One major part of living in a new country is being adventurous when it comes to trying new foods. At times that means humbling yourself and just pointing to the things you can pronounce (a tactic I use far too often). Sometimes going to the grocery store can be just as much of an adventure as going to a foreign restaurant. Although, Bilbao is a quite diverse city, it does not have the international grocery options you may find in places such as Barcelona or Madrid. At times the lack of familiarity can be tough to what you’re craving. But I often find that going to a dozen little stores in search of an item, can lead you to some of your new favorite shops.
After two months of living in Spain I’m by no means a pro at authentic Spanish or Basque food. I’m not even remotely close to finding all the things at the store that I miss from home. But I have recently gotten in a habit of shopping at the same places and having a few favorite cafes. I’m sure what I find here in Bilbao is far different than some other traditional Spanish cuisines. The Basque country has many traditional dishes unique to this region of Northern Spain. I thought it might be helpful for anyone new to the Basque Country or planning on visiting one day to know what to expect from local dining and grocery options.
One of the most unique dining aspects to Spain is the tapas. Although, if you ask for tapas in Basque Country you will be pretty much letting everyone know you’re not a local. In Basque Country tapas still exist but are instead called Pinxtos. Pintxo (pronounced peen-cho) is Basque word translating to “pierce”. This may be because typically these appetizer sized foods are served on a toothpick. Pintxos can be found at almost every bar or café. They are pretty hard to miss as well, as they are usually displayed on plates or clear cases on counter tops of the bar. Pintxos are perfect for a mid-day snack or with a few you could even count it as a meal. Pintxos are perfect for those that are not perfect at Spanish or Basque because they are premade on the counter, and easy to point to. Pintxos are occasionally free with drinks, or on a certain week night depending on the bar/café. Pintxos are typically some type of sliced baguette with cheese, some with different types of meat, or even made into tiny burgers.
Next may just be my favorite Spanish food of all time ,Tortilla de Patatas! In Spain they often cook with eggs and potato and Tortilla de Patatas may be the best combination of both. I like to call these Tortillas the Spanish omelet. Although similar to omelets, Tortilla de Patatas rarely ever contain meat. This dish is definitely the ultimate comfort food of Spain. They typically contain eggs, potato, and onion. Tip to those that hate onion as much as I do simply look for the ones labeled “ sin cebolla”. Tortilla de Patatas may be one of the most common foods served in Spain, and can be found at nearly every traditional restaurant. There are even pre-made versions on the dish at most grocery stores.
Other great finds at local Basque cafes are any type of seafood, cheeses, and chocolate. Although there are barely any fast food style restaurants in Spain. The website JustEat is a life saver for those used to convenient food. JustEat offers delivery (rarely without delivery fees) from local dining options near your location. The only downside to this, is that is you don’t have a somewhat decent understanding of Spanish is may be tough to make the transaction.
Grocery shopping here in Bilbao is sometimes a struggle compared to the way I used to shop back in the States. As most all European cities, Bilbao has far more pedestrian traffic on the sidewalks than cars on the roads. I often get caught in Bilbao’s rainy weather unexpectedly while trying to lug all my groceries to my apartment. In Bilbao the go to grocery store has to be Eroski. There may possibly be more Eroskis in the Basque Country than there are Dollar Generals in the southern U.S. Bilbao is also full of panaderías (bakeries), frutería (produce shops), and candy shops.
The first thing you may notice when you walk into a Basque grocery store is all the CARBS! Baguettes usually are the first thing you will see when you go into any grocery store. Although, Spain has a decent amount of gluten free friendly products it’s hard to stay on a strict diet with all the amazing fresh breads. Just about as common as breads here would have to be doughnuts. Doughnuts and any sort of cake style sweet is sure to take up a few aisle of a Basque Grocery store. Lots of local fruits and vegetables is definitely a plus to living in Bilabo. Some of the best citruses and avocados I have ever had were from Spain. One of my favorite attributes of Spanish grocery stores is the fact that literally everything packages or not is from Spain. For the items that were made/grown in another country there is a small photo of that nations flag typically beside the price label.
Although it’s pretty much impossible to find prepared foods such as pre-cooked grilled chicken, biscuit/cookie dough, pie crust, or many to-go style lunches. These stores often do carry a few Mexican, Asian, and Indian food products. Basque grocery stores are not only famous for their low prices baked goods, but their seafood as well. I’ve ate more crab since I have moved here than I thought was humanly possible. You can find very fresh cuts of any type meats here (although mostly chicken). The cheese sections of the store here still seem to amaze me with the variety from sheep, goat, to even a lot of lactose free options. While all of these Basque grocery items are amazing, few compare to the overwhelming selection of chocolate. I would be a liar if I said I don’t have at least a bit of chocolate everyday here. Believe me when I say it completely worth every calorie too!
Although I wouldn’t trade living in the Basque Country for anything, there are still some foods I miss or cannot find living here. One of my biggest struggles is finding smoothies. Many Americanized cafes here offer “smoothies”, there are either juice or a milkshake. Not once have I had an actual smoothie since moving here. Don’t even get me started on the struggle to find a blender to make my own at home either. Some of the grocery store items that are rare to find but are occasionally possible are peanut butter, brown sugar, apple sauce, chocolate baking chips, Italian dressing, flaxseed, chia seeds, marshmallows, and oats. While somethings here are the exact same as in America, but just packaged differently. For example, Dorito chips are very popular here although the US. Version of the red bagged nacho cheese chips are sold in a light orange bag and labeled Tex-Mex flavored. Most American candies or frozen foods are almost impossible to find. Reece’s cups, tater tots, canned soups, or American style ham or sausage are just a few examples of foods that simply don’t exist here.
For everything I miss from home I often find something new I love here just as much. That is definitely one of my favorite parts of living abroad, just appreciating the differences. My biggest tip for anyone new to Spain or the Basque Country, is just to try it all because that’s the best way to learn. There is nothing better than going to a new place and finding something you can’t live without!