Expect a Variety
Tapas restaurants and menus vary greatly, especially in cosmopolitan cities like Barcelona. Restaurants that specialise in tapas are ten-a-penny here, ranging from very traditional, no-frills tapas bars to creative tapas joints that put a new spin on classic cuisine. Many restaurants have tables that spill onto the streets, and on my walks through the city I would stroll by people picking at plates of tapas with friends, usually accompanied by beers. I think that’s the part of Spanish life I fell in love with the most; I loved the buzzing energy of the streets.
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Among the most common tapas dishes, served in almost every restaurant, are patatas bravas (fried chunks of potato served with aioli and a spicy tomato sauce), croquetas (breaded balls of ham or tuna), tortilla (thick omelette traditionally made with potatoes), pan con tomate (bread with a tomato, oil, and garlic spread), and spiced meats like chorizo.
Seek Out the Creative, Local Spots
It’s not hard to find these kinds of tapas, but it can be difficult to find them prepared really well, so I looked out for the places full of locals, away from the tourist areas around La Rambla. These restaurants are usually very down-to-earth bars – nothing fancy, just honest food.
While I love traditional tapas, I searched for something a little quirkier during my time in Barcelona. What I discovered was how diverse “tapas” can be –to fall under that classification, the dish simply needs to be a small plate of food. With that in mind, Japanese, Arabic, and Chinese restaurants have taken up the tradition of tapas in Barcelona, adopting the cuisine by serving up small plates of their style of food.
I even managed to find brunch tapas in a few places, where the usual eggs or pancakes were served up in miniature form for sharing. For me, that was the beauty of looking for tapas in a place like Barcelona – it’s a modern city where chefs are eager to be creative.
Make Time for Tapas
There are so many things to see and do in Barcelona – Sagrada Familia, the Gothic quarter, Park Güell, the beach – but sitting down to enjoy tapas is a cultural experience, and something you have to do while you’re there. Try to sample some tapas early on in your trip because, trust me – you’re going to want them more than once!
About this Culinary Vacationer
Emma Higgins is a British travel writer and digital marketer with a penchant for stories. She has been travelling for three years and has lived in Spain, Canada, and Thailand, collecting tales along the way and sharing them on her blog, Gotta Keep Movin'.
Tamales are a spongy, corn-based dough, which are often filled with meat, cheese, or vegetables and are typically wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf and steamed in a pot. Not many people (if any) cook tamales in the scorching hot earth oven anymore, as it's a long and arduous process. But, luckily for us, we were staying at a B&B, which just happened to have a pibil on the property. It took a group of five Mayans and four foreigners to make the tamales and prepare the oven. Nick set off to help with preparation of the cooking vessel, while I stayed in the kitchen with the other women and learned how to cook the food.
Chicken and pork were boiled to perfection and broken down into small pieces. Achiote seasoning, onions, parsley, and tomatoes were sautéed and eggs were hard-boiled. The kitchen was busy and the chef was a master. The scents wafting from the kitchen were fantastic -- some of the guests even came out of their rooms once they caught a whiff of the savory aroma.
The corn base for the tamales was made by using maize and water to create a dough-like consistency. Once this was ready, we brought all of the ingredients to a very long table and proceeded to fill, fold, and finish the preparations. Each square-shaped tamale was carefully wrapped in a banana leaf and tied together with the vein of the palm leaf. These perfect packages were now ready for the next step: cooking in the ground.
In the hours it took to prepare the tamales, Nick and the other men were busy getting the oven ready, which wasn’t as simple as turning the dial to 300 degrees. Wood was gathered, banana leaves were removed from their branches, long pieces of wood were fetched, and many stones were collected; it was quite the task.
The wood and stones were placed inside of the pibil and then lit on fire. The purpose of lighting the wood wasn't for cooking the tamales, but to heat the stones. Once all of the burning wood had turned to glowing embers, the stones were spread out to cover the whole pibil. Next, the spines from the center of the banana leaves were thrown on top of the scalding hot stones to create smoke and to act as a buffer between the food and the rocks below. Finally, the tamales were placed inside the pit.
But the process wasn't finished yet!
Long sticks were laid across the pibil, which were then covered with banana leaves. A large piece of plastic was then put over top of the leaves to prevent any dirt from falling into the earth oven. Finally, the entire pibil was covered with dirt and the tamales were left to cook for about 30 minutes underground.
The entire shopping, preparing and cooking process took about six hours, but after unearthing the tamales, all the hard work proved worthwhile. We carefully unwrapped the now crispy banana leaves and peered inside. The tamales looked perfect! The outside was soft, the inside was filled with perfectly cooked pieces of chicken, and the combination of sauces and spices was divine. We ate as many as our stomachs could handle.
Using a pibil may not be the most practical way to cook these days, but we felt very privileged to have been able to experience this unique Mayan tradition while being surrounded by Mayan people, all of whom were excellent teachers! Next time you're in the Yucatan area, see if you can find a casa or village that is willing to prepare a pibil meal for you. It will surely be the highlight of your trip to Mexico.
Click here to see a quick video of this unique tamale making experience!
About this Culinary Vacationer
Nick and Dariece are the couple behind Goats On The Road. Masters at making money abroad, they've been on the road since 2008 and have explored some of the least visited places on earth, finding adventure wherever they go.
For my latest adventure, I had the opportunity to shadow Steve Wright, the farm manager for Chatham Shellfish Company on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, over Memorial Day weekend.
America’s Oyster Region
Cape Cod is one of the great American oyster farming regions. The bracingly cold, nutrient-rich waters and ample ocean tides help create prime aquaculture environments. Steve’s farm stretches for several acres in Oyster Pond, a saltwater pond historically celebrated for its abundant oyster beds.
Today, Chatham Shellfish Company is the only commercial oyster farm in the area, but several oyster shantyies still remain by the boat launch. Steve offered me a pair of boots, which I stupidly declined. No matter how many farms I visit, I never seem to be properly dressed for the occasion.
Learning to Farm
A swift boat ride later, we reached their floating oyster house in the middle of the pond. The custom-built structure stores most of the farm’s grow-out and processing equipment. Steve gave me a quick rundown of their farming process, which begins with oyster seed that’s just a few millimeters long! The seed is kept in contraptions known as upwellers, which sit just below the water’s surface.
They use tidal force to move water and naturally occurring phytoplankton up and over the voracious baby oysters. Once the juvenile oysters grow to a certain size, they are transferred to nearby grow-out areas, using a variety of gear. One line of tray required a rather athletic approach to launch into the water.
Time to Taste
Following the farm visit, we returned back to the floating platform for the tasting portion of the tour. I had a surprise for Steve: I lifted a couple bottles of premium sake out of my handbag, including Yuho “Eternal Embers” Junmai and Fukucho “Moon on the Water” Junmai Ginjo. It’s still a well-kept secret in this country that sake happens to be one of the most exquisite and complementary pairings for oysters. Steve side-shucked open a few of the larger oysters. “I prefer side-shucking because it allows less interference with the belly,” he explained.
The blissfully sweet and savory Chatham oysters were out of this world, and they paired splendidly with the sakes. Every bite tasted fresh and alive. Meanwhile, I had never seen such large and supple Chatham oysters in New York City! It’s obvious that the folks in Massachusetts are keeping the good stuff for themselves.
About this Culinary Vacationer
Julie Qiu is an international oyster expert and founder of the seminal In A Half Shell oyster blog, based in New York City. Her passion has inspired her to create unique oyster experiences such as oyster crawls and tasting clubs.