Basque food is one of a kind. In fact, the Basque Country ranks just 2nd to Catalonia in the number of Michelin Star restaurants in Spain.
Before making a trip to Basque country, it’s a good idea to familarise yourself with the food. It’s going to play a big part during your visit. That’s why we’ve put together a guide on all things Basque food.
First, let’s start with the basics:
What is Basque Food?
Basque food is steeped in traditions. Recipes are wide and varied. It’s made from diverse ingredients which are local to the region. From the rich variety of fish of the Cantabrian Sea, to the inland fertile farms and mountains. The mild climate encourages the cultivation of vegetables, and the rearing of livestock. Basque food is the sum of all the region’s parts.
What are Pintxos?
If you are visiting Basque, you will almost certainly try Pintxos (or Pincho in Spanish). A Pintxo is the basque version of a tapa, which is traditionally served on a slice of bread or stick. It is usually taken as an aperitif accompanied by a glass of red wine or beer. It gets its name from the toothpick that holds the tapa to the slice of bread.
These toothpicks often double as your food order as most restaurants charge per toothpick. So make sure you don’t throw them away while you eat! Cold Pintxos are usually displayed on the bar counter while hot Pintxos are ordered from the waiter.
Here are some popular Pintxos to try:
One of the most popular Pintxos you will find in Bilbao bars and restaurants are Gildas. These skewered tapas differ a little from bar to bar but at their core they will always consist of a chilli pepper, an olive, and an anchovy. They sit displayed in a bed of olive oil.
Pintxo de bacalao en aceite (cod fish in oil)
Another simple sea snack often found as a pintxo is cod in oil. The salted cod is pre-soaked to remove the excess salt and then steeped in extra olive oil with a little chilli, garlic and parsley. Served on top of a slice of bread.
Pintxos Morunos (Moorish Pintxos)
A fact that might seem strange to tourists visiting the Basque region is that some of the more popular pintxos you will find are Moroccan in their ancestry. Served on skewers and served hot with some side dips, these dishes were introduced decades ago from Moroccan culture and adopted by the locals as a favourite.
Basque Cuisine at Restaurants
If you’d rather go for a full dining experience, we recommend warming up with a few Pinxtos before heading to a sit-down restaurant. Basque cuisine will not disappoint you! Below, you’ll find some of the most popular basque foods to enjoying at a restaurant.
Marmitako’s original recipe was born on the Cantabrian Seas by fishermen out at sea and far from home. This dish is synonymous with the region. It began as tuna fish (bonito) slow boiled with potatoes, using the salt water from the sea. Today, it is prepared in restaurants to a more refined and upscale recipe. Fish stock, onions, tomato, green peppers, choricero pepper (dried red pepper) with fresh tuna added at the last minute.
Txangurro is a deliciously simple dish made with the Centollo (spider crab). Though originally a haute cuisine dish, today it is easy to find at home or in many restaurants. The meat of the cooked crab is painstakingly removed from the body and claws with as little damage to the shell as possible. The meat is then mixed with a sauce made from poached onion, carrot, leek and some brandy. Afterwards, the mixture is stuffed back into the crab shell. Finally, it is topped with breadcrumbs and parsley and baked to produce an exquisite dish for sharing.
Pimientos Rellenos (Stuffed Peppers)
Stuffed peppers is a dish that you will find in many different world cuisines. However, the Basques do have their own version which is very special. The Red piquillo pepper is always a key ingredient. While you will find a variety of different stuffings such as veal, shrimp and tuna, the most local and preferred uses salted cod. To make the filling the cod is soaked for 24 hour to remove the excess salt then mixed with onion, tomato, bechamel sauce, white wine and olive oil.
Angulas a la Bilbaina (Bilbo Style Eel)
Very traditional in Bilbao, served in an earthenware dish, and eaten with a wooden fork. This dish is probably best tasted first before asking what it contains. The simple dish is using olive oil, garlic and some sliced chilli but the main ingredient is las angulas which is spanish for eel.
Merluza en salsa verde (Hake)
Merluza en salsa verde or la merluza a la vasca is simplicity at its best. An excellent example of how Basque cuisine at its core is local ingredients perfectly cooked without fuss. The salsa verde or green sauce gets its colour from fresh parsley. It’s also a delicious broth for dipping your bread. Some green sauces have shrimp or clams added, others include vegetables such as asparagus, peas or potatoes. The cooked fish and broth are traditionally cooked and served in an earthenware dish.
Salsa Vizcaina or Biscayne sauce is a versatile red sauce frequently used in Basque gastronomy. While most often served with fish it also can accompany meat and vegetables. Despite its reddish colour, the local and traditional version of the sauce does not use tomatoes. Although, they are added in versions outside of Spain. For authentic vizcaina sauce, a rehydrated choricero pepper is used with onion, flour, and stock. The mixture is passed through a sieve until a smooth sauce is achieved. This sauce is the basis for many of the famous and well known dishes of the region. Such as Bacalao en salsa vizcaina which uses cod, Callos a la vizcaina which uses tripe or offal, Manos de cerdo con salsa vizcaina which is pork knuckle, and caracoles a la vizcaina which is snails in biscayne sauce.
For some, it may be better to taste this delicious dish before asking what it’s made from. The fish is usually hake but cod can also be used. The fish meat is extracted from behind the chin in the area where the gills are located.
Kokotxa itself is a Basque tradition but you will most often find it served with a salsa verde.
Bacalao (Cod Fish)
When you visit the Basque region and in particular Bilbao, you will notice how popular the use of cod is in their traditional dishes. This fish has been embraced by the people and a simple homage of great tasting dishes has been forged over time.
You will no doubt be surprised to learn that this relationship is all due to a historical error.
Back at the beginning of the 19th century, a merchant from Bilbao called Jose Guturbay placed a huge order for cod with a supplier in England by mistake. By pure chance, the delivery of the fish arrived just before the blockade of Bilbao. Guturbay’s mistaken order became the lifeline of the city and fed the people for months during the siege.
People became creative with the cooking of cod, adding local ingredients such as garlic, chili, onions and potatoes to produce some of the famous dishes we still find in Basque restaurants and family tables today. Some of the most famous are Bacalao al pil pil, which is cod cooked with garlic and chili. Bacalao a la vizcaina (which uses Biscayne sauce or Porrusalda), which is cod with potatoes and leeks.
Calamares or Chipirones en su tinta
Squid or baby squid in black sauce is one of the best dishes you will taste in this region. Packed with flavour and goodness, the squid ink is cooked with onions to give it some sweetness. Usually served with a side of rice or sliced fried potatoes. This dish is a definite must try during your travels.
Chuletón (Rib Steak)
While steak is hardly a surprising option to see on a spanish menu, the tradition of the Chuletón or rib steak began just outside San Sebastian in a region that was popular for the production of cider. It all began when Basque farmers would exchange beef for cider at the cider house tastings. The cider house would then cook the beef over charcoal and offer it to merchants, wholesalers and private individuals during the tastings as an incentive to purchase a barrel of the house’s cider.
Basque Sweets & Desserts
Sweet lovers will not be disappointed during their visit to the Basque country. The locals advice is to just lose yourself in local bakeries and sample an array of delicacies on display.
One of the most popular desserts you will find is called Goxua. Originally from Vitoria, this dessert which comes for the basque word for sweet and rich is made using cream, sponge cake and caramel. You can buy it as a cake or just a portion in a dish.
Pastel Vasco, Gateau Basque (Basque cake)
Pastel vasco or Gateau basque which translates as Basque Cake originated in the French Basque territory in a town called Iparralde around the 17th century. The custard filled sponge cake, sometimes served with cherries was called Etxeko Biskoxat by the French Basques. But, while locals in the Spanish basque region really enjoyed the cake, they had trouble pronouncing the name so just called it, Basque Cake.
This is a very simple homemade cake, not considered upmarket enough for most restaurants, but you will find it for sale at every local market and agricultural fairs.
There is something to be said about the special food produced in many of the regions throughout Spain. What did you think of our top Basque foods? Was there something you think we missed?