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The Basque Country, and in particular the cities of Bilbao and San Sebastián, is known for its unique and delicious cuisine, which has now become world famous. Think plenty of cod fish, baked spider crabs, hearty stews and pintxos bites, here are 10 traditional dishes you need to try while in Bilbao.
Bacalao pil-pil is one of the most iconic Basque dishes, which you can order at almost any restaurant in Bilbao. Bacalao means cod fish and is a favourite ingredient found in many Basque dishes. The cod is fried with garlic and olive oil until the natural oils of the fish and the olive oil forms an emulsion-like sauce and the skin is crispy and begins to pop. It is called pil-pil because of the sound it makes it the pan when frying.
Another cod dish is Vizcayan-style cod fish – hailing from the region of the Basque Country of which Bilbao is the capital. The baked cod is smothered in a red sauce made from red peppers, onions and garlic (sometimes tomato is also used).
Spider crabs or txangurros are another Basque seafood delight and very popular in seafood restaurants across Bilbao. A traditional Bilbao food experience, they are often eaten stuffed and baked – filled with a mixture of crab meat, bread crumbs, tomato and onions. The mix is then flavoured with garlic, parsley, brandy and olive oil, and put in the oven until crispy on top.
Marmitako is a typical Basque tuna and potato stew. Green and red peppers, onions, tomato sauce, garlic, olive oil, parsley and paprika are all added to this hearty concoction. This dish is best eaten during the Basque Country’s cold winters.
Kokotxas are a Basque speciality, not found elsewhere in Spain. They are essentially the fleshy cheeks of cod or hake fish and are often served in a sauce made from garlic, white wine and olive oil, and thickened with flour.
Txipirones are essentially baby squid and they are often eaten in the Basque Country, cooked in their own ink. You’ll find them on the menu at many Bilbao restaurants. They may not look too appetising, but they are delicious – trust us.
Literally translated as hake fish in green sauce, merluza en salsa verde, is more like a light seafood stew. As well as large fillets of hake fish, the dish also contains clams. The plate is slathered in a green sauce made from white wine, garlic, fish broth, parsley (which gives it the green colour) and olive oil.
Tolosa is a small town, which lies about 30km south of San Sebastián, and has become famous all over Spain for its small, slightly reddish, black beans. Even though this dish is typically from the Guipúzcoa region of the Basque Country, you can find it on many menus in Bilbao. It is a very simple, yet filling dish, made from beans cooked in water and olive oil, with added meat such as chorizo (spiced sausage) or morcilla (black pudding).
Pintxos are of course one of the Basque Country’s most famous creations and you can find them in almost any bar in Bilbao. Typically pintxos are small pieces of bread, topped with ingredients such as ham, peppers, cheese or even pieces of Spanish omelette (tortilla) and croquetas (deep fried bread-crumbed bites filled with bechamel sauce and a variety of flavours). There are really no rules as to what a pintxo could be topped with – anything and everything goes. You’ll find pintxos lined up along the bar, where you can help yourself. At the end of the evening the cocktail sticks (which usually hold the pintxos together) will be counted, and your bill calculated accordingly.
After all these tasty seafood dishes and typical Basque delights, don’t forget to save room for dessert. One of the most traditional desserts here is pastel Vasco or Basque tart. It’s a soft pastry-like sponge, wrapped around a creamy, vanilla custard, and sometimes also contains fruit such as cherries.