The traditional dishes of Catalonia are as famous and diverse as its culture and architecture, and are as good a reason as any for visiting our beautiful region. Understanding local dishes is to understand its people and its geography. The richness of Catalan’s food comes from combining local ingredients found between the mountains and the sea. The key is simplicity with local produce, honouring the seasons and the wonderful array of ingredients each provides. The quality of these dishes is as good on a Catalan family table as it is in a local restaurant. Catalans pride themselves on having a healthy Mediterranean diet that is full of flavour, simple to cook, and enjoyable to eat. Without further adieu, here is our list of the top 15 must try dishes from Catalonia:
1. Coca Catalana
A coca is a bread that can be baked sweet or savory. You could find it on a menu as a tapa, starter or a dessert. The savory version is normally served in the style of a pizza using a variety of toppings such as peppers, onions, olives, tuna or anchovies. The sweet version has an egg custard or sugar topping. You will find a sweet version to accompany many local religious feast days and these are normally also topped with candied fruit or nuts. You will find stalls at the local markets selling the different versions or ask at the local bakery.
2. Pan con tomate
Though bread with tomato is traditional all over Spain each region has their own version of this simple but delicious side dish or tapa. In Catalonia the dish is made using the local Coca de pa, a wide sour-dough loaf. This is sliced through the centre and then rubbed with a tomato that has been cut in half then extra virgin olive oil is added. When eaten as a tapa or starter it can be served as it is or topped with thinly sliced ham.
So there are two elements to this dish and both are as Catalan as Gaudi himself. To begin, Calçots are a vegetable from the onion family that is picked in the winter time. Cooked on the barbeque or on an open wood fire, the burned outer layer is removed and the inside is eaten. Calçcots’ best friend is a version of a Romesco sauce, a creamy red dip made from tomatoes, ñoras or peppers, garlic, almonds, olive oil, sherry vinegar and breadcrumbs from bread that has been rubbed with garlic. Every great Calçots maker will have their own romesco sauce. During the winter months you will see Calçotadas signs outside some restaurants, usually in the Tarragona or the Penedés region of southern Barcelona. To truly enjoy the real experience you dip the calçot in the sauce using your hands then tilt your head back and drop the full calçot into your mouth. Watch your clothes with the sauce!
This side dish is so simple you will find it in every restaurant and every Catalan family table. Served cold, the ease in which this can be made belies the health benefits as it has a low calorie count but is high in fibre. Made from roasted or baked red peppers, aubergine and onion, the three vegetables are cooked whole until soft. Once they have cooled the skin and seeds are removed and the vegetables are cut into strips then sprinkled with salt and olive oil. Often they are served in restaurants with anchovies and black olives.
Popular in Valencia as well as Catalonia, Samfina is a tomato based sauce similar to the French ratatouille. Normally made to accompany a meat or fish dish, it can also be served simply with some pan de coca. The sauce is made using onions, garlic, tomatoes, aubergine, peppers and courgettes. The vegetable sauce can be flavoured with either thyme or rosemary depending on the meat or fish it is served with. In the home, Catalans will often make large batches of this sauce and then use it over the following week with different dishes.
6. Escudella I Carn d’Olla
A Catalan Christmas day classic, which literally translated means soup with stewed meat, is a combination of a vegetable stew with stuffed pasta parcels and a large meatball made using minced meat, eggs, garlic, parsley and breadcrumbs. The stuffed pasta is added to a delicious home cooked vegetable broth and finally the meatball is added. The pasta and soup are traditionally served as the first course followed by a tray of meats which include the meatball sliced. You can find local varieties of this dish all over the Spanish countryside.
7. Suquet de Peix
An incredibly tasty dish that will surprise you with its humble origins. Packed with flavour this fish stew was created by local fishermen to feed themselves using the fish from their daily catch that they did not sell. They would begin by making a broth from the rock fish to which they would add sliced potatoes and vegetables. When the potatoes were almost cooked they would add the broken and unsold fish together with garlic, parsley and some almonds. This coastal staple has been handed down through the generations and is now served in homes and restaurants across the region. The only change is that people will buy the fresh fish and some add saffron to give it a more attractive colour and look.
Esqueixada or Esqueixada de Bacallá comes from the Catalan word for tearing because the dish uses salted cod that is torn into small pieces. Raw cod is cured with salt and sold in markets and delicatessens throughout the region. You need to begin making the Esqueixada a day ahead as the salted cod needs to be soaked in water. Once soaked for 24 hours you break up the cod using your hands (never cut it). It is then placed in a bowl with sliced roasted red pepper, chopped tomatoes, olive oil and vinegar. There are variations of this dish using anchovies or tuna that are known as Xató
9. Pollo asado a la Catalana
This dish is Sunday Chicken like you have never tasted before. A whole chicken is portioned then browned in some olive oil which has been heated in a large pot. Once the outside is cooked, sliced onions, garlic, a cinnamon stick and a bay leaf are added, then all the ingredients are covered with chicken stock that has had a cup full of brandy added and left to simmer. After 30 minutes roasted pine nuts and raisins or stoneless prunes are added and cooked for another 15 minutes. The final result is a tender chicken dish that is packed full of flavour. Found on many restaurant menu del día boards or on kitchen tables in homes all over Catalonia, this is Sunday lunch as you have never tried it before.
10. Butifarra con mongetes
Mongetes are a whole butter bean that is traditionally served with meats but also fish and cold in a salad called Empedrat. In this dish the beans are cooked then fried off in some oil and garlic and served with a Catalan pork sausage ring called Butifarra. The sausage ring is often grilled but if fried then the fat from the sausage would be then used to cook the garlic and beans. Served with aioli sauce the simplicity of this dish is only overshadowed by its rich taste.
Another version of a dish using esqueixada (torn fish) but this one uses tuna or anchovies instead of salted cod. It is extremely popular in the Garraf region and you will find the best versions of this meal in towns such as Sitges, Sant Pere de Ribes, VilaFrançe del Penedés and Vilanova. Xatonada refers to the meal of xató which is normally eaten during the religious fasting period of Lent. Xató is served with a Romesco Sauce originally made by the fishermen of Valls in Tarragona, Romesco sauce is a tomato based sauce that is made to accompany fish. Typically it is made from roasted tomatoes, toasted local nuts, hazelnuts, almonds and pine nuts, garlic and ñora peppers. The traditional mixture has stale bread crumbs added to thicken the sauce and give it texture.
One of the most popular meat recipes in the province of Barcelona, this dish is also widely eaten across the entire region. This beef steak stew, often made with veal, is cooked gently in a sauce made with mushrooms and vegetables then topped with minced garlic, almonds and parsley. The preferred sauce is made using wild mushrooms but other varieties can also be used.
Anyone who visits the region of Catalonia will at some point see this advertised on menus and restaurant boards from the seaside cafes to provincial bars and you will be forgiven for being, firstly confused and secondly surprised if not a little underwhelmed to be served a simple toasted ham and cheese sandwich. While the dish itself is not local, in fact its origins stem from France, the name is as Catalan as Gaudi or Puig and dates back to the 1950´s when the sandwich was made popular by the famous Sala Bikini nightclub and concert venue in Barcelona. The sandwich that they served “in the bikini” eventually just became known as a Bikini.
14. Crema Catalana
This rich dessert originates in Barcelona but is now widely available throughout all of Spain. It is a thick set custard made with milk, eggs, sugar and cornstarch, cinnamon and grated lemon rind. The set custard is traditionally served in an earthenware dish and topped with sugar which has been heated and caramelized to form a hard lid that is cracked with your spoon to eat.
15. Mel i Mató
The simplicity of Catalan food is its cornerstone and no other dish shows this more than the Catalan dessert of Mató i Mel. Mató is a soft goats cheese, similar to cottage cheese that has been made in the Catalonia region since medieval times. This locally produced cheese is simply paired with honey (mel) and topped with some nuts to bring you a sweet and light dessert.
If the product is good, the dish is good, simple everyday dishes using local in season products, the gastronomic mantra of the Catalan region can be tasted and understood in the dishes it has become world famous for.
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