Zsofi’s back on the holiday hype, making us jealous all over again with her recent trip to Catalonia, Spain. Ever wondered what to eat in Spain or Catalonia as a vegetarian? Zsófi has all the info you need.
September holidays are the best. They are cheap, they are quiet, and the weather is just perfect. While your friends are back in their offices pretending to work hard while actually just changing between two Excel sheets and the Google search engine all day, rolling their eyes at meetings that could have been an email, doomed to watch the sunshine through windows and instagram feeds, you are enjoying perfect beach weather, lying in the sand with your new favourite book and two whole boxes of strawberries.
So September came and a friend and I found ourselves on Playa El Miraglo, our eyes closed and faces turned towards the sun, braving up to face the swarm of fish that awaited us once we set foot in the perfect blue sea. We spent four days just like this, on a spontaneous holiday to Spain organised just weeks before.
Staying only two hours from Barcelona, we mixed up our beach activities with some fabulous day trips. We stood in awe of the Sagrada Famíilia and paid 5 euros for a few pieces of fruit. We had a photoshoot in front of the Primatial Cathedral of Tarragona in our most flowery dresses. We walked tens of sightseeing kilometres and washed them off with a morning and an evening swim. Oh, and also, we had some pretty amazing food.
Of course, four days is not nearly enough to experience Spain’s or even Catalonia’s food culture in its entirety, and keeping costs low was a definite holiday priority for us. But, there were just a few Spanish staples that we could not have left without trying. I use the word ‘Spanish’ here for ease rather than for accuracy, careful not to ignore the differences between the country’s 17 regions that lend Spain its internally diverse nature.
Catalonia, for example, where we spent our little holiday, is an autonomous region of Spain, which boasts its own language, customs, and regional dishes. Due to its proximity to France and Italy, Catalonia has developed a real Mediterranean cuisine, filled with vegetables the likes of artichokes and aubergines, legumes such as beans and chickpeas, different meats like ham and sausages, lots of olive oil, and pasta and bread.
Read more from Zsofi’s Kitchen
Some of the most famous Catalan dishes, in fact, use these ingredients in a simple yet ingeniously delicious way, such as the famous Escalivada, a grilled vegetable dish often served with anchovies or the Calçotada, made from the iconic calçot onions roasted in the ashes of an open fire. In fact, many dishes labelled ‘Spanish’ national dishes today originate from one of the country’s local regions and have been elevated into a national symbol most likely during the Franco regime to promote unity and strengthen the national identity over the regional.
In our days of holiday indulgence, we ventured to eat any dish that 1) was available vegan and 2) appeared in general consciousness as coming from the territory of Spain. Therefore, in this article, I will keep using the word ‘Spanish’ rather than ‘Catalan’ as we explored all Barcelona offered us whether originally Catalan or not. So, with that said, let’s dive into the amazing cuisine that was presented to us on our brief getaway to a nation that made us ask ourselves one question every day…. Should we move here?
The National Dish: Paella
You don’t have to be very familiar with Spanish cuisine in order to have heard of its crowning jewel: paella. The national dish of Spain, paella’s main ingredient is bomba or medium-grain rice cooked in a paella pan (yes, the pan you cook the dish paella in is also called paella – in fact, paella is the Catalan word for pan), with a variety of ingredients.
While the most internationally known version, Paella de Marisco (seafood paella), is quite seafood-heavy, this is just one of the many different paellas circulating in Spain. In reality, you can prepare it with chicken, pork, fish, seafood, vegetables, mushrooms, and just about anything else that pairs well with rice. Always be careful to always add saffron though – this is the secret ingredient that gives paella its signature yellow colour.
Similar to its list of ingredients, the origins of paella are as varied. According to popular belief, paella originates from the Valencia region, where after a long day’s work, hungry farmhands gathered whatever ingredient they got their hands on, rice, rabbit, snails, vegetables, threw them all into a large pan, and cooked it in the middle of a field. As travel became easier between regions, this classic and easy recipe spread across the country and transformed itself into the dish(es) that we know today.
A different version of this story actually dates back to the Moorish times and paints paella as the brainchild of royal servants who took the courts’ leftovers home and ate it mixed with rice. Some people have even linked the Arabic word for ‘leftover’ baqiyyah to the Spanish word paella.
No matter where paella originated, there is no doubt that it is now THE Spanish dish, known and recognised all over the world. And if you’re reading this as a non-meat eater, don’t you worry, you know I’ve always got something in the bag for you! There are many vegetarian and vegan versions for paella, and due to its varied nature, any vegetable would suit it really quite well.
If you’re ever in Barcelona, we found a perfect one at the Tulsi Vegan Restaurant, just walking distance from Gaudí’s Casa Batlló. They served paella with a fantastic array of vegetables that included peppers, green beans, green peas, mushrooms, and courgettes, mixed with perfectly cooked rice, and some lime juice.
Read more from Zsofi’s Kitchen
The Perfect Summer Soup: Gazpacho
Another classic of Spanish cuisine, gazpacho comes from Andalusia, the southernmost region of the country. It is, like revenge, best served cold, which is exactly what Andalusians need to endure the hot summers in and around ‘the frying pan of Europe’, Seville. An authentic gazpacho recipe is tomatoes, cucumbers, red peppers, garlic, stale bread, and olive oil, seasoned with salt and pepper, blended until smooth, and eaten chilled. Often, a gazpacho will be served with some croutons or fresh chopped vegetables, to give extra texture.
Like most iconic recipes, the history of gazpacho is also connected to cost-effective innovations of the working class from ancient Roman times in Spain. A mix of stale bread, olive oil, vinegar, garlic, and water give manual workers all the nutrition and energy needed to finish the day’s work and keep themselves well-fed. The now iconic ingredients of tomatoes and peppers were, in reality, added much later, following their transportation to the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century.
Since then, gazpacho has spread all across the country and has become one of the most celebrated Spanish foods, as appetisers in haute cuisine restaurants or main dishes on a hot summer day in family kitchens. In the Tulsi Vegan Restaurant, we prepared our stomachs for the paella with an Andalusian Gazpacho, which we fell in love with at first taste. We loved it so much we even ventured to recreate the experience with a carton of store-bought gazpacho soup front the 24/7 convenience store, but we were constrained by the limitations of the quality of ready-meals, and a hotel room without any cooking equipment or crockery in it.
The Most Popular Tapa: Patatas Bravas
If there is one aspect of the Spanish food culture that became globally popular, it is tapas. Contrary to popular belief, tapas is not a collection of specific dishes, although there are dishes you will see pop up in tapas places more often than others. To qualify as a tapa, you simply have to be a smaller portion of food that can be consumed shared between everyone at the table.
The Spanish word tapa means lid, which may seem a bit out of place, until you learn of its perhaps amusing history. Originally, barmen put small pieces of bread and ham over the drinks of their customers as a sort of lid to keep flies and other insects flying into them.
Slowly, over time, these smaller practical portions of food became a real necessity of getting late night drinks, almost as necessary as the drinks themselves, and the dishes themselves became more and more sophisticated. While tapas and drinks now grew into a full dinner, some bars in Spain, mostly around Andalusia and the East, continue to provide you with free small dishes besides your drinks.
Some popular tapas dishes include the Spanish Tortilla, which, unlike Mexican tortillas, are a quiche-like egg omelette with potatoes and onions, or Pimientos del Padrón, spicy green peppers smoked to perfection. One of the most iconic and accessible tapa dishes that I will guarantee you will find on any tapas bar menu are patatas bravas. This dish comes from the capital itself, Madrid, and is made of fried potatoes topped with a spicy tomato sauce which lent the dish its ‘brave’ description (the secret is cayenne pepper, everyone!). In some traditions now, the fiery dish is supplemented with a garlic aioli to mellow the heat of the tomato sauce.
Again, tapas will be incredibly accessible to the non-meat-eating crowd, including its leading star, Patatas Bravas. If you’re ever in Tarragona, I would highly recommend El Vergel Veggie Restaurant, the first vegan restaurant in the city! Here, besides new vegan innovations, you will find many Spanish classics to try prepared in a perfectly meat-free kitchen.
A Wine-Based Surprise: Sangria
Okay, this one is a little out of the ordinary for me as it is not actually ….. food. But sangria is just as much a Spanish staple as paella or tapas or siesta, in fact, so it would be remiss if I didn’t mention it (and also I think it’s delicious and I enjoy it very much).
Sangria, a delicious mix of red wine, various fruits, and liqueurs, was named after its dark red hue, reminiscent of that of blood or sangre. The drink first appeared on the Iberian Peninsula together with the Romans who paved their journey through the country with vineyards.
At the time, water was unsafe for consumption so they mixed it with alcohol to kill off the bacteria and added herbs and spices to mask the stench. Coming from such humble beginnings, sangria grew to be an international hit when it was introduced at the 1964 New York World’s Fair and has been transformed into a cocktail of countless varieties, from cava-based mixtures to pomegranate syrupy inventions. If you are ever in Spain, a sangria is just the perfect company for your citrusy paella or spicy patatas bravas, so don’t be afraid to order one (or five – no judgement here).