The fare of northeast Spain spotlights the vivid qualities of smoky seasonings, fresh produce, and an array of chiles.
Credit: Becky Luigart-Stayner

The people of the Spanish northeast province of Catalonia are famously creative, perhaps because of its independent spirit―Catalonia is an autonomous community within Spain. The province claims its own language―Catalan―and a distinctive sense of style in fashion, industrial design, and architecture. It was home to the surrealist artists Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí, as well as the Art Nouveau architect Antonio Gaudí. More recently, Chef Ferran Adrià has dazzled palates with his innovative molecular gastronomy and modern spin on traditional Spanish cuisine.

Like other Spanish regional cooking, Catalonia’s cuisine combines Roman, Moorish, and New World ingredients. The Romans brought olives, and now Spain boasts a thriving olive oil business, cultivating olive trees from north to south.

Yet the Moorish influence is especially strong. The Moors, who ruled Spain for centuries, cultivated rice in Valencia (a neighboring province). In Catalonia, rice is a staple ingredient for hearty dishes like paella, as well as simple vegetable and rice salads. Additionally, the Moors introduced the cultivation of almonds, citrus fruits, eggplant, and spinach, and the use of spices such as cumin, nutmeg, saffron, and black pepper.

The region boasts five culinary sauces now enjoyed throughout Spain as building blocks to create tasty dishes. One of the most well known of these sauces is romesco, the earthy, smoky pepper and nut sauce commonly used on fish. Our version is flexible, working as a condiment for simply cooked vegetables or as a salad dressing. Similar to a ratatouille, samfaina includes peppers, tomatoes, onions, and eggplant cooked down to an aromatic stew. Other sauces include sofrito (related to Italian soffritto), a cooked onion and garlic sauce base; allioli, which does not use an egg yolk (unlike the French version aioli) but plenty of garlic and oil to create an emulsion; and picada, which is derived from the Moorish nut-thickened sauce.

Vegetables take the spotlight in Catalonia since they are often served as a course by themselves and not typically as side dishes. Spices such as saffron and smoked paprika add depth to dishes without relying on meats and fish for flavor. Fruity extravirgin olive oil adds subtle flavor and is the cooking medium used in most dishes. (We’ve kept the amount of oil prudent because in Spain, olive oil is used for marinating, grilling, and sautéing, and dishes are often finished with an extra drizzle.) Catalonian cuisine has its roots in Old World ingredients, yet its savor bolsters vegetarian cooking for tasty dishes today. 

Signature Spanish ingredients

Sherry vinegar: This nutty, slightly sweet, and smooth vinegar imparts just a trace of oak.

Olive oil: Spanish extravirgin olive oils are now available at large supermarkets, in gourmet stores, and online from a,, or Catalonian oil tends to be lighter on the palate than other Spanish olive oils.

Saffron: A signature spice of Spain. For maximum flavor, saffron threads should be handled with care―crushed and added to a dish; toasted and then crushed; or steeped in a warm liquid like wine, stock, or water before being added to a dish. Imparts a golden hue to paella.

Piquillo peppers: These deep-red, bittersweet chiles are ideal for stuffing but may also be served drizzled with oil and sherry vinegar as an appetizer.

Romesco: This small dried pepper flavors the classic nut-thickened Catalonian sauce of the same name. Substitute dried ancho chile since the pepper is rarely exported.

Ñoras (pimiento choricero): These small, round dried peppers are common in Spanish cuisine and offer sweet and earthy backnotes to foods. They may be torn or chopped and added to stews, or rehydrated for paella or sofrito. Substitute sweet unsmoked pimentón.

Pimentón (paprika): This spice is a signature flavor component of Spanish cooking, whether dulce (sweet), agridulce (bittersweet), or picante (hot). Deeper red and coarser than the Hungarian version, pimentón colors stews and soups, and is the most widely used spice in the Spanish kitchen. Pimentón de la Vera is a smoked paprika, which offers robust, round, and meaty flavors to vegetarian dishes.

Rice: Typically a short- to medium-grain rice is used. Bomba and Calasparra are two well-known varieties.