TASTY TRAVELS Pt. 1: An Homage to Catalonia
Thinking of studying abroad or visiting Spain? Jocelyn vividly recounts her culinary extravaganza as a student living in a country where Spanish is spoken with an authentic lisp. Authenticity thrives, too, in Barcelona’s complex, rich and lip-smackingly delicious cuisine. Stay tuned for a continuing series in the weeks to come!
I sincerely wish that I could claim Anthony Bourdain as a long lost, only mildly more profane, chain-smoking relative. Admittedly, I completely and fangirlishly admire the Bourdainian philosophy: his unpretentious, maniac drive to appreciate and discover a culture through the stomach…often accompanied by large quantities of meat.
Look around, and often times some of the best, most authentic food is not in the fancy restaurants in the city center, but rather tucked away in the corner with every bite being a portal into a richly complex history. This series is going to serve as random, selected snapshots into the intersection between taste and travel – of street food, sketchy delicious restaurants, and finding bits of home in unexpected places.
Last spring semester, I studied abroad in Barcelona, Spain – the second most populous city in Spain and the capital of the region of Catalunya. Before my arrival I had superficially studied the various autonomous regions of Spain, seventeen in total, however the full enormity and complexity of Catalan pride and identity didn’t hit me until I was living there, entrenched in a generations-old Catalan family to whom I am forever grateful to. And while my original conception of Spanish food brought to mind visions of paella, tapas, and sangria, I wound up leaving with memories of pan con tomate, botifarra, patatas bravas con allioli, fuet, dishes of mar i muntanya, escalivada, calçots, tortilla de calabacín, and cava. Oh, so much cava…
Owing to its location, the Catalan cuisine can be characterized as a Mediterranean cuisine that draws from mar I muntanya, “sea and mountain”, like the chicken and shellfish dish that my host uncle marinated in large quantities of white wine and brandy for a day.
However my initial introduction came from my first dinner with my host mom, in which she prepared a crash course of Catalan cooking: a plate of pan con tomate or pa amb tomàquet in Catalan, which literally means “bread and tomato” and tortilla de patatas, “potato tortilla” Pan con tomate is a staple appetizer dish, which consists of rubbing approximately one clove of raw garlic followed by half a mature tomato into pieces of rustic, often toasted Catalan bread. The slices are then seasoned with liberal drizzles of high quality, extra virgin olive oil and sea salt. This ubiquitous appetizer has become almost synonymous with Catalan food, and is the typical accompaniment to other entrees, like the tortilla de roquefort, Spanish omelette of Roquefort cheese, from the restaurant Verdi 82 as pictured below.
Now this restaurant became one of my absolute favorites and was conveniently located on my cross street, Carrer de Verdi, in the neighborhood of Gràcia. Gràcia was originally a village outside of Barcelona that was then incorporated in the 19th century building of L’Eixample district – effectively creating the playground for Catalan modernisme architecture and simultaneously connecting the old city Barcelona with both the new and outlying surrounding villages.
Therefore Gràcia has retained a decidedly unique feel within the hustle and bustle of Barcelona, a haunt for local artists, hippies, foodies, wanderers, and anarchists that was fairly free of tourists and reminded me fiercely of my native San Francisco. While daytime often consisted of picturesque scenes of old men walking their dogs through the plaças, when nighttime fell the squares would be a veritable sea of red Estrella Damm beer cans and clusters of friends sitting on the ground enjoying food, cigarettes, and indulging in the ritual of “illegal” public drinking, botellón.
So when sitting down at Verdi 82 do not be daunted when presented with the menu…a menu which is entirely in Catalan. Some of the previously mentioned items are sure bets and trigger words for Catalan deliciousness, like items containing botifarra – a type of sausage and escalivada – grilled seasoned vegetables. Of course another typical menu item is patatas bravas, fried potatoes typically served with a spiced tomato sauce and sometimes allioli. Allioli is a variation on the better-known aioli of emulsified garlic mayonnaise, however in the Catalan version there is typically no egg, just pounded garlic, olive oil, and salt.
Indeed, this tapa is a standard, and one of my absolute favorite places for a dish of patatas bravas is the legendary Bar Tomás – an unassuming hole in the wall that has gained an almost cultlike following with Catalan people from all ages throughout the years. Deceptively plain looking on the outside, most locals will agree that this is the absolute epitome of patatas bravas. When eating at Bar Tomás I often marveled at how a working class man’s tapa could bring together people from all walks of life, how a deceptively simple plate of fried potatoes could be such an extraordinarily social dish.
Throughout my time in Barcelona I saw this kind of mentality time and time again – the kind of lively social congregation where people actually took the time to enjoy their food, and where quality could come from a four euro bottle of cava, Spanish sparkling wine.
And in seeing and tasting life in Barcelona, it is impossible to not appreciate that kind of communal ritual and eventually live and breathe it as well. I have many fond memories of friendships forged while ensconced at the bar of La Champagneria, savoring plates of chorizo and pouring cava for friends. Or the surge of familiar affection of having been absorbed into another large family, of which my host grandma and mother would consistently urge me to eat more and more and more…
In that way my Chinese family and my Catalan family really didn’t seem all that different. I have so much fondness for my time abroad, and it really threw into focus how food can absolutely transcend any sort of linguistic or cultural barrier. Barcelona is an amazing conflation of food, culture, vibrancy, and pride – and the first city to match my love for my hometown…bon profit, indeed!
– Jocelyn Chan