandolin use it to slice your garlic, this will give you lovely even slices. If you don't have a mandolin slice the garlic with a knife. Try and slice the garlic as thinly and evenly as you can.
  3. Do the same with your red chili.


  1. Heat the olive oil in a cast iron skillet on med heat. When the olive oil is shimmering, add the chilis, the slices of garlic, salt, and the shrimp into the oil. Distribute the ingredients evenly. Cook for 5-8 minutes until the shrimp are opaque and pink.
  2. You want to keep an eye on the garlic and the chilis while they are cooking. You want the garlic slices to be crispy and golden. Do not let them burn. If they burn, they will be bitter and gross. Once the garlic turn golden and crispy remove them from the pan. When they are all the ingredients finish cooking, transfer everything into a serving dish. 
  3. You can serve everything in one big bowl and let people tuck in and help themselves. For a slightly more elegant experience divide into four separate plates. Make sure each serving gets plenty of garlic and chili. Sprinkle everything with parsley and serve. Don't forget to have plenty of good bread on hand so people can mop up the oil. You won't want to waste a bit of that golden, garlic infused oil.

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