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Catalan Cuisine Is Not the Same as Spanish Food

Unfortunately, Catalans are not very popular in the rest of Spain, especially in right-wing and narrow-minded circles. And Catalan food is related to other regions in Spain, but it's not the same thing. At all. We're pushing the envelope with new chefs...

Mikel Iturriaga

I'm Basque, but I've been living in Barcelona for ten years. Catalans have a strong pride in their region, since they have their own language, history, and culture. But at the same time, at least in Barcelona, most of the people are pretty open and welcoming—not a surprise if you think that this area took in a lot of people from other parts of Spain, and from other countries, in the last two decades.

Unfortunately, Catalans are not very popular in the rest of Spain, especially in right-wing and narrow-minded circles. Anyway, I think we Catalans, Basques, Andalusians, and Castilians have more in common between ourselves than it seems, and food is good evidence of that.

Catalan food is deeply related to other regions of Spain, especially Valencia and the Balearic Islands but also to the south; a lot of people from Andalusia and Extremadura came to work here in the 20th century. People here love gazpacho, tortilla de patatas, and paella as much as in the rest of Spain. It has its own identity. Catalans mix meat and seafood in the same recipe—it's called mar i muntanya, which means "sea and mountain" in Catalan—in a way that seems rather odd in the rest of Spain. And Catalans have a huge tradition of pork sausages—fuets, butifarras—but they don't use paprika in them, like in chorizo. They also like garlic A LOT, and their most distinctive sauces aioli ["garlic and oil" in Catalan], or romesco, are definitely not suitable for vampires. They have quite unique ways to treat vegetables, burning their skins to get them a smoky flavor, like in escalivada, or to thicken sauces in fish or meat stews. Flour is never really used, but a "picada" (an almond, parsley and garlic mix) gets added at the end of the cooking process. Oh! And they invented one of the best things in the whole world: pa amb tomàquet, toasted bread scrubbed with ripe fresh tomato, garlic, salt, and olive oil.

They also like garlic A LOT, and their most distinctive sauces aioli ["garlic and oil" in Catalan], or romesco, are definitely not suitable for vampires.

Catalans love to have savory things for breakfast, too, which is not pretty common in other regions of the country. Many of them have a small bocadillo, or sandwich, of ham or fuet, but the French breakfast of a croissant and coffee is popular as well. And while culturally we used to eat giant lunches—the biggest meal of the day—in the middle of the afternoon, it's getting more and more relegated to weekends; I think people eat lighter than 20 years ago at midday all over Spain. We work after that, you know? Although I think here we (fortunately) have dinner slightly earlier than in the south, our timetable is still INSANE: between 9:30 and 10 PM.

You can find traditional gems that serve this kind of food in a lot of places in Barcelona... but hardly in tourist areas. (There you will find bland versions of all that stuff, actually.) I would recommend unpretentious restaurants like Envalira or Casa Agustí, or new places like Suculent or Mont Bar, where they give the old Catalan dishes a modern twist. You should visit some traditional bodegas, places where bulk wine is sold but where you can also have a drink and eat some tapas: Bodega Montferry, Bodega Salvat, Cal Marino, or Bodega Quimet are wonderful and inexpensive.

Some cooks are making really innovative dishes, even taking ideas or products from other countries, but they make an effort to know and respect tradition at the same time.

There's also a lot of really exciting new restaurants cropping up. I really like Bardeni, a new "meat bar" very close to Sagrada Familia; they have mind-blowing steak tartare, fricandó (a typical Catalan stew), and burgers. La Monroe, the new Film Library bar/restaurant in the El Raval neighborhood is going to do great, since they serve honest food at fair prices and the place is really lovely. In a higher (and much more expensive) level, Pakta, the Japanese-Peruvian restaurant of Albert Adrià, is a must. He's about to open a Mexican place too, and I'm sure it's going to be terrific. I'm also looking forward to La Taverna del Suculent, the new place from one of the best Catalan chefs, Carles Abellan.

I like to think good bars and restaurants are coming back to basics and claiming things that make Spanish and Catalan food really unique. This doesn't mean they're being conservative: Some cooks are making really innovative dishes, even taking ideas or products from other countries, but they make an effort to know and respect tradition at the same time. The one thing I hope that doesn't change is having vermouth or cañas (small draught beers) with friends: They are the pure joy of life!

As told to Kirsten Stamn