Cooking in Spain Exploring Catalan Cuisine

Moving to a new country comes with a lot of change, but one thing I have grown to love during our time here in Barcelona is the food!  Spanish and Catalan (thats the region we live in) food is incredibly delicious.  My knowledge of Spanish cuisine was pretty limited before our time here – I didn’t know much beyond tapas and paella which some fellow foodie friends of ours prepared for our monthly international potluck (sidetone: this is perhaps one of my FAVORITE social things we do when we’re home in Iowa – get together with a small group of like-minded culinary nerds, choose a different region, country, or theme, and cook delicious homemade meals to share at a monthly gathering.  Living in a small town, this is how we all survive the lack of international variety when it comes to the local fare.)

My brilliant husband began our full introduction to Spanish food soon after our arrival.  Ever the planner, he had ordered two different cookbooks that accompanied us on our culinary adventure – one is a more general Spanish cookbook, and one is Catalan.  Honestly, this wasn’t something I had thought about ahead of time, but I am SO glad he did.  While we live in a large European city where the selection of ingredients is practically limitless and we could easily prepare almost anything we want, save for a few things that we definitely can’t find…more on that later, it just makes more sense to eat like the locals do.  Obviously there’s tons of recipes available on the internet, but I’ve found that some instructions are hit or miss.  We’ve had much better success sticking to our trusty cookbooks!  An unexpected bonus is these cookbooks include Spanish titles and ingredients alongside English, so it has made it easier for me to improve my Spanish vocabulary!

Before I get to sharing one of my newfound favorite recipes, I want to share just a little bit about some of the differences I’ve encountered while cooking here in Barcelona.  Some of these were things that were immediately obvious upon our first visit to the local super market.  Others are things that we’ve learned over time.


This was the most surprising thing for sure: fresh ingredients are quite inexpensive here.  In particular, fruit and seafood is quite a bit less.  Obviously, this has to do with climate and location.  When you don’t have to ship strawberries hundreds of miles and the seafood is locally caught and prepared right in front of you by the fish monger, it’s going to be quite a bit less than when you’re landlocked in the frozen tundra of Iowa!  Notable other inexpensive items are olive oil (used to cook just about everything), wine, arroz extra (Spanish short grain rice used for Paella), bananas, oranges, lemons, red peppers (a frequent ingredient in Spanish cooking), and fancy pork products (more on that in a minute).


Because we are located right along the Mediterranean, there are fish markets everywhere.  There are independent “small” local fish markets that are roughly the size of most American deli counters (I put small in quotes because honestly, they aren’t that small…but for Barcelona, they are!), and MUCH larger ones that can take up a good long stretch of supermarket real estate.  Fruit and vegetable stands (also more like small shops) are all over the place as well.  Butchers, bakeries, legume shops, cheese shops, olive shops, wine shops…there’s basically specialty shops for all the Spanish favorites.  And many people will do their grocery shopping at each individual shop for that specific item.  So you can imagine, procuring the appropriate ingredients for a meal is quite the event!  There’s also larger supermarkets where you can get all of your cooking ingredients in one place, similar to grocery stores in the United States.  Typically, these grocery stores are nowhere near the size of larger grocers in the US.  Part of this is because Barcelona is such an urban place to live: space is small and people don’t go far, so there’s not much of a need for quantity or large sizes when it comes to food.  There’s also more grocery stores sprinkled throughout the city, instead of one big large grocery store that everyone drives to.

For us, we do a bit of a mix when it comes to our shopping – we sometimes purchase fruits and vegetables from the local stand that’s right around the corner from our apartment, and most of our daily grocery items we get at a busy supermarket about 2 blocks away that is very similar to an Aldi.  My husband visits the larger local fish market weekly.  Fresh baked baguettes (my favorite!) we get as needed, either from the supermarket bakery or from the bakery right around the corner or below our apartment.  Yes, we live above a bakery, but that’s not difficult since they are on just about every block!

Unit Conversions

I am SO thankful I thought ahead and brought my own set of teaspoons from home.  And after some frustration with baking a few times, my mom brought a set of silicone collapsable measuring cups as well.  They are impossible to find here in Spain.  All baking is done using a kitchen scale, which is actually FAR easier and more accurate.  But both of our cookbooks are in units from the United States (cups, teaspoons, pounds), so having our own “native” measures has saved me a LOT of time when cooking so I don’t have to stop to convert measurements.  However…it hasn’t saved me when I’m at the supermarket.  Lol!  Scales and measures there are all in grams, so I either have to do quick math in my head (500 grams is a half kilogram, and pretty close to 1 pound) or go based on visual experience. Usually I have a pretty good idea of how much chicken or broccoli or whatever might be required to feed our family.  The one time I’m usually off is with tomatoes.  I never get close to guessing on that one!   I do still have to convert oven temperatures since our oven is in Celsius and most of our recipes are in Fahrenheit, but I’ve gotten pretty good at knowing common equivalent temperatures.  And I’m ALWAYS grateful for websites that allow unit conversions online – it is incredibly handy!  One of my biggest tips for people moving abroad for however long is to bring a set of measuring spoons and measuring cups 🙂

Kitchens,  Packaging, and Online Shopping

Everything in Europe is smaller.  Cars, apartments, and food packaging.  Part of this is because of space.  In a busy city of 3 million people packed into a small area, there just isn’t a lot of room.  That means you have to be wise with what kinds of belongings you accumulate and the space allotment in your apartment.  Most kitchens are rather small in comparison to American kitchens.  And in particular, refrigerators are quite a bit smaller.  It all kind of goes together, though. The Spanish way of cooking and eating is many small meals prepared fresh, so most people are going go to local shops for their food frequently throughout the week.  Instead of one large grocery trip and loading everything into the trunk of your car, you grab just what you need for today and tomorrow, and it goes into a canvas bag or pushcart and you walk back home for siesta.  Milk is sold by the liter (quite a bit smaller than the American gallon, and not nearly as common in general), and packages of rice, pasta, and beans are sold by half-kilo.  Other prepackaged items are smaller in general to fit in the smaller fridges and make it easier to transport home on foot.

I had to completely change my meal planning habits and grocery shopping when we got here!  I was so used to going to the store once a week, having a large refrigerator and freezer for storage, and being able to transport things easily!  And don’t get me wrong, there are quite a few families in Barcelona that operate this way, particularly as you get further out from the center of the city.  A car certainly makes things easier!  Most families with kids do their shopping online and join their local supermarket club, taking advantage of free delivery!  We actually considered this option, but decided we enjoy the process of gathering our ingredients and discovering new possibilities.  Plus, going to the grocery store every few days has been the biggest help for me in terms of language acquisition.  So we’ve basically adapted and do the once-every-other-day thing, walk to the store, push our food back, and enjoy!

Meal Time

I’m sure whole books have been written about the culture of eating and meal times in Spain, so I won’t attempt to rehash it all.  Spanish siesta is a real thing.  The entire city basically stops from 2-4 PM (or later) every day, everyone goes home for their larger meal of the day, and then returns back to work or school.  Most small shops close during this time (something that has been the source of endless frustration because not every shop has the same siesta hours!) though restaurants, bakeries, cafes, and supermarkets stay open.  Breakfast is split into two – there is the first light meal, usually a pastry and coffee around 8-9 am, and then there is a second breakfast around 10:30 am, which is typically a bocadillo of some sort – a simple baguette with cheese and meat, typically chorizo, jamon, or sausage.  Finally, in the evening there is tapas around 5 PM, and true spanish dinner doesn’t start until 9 pm or later.  If you show up at a restaurant between 6-8 PM they are likely closed, which is completely counterintuitive to me.  For the most part, we’ve stuck to the typical American three-meals-a-day just because it works better for us and out kids.  We’ve only been able to enjoy a Spanish dinner date at a restaurant one time and it was at 9 pm after our kids were in bed when my mother was visiting!

 Favorite Foods

Finally, the fun part!  There are so many wonderful delicious things that we’ve tried!  I wish I could share all of them!  Catalans LOVE their seafood and fine meats!!!  Squid, octopus, snails, mussels, fish, veal, rabbit, jamon, iberico pork, butifarra, and many other sausages – I could go on and on!  Eggs, almonds, olives, mushrooms, saffron, pimientos, legumes, tuna, and rice are all very common as part of main dishes.  The Spanish tortilla  (pictured above) is completely different from the Latin version, and we’ve greatly enjoyed adding that to our repertoire – plus, it’s SUPER easy!  Spanish cuisine wouldn’t be complete without olive oil to start and a good wine to pair with your dish.  And we love that you can get amazing wine for super cheap – I’ll miss that for sure!

A few things that are not as common – cheese, dairy in general, peanut butter (notoriously difficult to find in Europe!), green peppers (red peppers are definitely the favorite), prepackaged convenience foods (there’s definitely some….just not as much), and plain old regular beef.  It was immediately obvious that beef and chicken are not nearly as popular as seafood, pork, rabbit, and veal – the amount of space at the grocery store for latter was nearly double!
In the nearly 10 months we’ve been here, about 90% of our cooking has been from the two Spanish cookbooks we brought with us.  And of all of those meals, about 70% have been cooked by my husband, lol!  He is far an away the better chef in our family, plus he greatly enjoys the adventure of discovering new recipes, flavors, and ingredients.  For him, cooking is a hobby 🙂  And I’m more than happy to encourage him in this, because it means I get to enjoy some delicious foods every weekend, and we eat leftovers or simpler things during the week.  As we dive further into our love of Spanish food, a few favorites have emerged:


Paella – this wonderful rice-base dish is prepared in a variety of ways depending on geographic location.  My favorite is definitely seafood Paella or arroz negro, which literally means black rice.  It is made using squid ink!  I was incredibly skeptical at first, but it has become one of my favorite meals!  Pictured below is one of the tasty paella meals that my husband prepared, featuring local sausages, peppers, and lots of delicious flavors!

Tortillas – these are an easy and cheap favorite.  Slice some potatoes into thin disks, and sauté on low with sliced onions in good olive oil for about 10 mins, sprinkle with a bit of salt (though I recommend omitting the salt if you use sausage as well!).  Allow this to cool, then whisk some eggs together in a bowl (we typically do 6 for our family) and add the potatoes and onions to the bowl to soak in the eggs for about 10 mins.  You then cook the egg mixture in a pan on the stove like a giant cake, flipping it repeatedly to cook evenly.  I’m still working on mastering this skill and have made quite a few messes in our kitchen!  The nice thing about tortillas is you can really add whatever you want.  We’ve done tuna, mushroom, sausage, pimientos…and our kids love them!

Wine & Fish

It’s worth noting that my husband and I are pretty frugal, so the pictured wine is nothing fancy, but I bet it would be quite a bit more if bought in the US.  I’m also fairly certain we didn’t drink a red wine with fish, but who knows…I don’t remember when I took either of these photos!  Lol!  The main point is that it is very easy to get good cheap wine here.  We’re talking less than $2 or 3 a bottle for a delicious wine.  I will definitely miss that!  Paired with fresh fish and tasty veggie sides, and you basically have my favorite meal!

Final Thoughts

Cooking here in Barcelona has definitely been fun and adventurous for us!  I’ve learned a lot, that’s for sure!  For the most part, I’ve greatly enjoyed the experience.  There’s a few things I definitely won’t miss, and those few complaints are rather minor and have to do with the part of cooking nobody likes: clean up.  I definitely miss our dishwasher.  Like…a lot.  I also miss our garbage disposal.  There’s a few convenience small appliances that we use regularly at home that I miss, but we’ve managed.  I’m a big fan of our rice cooker and slow cooker, so I miss those a fair amount.  It would also be nice to have a mixer, though we ended up finding an inexpensive food processor and have adapted and used it to make muffin batter, smoothies, baby food, and other purees or shredded items.  But the one thing I miss most of all is eating outside on our patio!  While Barcelona has gorgeous weather all year long, we’ve been unable to enjoy dining al fresco because we live on a SUPER busy/noisy/polluted street.  It’s a major bummer.  But we’ve definitely done some wonderful picnic dinners and lunches out and about, and those have been worth the effort for sure!  I’ll certainly miss bringing a simple bocadillo along for lunch while the kids play at the park!

One thing I look forward to?  Bringing our fondness for Spanish food home to Iowa to share with our friends!  We are even bringing back our beloved cazuela, a large earthen pan that is used for cooking paellas, stews, and so much more.  Let me know if you want to come by to be a taste tester!



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