When it comes to food, Barcelona isn’t so much a Spanish city as a Catalan one.
An ancient, triangular-shaped region with 7.5 million inhabitants, the autonomous region of Catalunya has had its own language, history, culture, and traditions for close to a thousand years. While today, language might be the thing that most defines Catalan identity, its distinctive food follows closely behind. And the capital of Catalunya itself is also the undisputed capital of la cuina catalana — Barcelona.
From the 12th century, the principality of Catalunya had been in a union with the medieval kingdom of Aragon, and together they controlled a giant swath of the western Mediterranean, including what’s now southern Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, Malta, the Balearic Islands, and parts of Greece. Even then, la cuina catalana — rooted in elements of its Greek, Roman, and Arab past — was highly regarded, with collections of its recipes printed throughout the Middle Ages (the Llibre de Sent Soví, published in 1324, is among the oldest surviving manuscripts in Europe). This cooking was representative of a rich, independent culture that included its own constitution, laws, and political structure, and Catalunya retained these even after the 15th-century marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella joined Aragon and Castile and laid the foundations for a modern, unified Spain. It wasn’t until the fall of Barcelona in 1714, at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, that Catalunya lost its long-held autonomy. It would take (with a brief exception around the Spanish Civil War) more than 250 years to get it back.
But over these centuries, the region continued to foster its distinct identity. And its cuisine continued to absorb influences, especially with the arrival of products from the Americas, in dishes from European chefs working in Barcelona during the 19th century, and from the immigrants from other parts of Spain drawn to Catalunya’s economic prosperity in the 1950s and 1960s as the country grew more industrialized.
During Francisco Franco’s dictatorship (1939-1975), Catalans suffered particularly stringent cultural repression, including the prohibition of their language in public spaces. Yet Catalan food was neither political nor politicized. Even if scarce at times, it was always a constant. It has survived more recent turbulence, too — in the fall of 2017, Catalunya’s autonomy was suspended, its parliament dissolved, its leaders arrested, and direct rule imposed from Madrid for more than seven months due to the Catalan government’s push for independence from Spain. Still, the cuisine has continued to thrive and evolve as newer waves of immigration from Latin America, North Africa, and around Europe have added another layer of global ingredients and flavors to the Catalan canon.
“A country’s cuisine is its landscape in a pot,” goes a dictum attributed to Catalunya’s foremost food writer, Josep Pla. This cuisine is much more than a coastal one. Bordered to the north by the Pyrenees Mountains and France, to the east by 360 miles of Mediterranean coast, and with an interior of farmland and agricultural plains, the region’s products find their way into Barcelona’s markets, and ultimately, its kitchens. They’re combined by Catalan cooks in all sorts of unique ways, stewing the mar i muntanya (sea and mountains) or the dolç i salat (sweet and savory) together in the same pot. Chicken with langoustine. Lobster with chocolate. Meatballs with cuttlefish. Squid stuffed with ground pork. Spinach with pine nuts and raisins.
There are other defining signatures of Catalan cooking, like sofregit — a sweet pulp of onions and tomatoes patiently cooked down in olive oil. It’s not a sauce but the flavorful foundation on which countless dishes are built. Then there’s picada, a paste pounded in a mortar from garlic, parsley, and almonds or hazelnuts, plus maybe saffron or even chocolate (in its ancient guise as a spice). It’s stirred in toward the end of cooking to give everything from pots of lentils to braised meats more body, depth of flavor, and earthiness.
Perhaps all this makes Catalan cooking sound baroque. But as a rule, it isn’t. The focus remains on les matèries primes, high-quality ingredients that are cooked in ways that draw out and heighten their inherent flavors, not hide them. This is one reason why Barcelona has 39 covered food markets and thousands of small specialty shops. If the point is to fully taste that sea bream baked with just a pinch of salt or those wild rovelló mushrooms on the grill, then they’d better be fresh.
Here, the seasons’ offerings are often celebrated for themselves: a cargolada for cargols (snails), a calçotada when calçots (local spring onions) ripen in late winter, a sardinada for sardines in summer. People here particularly like doing things in groups, and the Catalan table is often a crowded one — especially when the celebration is food itself.
After Franco’s death in 1975, freshly democratic Spain wrote a new constitution, and Catalunya was granted autonomy in many matters of regional self-government, including the restoration of their parliament and control over language and education. In 1979, with Catalunya’s culture beginning to visibly reemerge (including the return of Catalan as the language of the school system), the eminent journalist Néstor Luján warned that its cooking still faced two enemies: “la prisa” (being in a hurry) and tourism. Visitors, he said, whether from inside or outside Spain, seemed barely interested in Catalan cuisine. While la prisa remains a threat to virtually every traditional cuisine on the planet, the impact of tourism on Catalan cuisine has shifted.
It isn’t the lack of interest from tourists that threatens it today in Barcelona, but rather, the sheer popularity of the city. It is easy to miss many of Catalunya’s potent culinary traditions in the sea of globalization and often poorly prepared tourist grub being served to visitors.
The 16 dishes that follow are classics of the Catalan kitchen, and you can find them all in Barcelona, the region’s capital and culinary crossroads. So skip that pre-prepared paella and giant mug of sangria on Las Ramblas, or even a bowl of grains in that third-wave coffee shop, and seek out these dishes instead.
Pa amb tomàquet
(country bread rubbed with tomato and olive oil)
Nothing is more emblematic of the Catalan table than pa amb tomàquet, wide slices of (usually) toasted country bread rubbed with tomato, generously drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled with sea salt. For breakfast, for lunch, for a snack, with cured cold cuts, roasted escalivada vegetables (see below), or a piece of Spanish tortilla, alongside grilled meats or sardines on the barbecue, pa amb tomàquet is simple, practical (it likely began as a way to rescue old bread), and ubiquitous. There is even a special tomato grown just for this: tomàquets de penjar, small and intensely flavored tomatoes braided together with twine in clusters. Harvested in summer, thick-skinned tomàquets de penjar can hang without refrigeration until spring. Be prepared to make pa amb tomàquet yourself in rustic restaurants. Pro tip: The garlic is strictly optional. Peel the clove and lightly rub it on the bread before the tomatoes.
(roasted red peppers, eggplant, and onions)
The name of the dish derives from the Catalan word meaning “to cook on hot embers,” which gives the roasted red peppers, eggplant, and onions their characteristic smoky flavors. The vegetables are roasted whole, peeled, torn into long strips, drenched in olive oil, and served cold. Order it as an appetizer with plenty of pa amb tomàquet.
Esqueixada de bacallà
(shredded salt cod and tomato salad)
Ever since the Basques began bringing dried and salted cod to Spain back in the Middle Ages, the country’s cooks have been developing a seemingly inexhaustible number of ways to prepare it. The Catalans developed their own range of unique bacallà dishes, including the deeply popular esqueixada. The name is from the Catalan verb esqueixar (to shred), referring to the small, hand-torn pieces of cod in this magnificent salad with tomatoes, black olives, and olive oil.
Escudella i carn d’olla
This two-course soup was a daily staple for centuries in Catalunya, and remains so beloved that a full version is served as part of a traditional Catalan Christmas meal. Essentially, bones and pieces of meat (beef, pork, poultry), a large, oblong meatball called a pilota, chickpeas, and herbs and vegetables get boiled for a flavorful broth. These are removed, and short, thin fideus noodles or another small soup pasta are cooked in the broth. (For Christmas, the pasta is a large snail shape called “galets de nadal” — literally, “Christmas cookies.”) The soup with pasta (the escudella of the name) is ladled into bowls and the carn d’olla (“meat from the pot”) and chickpeas are served on a platter as the second course.
Espinacs amb panses i pinyons
(spinach with raisins and pine nuts)
Mixing sweet and savory is a hallmark of Catalan cuisine, and nowhere are these combined as simply — or deliciously — as in spinach with plump raisins and toasted pine nuts. So associated with the region is this vibrant dish that elsewhere in Spain it is known as espinacas a la catalana.
Calçots amb romesco
(calçots with romesco sauce)
Calçots are long, thick green onions that ripen in late winter. Grilled over embers, wrapped in newspaper, and brought to the table in concave terra-cotta roof tiles, they’re usually eaten outdoors and in groups. Half of the fun is how you eat them: Peel away the blackened outside layer and drag the sweet-and-smoky white flesh through a bowl of romesco, a chunky sauce made from dried red peppers, roasted tomatoes and garlic, almonds, hazelnuts, bread crumbs, olive oil, and vinegar. Tilt your head back, hold the calçot as high as possible above you, and slowly lower it into your mouth. The cheesy bibs and plastic gloves that restaurants offer are recommended for the novice, the well-dressed, or those lacking confidence in their hand-mouth coordination. It is common to have a porró of wine with calçots. Held at arm’s length, the thin-spouted glass beaker is tilted downward and wine streams into the mouth. (Ideally; the bib might be useful for this, too.)
Arròs caldós amb llamàntol
(soupy rice with lobster)
“Soupy” rice with lobster manages to be a perfect blend of extravagance and comfort. It incorporates many of the finest elements of local cooking, it begins with a caramelized onion and tomato sofregit base and ends by stirring in a pounded picada of herbs, garlic, almonds, and dried red peppers to thicken the dish and give it a lush, nutty background. Between these characteristic Catalan bookends comes lobster, plenty of seafood for the rich stock, and rice grown along the rim of the Mediterranean. The dish’s name derives from caldo (broth), and should be liquid enough to eat with a spoon. But just how soupy varies from kitchen to kitchen.
Arròs negre amb allioli
(black rice with allioli)
Fishermen eke out every last bit of worth from their catch. That means nothing gets wasted, not even the ink from a cuttlefish. The intense, jet-black distillation of the sea transforms this moist seafood rice dish from the Costa Brava north of Barcelona into something wholly spectacular. The key is the allioli served on the side, traditionally (and laboriously) made by pounding garlic with salt in a ceramic mortar and then adding olive oil drop by drop while stirring with the pestle until it forms a thick emulsion. It perfectly balances the natural sweetness of the ink.
Canelons de carn
(cannelloni stuffed with meat)
Catalan cuisine absorbs influences and dishes, and canelons are a case in point. Originating back in the 19th century from Italian or Italian-speaking Swiss chefs working in Barcelona, canelons became not just hugely popular, but iconic. Rolled squares of pasta are stuffed with braised and ground beef, pork, and chicken, covered with bechamel, and slid into the oven to give the topping of grated cheese a gratin crust. Few Catalan families would ever consider celebrating the Christmas holidays without a tray of canelons, traditionally prepared on December 26 using the leftovers from the escudella i carn d’olla.
Suquet de pescadors
(fisherman’s stew with monkfish and potatoes)
While there’s not much in the way of liquid in this simple fish stew, a small bit of deeply flavored sauce — the suquet, the diminutive for suc (juice) — gives the dish its name. Suquet comes from the fishing villages of the Costa Brava, where pescadors prepared the dish either on their boat out at sea or beside it once back on shore, using the fish that wouldn’t fetch much in the market. That, incredibly, once included rap (monkfish), which today remains the fish of choice.
Bacallà a la llauna
(salt cod baked “on the tin”)
Dried and salted cod was the ideal fish to store in pre-freezer days. But once desalted through soaking and then cooked, it has a flavor superior to the fresh stuff. There are countless recipes for this key Catalan staple, and bacallà a la llauna is one of the best. Originating in Barcelona restaurants during the 18th century, it is prepared in a llauna (a rectangular baking tin) with olive oil, paprika, and plenty of sliced garlic.
Mongetes amb botifarra
(white beans with grilled pork sausages)
Many Catalans consider this pairing of white beans and fat, fresh sausages their national dish. It is pure country fare that has been widely embraced in Barcelona as well. Note the order in the dish’s name: It’s the tender beans here that are key. Be sure to generously dollop with allioli.
Mandonguilles amb sípia i pèsols
(meatballs with cuttlefish and peas)
One aspect of the traditional Catalan kitchen is combining the mar i muntanya (sea and mountains) in the same pot. The combinations are often original, even unexpected. One enduring favorite is this dish of stewed meatballs (rolled from equal amounts of pork and beef) with cuttlefish and fresh peas. Be sure to use plenty of bread to mop up the rich, picada-thickened sauce.
Cargols a la llauna
(snails grilled “on the tin”)
Whether cooked in a spicy tomato sauce or stewed with rabbit, snails hold an important place in Catalan cuisine. There are more than two dozen traditional Catalan recipes for cargols — more than twice that for chicken. Try them grilled a la llauna. Placed on the baking sheet with their openings facing upward, the snails are drizzled with olive oil, seasoned with salt and pepper, given a pinch of finely chopped garlic and parsley, and cooked in their own juices.
Mel i mató
(honey with fresh cheese)
Fresh cheese smothered with honey and garnished with nuts couldn’t make for a simpler dessert. Made in Catalunya since medieval times from cow or goat’s milk (or a mixture for the two), mató is a soft and slightly textured cheese, with a great milky freshness. Sugar can be sprinkled on top but honey is the classic sweetener.
(Catalan burnt cream)
There may be no more perfect way to end a meal than breaking through a thin crust of burnt sugar with a spoon to a creamy custard scented with lemon peels and cinnamon. Crema catalana is similar to creme brulee; the Catalan version is thickened with milk, egg yolks, and starch rather than whole eggs and cream. Local legend credits convent nuns who prepared a flan for a visiting bishop. The flan failed, and the nuns added some burnt sugar to the top of the liquidy mess to salvage the dessert. When the bishop took a bite, he shouted, “Crema!”— Catalan for “It’s burning hot!” as well as for “cream.”
Jeff Koehler, winner of a James Beard Award and two IACP cookbook awards, has lived in Barcelona since 1996. He is the author of seven books, including La Paella and Spain: Recipes and Traditions. Gerard Moral is a Barcelona born and based photographer specializing in portrait, travel, and lifestyle photography.