Get creative with Gambas Pil Pil

by Lorraine Williamson
gambas pil pil

Spain is a culinary paradise, offering a rich tapestry of flavours and dishes that delight the senses. One such dish that stands out is Gambas Pil Pil, a mouthwatering prawn dish that has captured the hearts of food lovers both in Spain and around the world.

Let’s dive into the history and details of this delectable dish and provide you with a step-by-step recipe to recreate it in your own kitchen.

The History of Gambas Pil Pil

Gambas Pil Pil, also known as Gambas al Pil Pil, hails from the southern region of Spain, particularly Andalucia. This dish epitomises the Mediterranean diet, featuring fresh prawns sautéed in olive oil, garlic, and chili. The name “Pil Pil” is believed to mimic the sizzling sound of the dish as it cooks.

Traditionally served as a tapa, Gambas Pil Pil embodies the essence of Spanish social dining, encouraging friends and family to gather, share, and enjoy good food and company. Its popularity has spread beyond Spain’s borders, making it a beloved dish in Spanish restaurants worldwide.


To make Gambas Pil Pil at home, you’ll need the following ingredients:

  • 500g (medio kilo) of fresh king prawns (peeled and deveined)
  • 6 cloves of garlic (thinly sliced)
  • 1-2 red chili peppers (sliced, seeds removed for less heat)
  • 100ml of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon of smoked paprika (optional for added depth)
  • Fresh parsley (chopped, for garnish)
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Crusty bread (for serving)


Prepare the prawns:

Twist to remove the head and peel off the shell/scale starting from the head and moving to the tail. Grab hold of the tail, squeeze and pull the prawn so the tail comes away. This next step is optional as some people prefer to devein and remove the “poop”. There are two ways to do this, the first is with your hands. Simply squeeze the head section of the prawn, and the black will come to the surface. You can then just pull it out. This is the way I do it. However, if you don´t want to get your hands dirty, you can use the second method. For this you will need a sharp knife to make a small, shallow cut along the length of the back of the prawn. Then, using the knife you can lift out the digestive tract.

Rinse the shrimp under cold water and pat them dry with paper towels. Season lightly with salt and pepper. At this stage, I like to marinade the prawns and give them a little time in the fridge. But if you are short on time, you can just go straight to the next step. If you have the time, add the prawns to a dish and drizzle with olive oil and lemon. Add some sliced garlic and sprinkle a mix of sweet and spicy paprika (pimentón dulce and pimentón picante). Cover and let the flavours fuse in the fridge.

Heat the olive oil:

In a large skillet or earthenware dish, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the sliced garlic and chili peppers. Cook gently, stirring occasionally, until the garlic becomes golden brown and fragrant. Be careful not to burn the garlic, as it can turn bitter.

Add the prawns:

Increase the heat to high and add the prawns to the skillet. Sauté them, stirring frequently, until they turn pink and opaque. This should take about 2-3 minutes. You can add some more paprika at this point depending on the level of heat you want, or even a splash or two of tabasco. (Note: be mindful of how much spice you are adding)


Remove the skillet from the heat and sprinkle the chopped parsley over the shrimp. Serve the Gambas Pil Pil immediately in the skillet or transfer to a serving dish. Accompany with crusty bread to soak up the flavourful oil.

Tips for the perfect Gambas Pil Pil

  • Freshness is Key: Use the freshest prawns you can find for the best flavour and texture although I tend to use frozen ones as they don´t take long to defrost.
  • Adjust the Heat: If you prefer a milder dish, reduce the amount of chili or remove the seeds. For more heat, add extra chili or a pinch of cayenne pepper.
  • Earthenware Dish: For an authentic presentation, cook and serve the dish in a traditional Spanish earthenware cazuela. It retains heat well, keeping the dish sizzling hot at the table.

Variations on the recipe

While Gambas Pil Pil is a traditional Andalucian dish, variations do exist, influenced by regional preferences and creative interpretations by chefs. Let’s explore some of these regional and chef-inspired variations that add a unique twist to this classic dish. For the vegetarians, mushrooms can be used instead of prawns.

Regional Variations

Basque Influence: In the Basque Country, seafood dishes often incorporate additional ingredients to enhance flavour and presentation. You might find Gambas Pil Pil served with a splash of dry white wine or a hint of saffron, which adds a subtle complexity to the dish.

Catalonia: In Catalonia, known for its bold and diverse cuisine, chefs may add a few cherry tomatoes to the dish. The tomatoes burst during cooking, adding a sweet and tangy element that complements the prawns and garlic.

Chef Variations

Poached Egg: Adding a poached egg is a modern twist that some chefs use to enrich the dish. The runny yolk, when broken, creates a luxurious sauce that melds with the spicy, garlicky oil. This variation is particularly popular in upscale restaurants looking to put a gourmet spin on traditional tapas.

Herb Infusions: While parsley is the traditional herb used in Gambas Pil Pil, chefs might experiment with other herbs like cilantro or basil. These herbs can provide a fresh, aromatic dimension that changes the flavour profile subtly but effectively.

Chorizo Addition: Adding slices of Spanish chorizo introduces a smoky, spicy element to the dish. The rendered fat from the chorizo adds depth to the olive oil, making it even more flavourful.

Serving with Aioli: In some interpretations, Gambas Pil Pil is served with a dollop of aioli (garlic mayonnaise) on the side. This adds a creamy texture and an extra garlic punch that complements the shrimp beautifully.

Experiment and Enjoy

Gambas Pil Pil is a versatile dish that can be adapted to suit different tastes and preferences. Whether you stick to the traditional recipe or explore some of these variations, you’re sure to enjoy a delicious and authentic taste of Spain.

Also read: Mediterranean seafood soup recipe

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