Basque gastronomy is a pleasure, a monument in itself that should be discovered and enjoyed by anyone visiting the Basque Country. Bilbao represents one of those obligatory stops in the Basque gastronomic world.
Thanks to its location and history, Bilbao boasts exceptional fish and seafood as well as top-quality cultivated produce, with vegetables and greens known and recognised throughout the country. And what about the meat...
But where to start? Today we bring you a list of essential dishes that you must try on your visit to Bilbao. Some are elaborate and rich in produce, while others bring together the history of tradition in a single mouthful but always made with unique local products.
Where to eat in Bilbao?
Before starting with our dishes, the first thing you should ask yourself is where to go to enjoy them. The easy answer is, anywhere. Bilbao has an unparalleled gastronomic tradition, which makes every corner a unique place where you can enjoy different dishes.
However, if we have to say somewhere in particular, it is undoubtedly Casco Viejo. Places like Calle de la Pelota, Calle María Muñoz, Plaza Nueva or Plaza de Unamuno are hot spots with the best bars and restaurants whether you want to enjoy elaborate traditional dishes or the best pintxos in the city.
Essential Dishes in Bilbao
There's no doubt about it, is there? The first one we had to talk about is the best known. It is not a dish as such, but some of them are as carefully and meticulously prepared as the best cod.
If you are one of those who like to integrate into the cities you visit, you should know that when you go to eat pintxos, in Bilbao they say "ir de pote". And you don't go with your friends, but with the gang.
Your first pintxo should be the Gilda, a banderilla with anchovies, olives and local chilli. To go with it you have to drink a good txakoli, a fruity white wine made from local grapes. There is also a very small production of rosé and red txakoli, although the white is the traditional one. This is one of those things you must try before leaving the city. Here are some other tips for things you can't leave without doing.
Triángulos y Torres
They're not a plate of food as you'd imagine, since they're a sandwich, but they're as much a part of Bilbao as the Basilica of the Virgin of Begoña. To try the best sandwiches in Bilbao you're going to have to check out El Eme bar, a historic place in operation since 1950 and creators of this much-loved sandwich.
The Triángulos are made with ham, lettuce, mayonnaise and the family sauce whose recipe is a real secret. The Torres are made with anchovies, lettuce, mayonnaise and their staple, the secret sauce.
Pimientos rellenos (Stuffed peppers)
They may not be unique to the city, but you'll see them everywhere, and for a reason. You'll find them with fish and meat, and we can't tell you which is tastier.
Grilled mushrooms, some accompanied with a sauce and others, the most typical ones, stuffed with ham and cheese. On this occasion, we are going to recommend a specific place, Bar Motrikes.
We return to the concept of simplicity. The rabas are chopped and battered squid. Simplicity is not incompatible with flavour and this is good proof of that. Feel like one of the locals ordering some rabas as the first bite for lunch.
Make way for the real kings of cod. If anyone knows how to cook it, it is the chefs of Bilbao. It is one of the fundamental pillars of Basque gastronomy.
Legend has it that a mistake in an order, some say to England, others say to Norway, placed by José María Guturbay just before the outbreak of the first Carlist war at the beginning of the 19th century meant that he received an indecent amount of cod. With all the surplus he was able to feed people for months.
Be that as it may, the reality is that they are true masters of cod and we can see it in creations as tasty as cod in pil pil sauce, with garlic and chilli, cod omelette, kokotxas a la vizcaína or the renowned Purrusalda.
Although it is a cod-based dish, which we have just seen, it is so well known and typical that it deserves its own special mention. Purrusalda, "leek sauce" in Basque, is made with fish stock, leeks, potatoes, carrots and, in most cases, cod.
Yes, you just read cod kokotxas, but hake kokotxas with green sauce, or al pil pil, are so typical and delicious that we can't resist telling you about it. Kokotxas are the tastiest and most mellow part of the fish. Kokotxas can be made mainly with hake, cod or monkfish.
The original recipe for hake kokotxas with green sauce dates back to the 18th century and its creator is Doña Plácida.
Txangurro is the spider crab. They have several ways of making it, with gratinated crab being one of the most popular. Although it is not the cheapest dish, there is no excuse not to try it. It is delicious.
Angulas a la bilbaína (Baby eels a la bilbaína)
In their earthenware casserole, prepared with garlic, prawns and olive oil, the elvers a la bilbaína are a real delicacy. Anything with "a la bilbaína" in the name must be tried.
Chipirones en su tinta (Squid in its own ink)
Baby squid, or txipirones, are small squid that occupy an essential place on the Bilbao table. They can be eaten as a starter, side dish or main course and cooked in a thousand different ways, the most common being in their own ink, croquettes or in broth.
This is a typical and timeless dish. Marmitako is made with tuna, peppers and onion. You'll find it in every restaurant and you won't go wrong no matter where you try it.
Callos a la vizcaína
Not everything could be fish, meat had to make an appearance, even if it was only in one dish. And if we had to choose just one, it would undoubtedly be callos, tripe, a la vizcaína. Its characteristic flavour is the result of the mixture of vegetables, tripe and a unique sauce that bears the unmistakable stamp of "a la vizcaína".