Barcelona is the capital city of Catalonia and one of the biggest, most populous cities in Spain. With its vibrant mix of tradition and modernity, history and cutting-edge technology, of and culture, it’s a major draw to tourists and expats alike.
There’s plenty of Spanish and Catalan culture for expats to explore in Barcelona, from its historic architecture to the live music scene, as well as the beaches and nightlife.For the food-loving expat however, the most exciting aspect of Barcelona is the opportunity to explore the local cuisine through the city’s many restaurants and street food stalls, and, if you’re lucky, in the home of a local. If you’re looking to eat your way through Barcelona but don’t know where to begin, here are ten dishes we highly recommend.
Pa amb tomàquet
You won’t find too many dishes in the world that are as simple as pa amb tomàquet, and yet, it’s likely to be one of your most enjoyable discoveries in Spanish cuisine. The name translates to “bread with tomato”, and there really isn’t much more to it than that – the bread is toasted, and then rubbed over with garlic, tomato, olive oil, and salt. It’s amazing how much flavor and delight can emerge from the combination of these five simple ingredients. Of course, with such minimalism, the quality and nature of your ingredients is very important. Traditionally, the bread that was used was a slice of “pa de pages”, and in some parts of the country, a specific variety of tomato would also be used. Nowadays, however, people tend to be less particular about this, although they remain very particular about putting their pa amb tomàquet together on the spot, eschewing any pre-made mixtures.
These mixtures are now widely available, especially in the big cities like Barcelona, but most Catalans and Barcelonians who take their food seriously consider them an insult to the dish. The pa amb tomàquet must be put together just before it’s eaten, and the order must be strictly followed: garlic, tomato, salt, and then olive oil. Pa amb tomàquet is usually eaten with sausages, cheese, and other items, but it’s delicious enough to be eaten by itself.
This is another simple classic, a traditional Catalan dish consisting of eggplant, bell peppers, and a few other vegetables roasted with olive oil, garlic, and salt. The name of the dish references the fact that it was traditionally “cooked in ashes” – basically, in the embers of an outdoor wood fire. Although this technique isn’t often used today, the vegetables are still usually lightly charred on a grill or a kitchen stove. The charred skin is then peeled off and discarded, while the flesh retains a nice smoky flavor that pairs well with many meats. Once again, since there are only a handful of ingredients that go into an escalivada, the quality of each ingredient is extremely important. The dish is often served with pa amb tomàquet, but it’s also served as tapas or used as a relish with meats.
Suquet de Peix
Catalan cuisine uses a lot of seafood, and Barcelona, being a port city, has an abundance of fresh, high-quality seafood that you must try. Suquet de Peix is a seafood stew that is said to have traditionally been made by fishermen in order to use up all the bits of fish that they were unable to sell. Even today, many people still assert that you’ll find the best suquet de peix in the house of a fishing family, but the dish has become popular all over Spain, and is now usually made with any cuts of any seafood. The dish is a simple one, with only a handful of ingredients (the main ingredients, apart from the seafood, are potatoes, tomatoes, and garlic, along with a few minimal spices and condiments), but like most classic stews, it’s one of the most comforting and satisfying things you’ll ever taste. Almost any Catalan restaurant in Barcelona will have this dish on their menu, but nothing can beat a well-made home-cooked version of this stew – which gives you yet another reason to make some local friends.
If you enjoy pork, you’re going to thoroughly enjoy living in Barcelona. Spain has an amazing range of sausages and other pork products, and in Barcelona you will often be able to order a platter of embutidos, which is what they call these cured meats. It’s a great way to try a little bit of several meats and find out which ones you really enjoy. An embutidos platter will always include Spanish chorizo, a delicious, spicy red sausage containing chopped pork and pork fat and seasoned with smoked paprika, salt, and a few other herbs and spices. Some of the other cured meats that tend to be included in these platters are lomo embuchado, which is a type of cured pork tenderloin, salchichón, which is usually smoked or dried and served in thin slices in the summer, and botifarra, a Catalan classic that comes in many varieties.
There are plenty of tapas dishes that you should explore while you’re in Barcelona, and many restaurants will have their own specialties that are worth trying. However, we wanted to mention one dish in particular – croquetas. As you will have guessed from the name, they’re a type of croquette, and while they have many similarities to croquettes in other parts of Europe and the world, they are also unique in many ways. Croquetas, unlike croquettes, tend to be made without mashed potatoes, and instead use a sort of béchamel sauce. Sometimes you will find plain croquetas, but they are typically filled with ham, chicken, or fish, and are breaded and deep fried like most croquettes are. In recent years, variations on the traditional fillings have become more and more common, especially in a big city like Barcelona. Some of these experimental fillings work well while others don’t. However, this is at least partly a question of personal taste. If you’re willing to go beyond the traditional croquetas, you could try some with mushrooms, cheese, spinach, and even local varieties of blood sausage.
Esqueixada is sometimes described as Catalan’s version of the ceviche, but this can be a misleading comparison. There are some similarities between the two dishes, but a ceviche uses raw fish, and while the fish in an esqueixada isn’t cooked, it isn’t entirely raw either – it’s salted and dried, which gives it a very different taste and texture compared to fish that is really raw. The fish that is used here is cod, known as “bacalao” (or “bacallà” in Catalan) in this cured state. The dried fish is soaked overnight or longer, and then shredded, which is where the name of the dish comes from – “esqueixar” in Catalan means “to shred”. Ingredients that accompany the bacallà in an esqueixada include tomatoes, onions, peppers, red wine vinegar, olive oil, and salt, with the occasional addition of romesco sauce, olives, hard-boiled eggs, and a few more garnishes. It’s a light and refreshing salad that is very popular and easy to find all through the summer in Barcelona.
Most visitors to Spain have already heard of paella, the Valencian rice dish that is now popular across most of Spain, and is often also found all around the world. Barcelona and the Catalonia region have their own versions of paella, which are fairly popular in the region, but what’s even more exciting and worth a try while you’re living in Barcelona is the more popular local dish called fideuà, which is a sort of seafood paella, but with pasta noodles instead of rice. The taste, the texture, and even the preparation of the dish are unusual and fascinating. For example, the noodles aren’t immersed and boiled, but are cooked in a shallow paella pan, where they are first browned in olive oil, and then further cooked in a small, periodic additions of seafood broth. The meat in the dish usually includes an assortment of fish, squid, and shellfish, and will tend to change with the season. It’s a fragrant, delicious one pot meal that you’ll want to return to over and over again.
Churros are popular in many parts of Europe, including Portugal and France, and expats from some parts of the US are also likely to be familiar with them. However, Spain has a special fondness for them, and Barcelona in particular has an abundance of places serving a variety of churros, from street stalls to cafes, and even dedicated “churrerias”. A churro is essentially a dough pastry (usually choux pastry) that has been deep fried and then sprinkled with sugar, and it is usually eaten with dulce de leche, café con leche, or a hot chocolate dip. The dough is piped through a star-shaped nozzle in order to give the churro its distinctive, ridged surface texture, and the final pastry may be a simple, straight stick, a loop, or twisted or curled into various shapes. Churros were traditionally eaten for breakfast, and they’re still part of the breakfast menu in many cafes, but they have now become an all-day snack, and are also popular as a late-night, after-party street food. Good churros are a delight at any time of the day, but they’re probably the most satisfying in the wee hours of the morning.
Mel I Mato
Mato is a fresh cheese that is a beloved traditional Catalan food, and Mel I Mato is essentially this cheese served with honey, which is the standard way of eating it. Once again, this is a wonderfully simple, minimal dish – the only other ingredient is chopped nuts (usually walnuts), which are occasionally added to provide some additional taste and texture. Honey and cheese may not sound like much of a dessert, and you will of course find plenty of other interesting desserts on most restaurant menus, but don’t judge or dismiss the Mel I Mato without trying it at least once. Mato is an unsalted whey cheese that is smooth and creamy, and the rich sweetness that the honey brings to it makes for a simple but sublime dessert. It’s also wonderfully low on sugar and calories, so you can end your meal and your day with dessert and still not feel guilty about it. If you’re making this dessert at home and want to jazz it up a bit, in addition to the nuts, you can also add some fruit – strawberries and figs go really well – and orange zest.
Crema Catalana is another Catalan dessert, and this one is very similar to France’s more famous crème brûlée. There’s a longstanding dispute as to which country can take credit for the invention of the dessert. Many claim that crema catalana recipes made their appearance in Catalan cookbooks as early as the fourteenth century, which is at least three centuries before crème brûlée. At their core, the two dishes are almost identical, consisting of a custard made with egg yolk, milk, and sugar, and topped with a layer of hard, lightly burnt caramel. However, the caramel in crema catalana has traditionally been made using a slightly different technique from that used in a crème brûlée, and more importantly, the custard is flavored with lemon or orange zest and cinnamon (instead of vanilla), giving it a considerably different touch. The custard by itself is often used in pastries and other desserts, but the crème brûlée style of eating it – in a small dish with the hard caramel on top – seems to be the most popular.