How Not to Starve in Spain (And Other Food Abroad Stories)

Keely Meyers is a student at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor and is an intern in Barcelona this spring. Read about her adventures with food in Spain and how it has unexpectedly impacted her intern abroad experience!


One of the things I was most excited about while traveling abroad was the food. I couldn’t wait to try new things, cook traditional meals, and learn more about the Spanish culture through something I already loved. Food has played an integral part in my experience abroad. All of my experiences surrounding food – the good, the bad, and the ugly – have taught me more about myself and my host culture. 

Chocolate con churros from Cafe de l’Opera
Chocolate con churros from Cafe de l’Opera

Cooking and Eating in Spain

Learning to cook Catalan food has been one of the best parts of enjoying food in Spain. I took a Catalan cooking class as part of the cultural activities through CISabroad and learned how to make traditional foods such as calçots and romesco sauce, artichokes, pan con tomate, paella, crema catalana, and tortilla española. I also got to keep the recipes to take home and impress my family and friends with my new skills and broadened palate.

The culture around food here is much different than it is at home. For example, meal times in Spain are not what I am used to. Here, locals eat a large lunch around two o’clock in the afternoon and take their time, similar to how many Americans eat dinner. The dinners here, on the other hand, are very small and eaten late at night – usually around 10 or 11 o’clock! It took a while to get used to the different eating schedule, but embracing the different mealtimes has made me feel more immersed in the local culture.

Also different from the U.S. is the amount of time devoted to cooking and enjoying food. Spaniards take a lot of pride in preparing their food from the freshest ingredients and enjoying the eating experience with family and friends. There are various mercats around the city – markets where you can find the freshest fruits, vegetables, meats, and seafoods – where locals buy ingredients to cook with. Cooking and eating meals are also much longer processes than they are back home, often lasting multiple hours.

Fresh fruits from Mercat de La Boqueria in Barcelona

Fresh fruits from Mercat de La Boqueria in Barcelona

Trying New Foods

Trying new foods is something that I definitely wanted to do while abroad. One of my rules while traveling has been to never say no to something I was offered – no matter how weird or scary it seemed. Because of my self-enforced rule, I have enjoyed culinary “delights” such as blood sausage, cow intestine, octopus, squid, and anchovies. Even if I hated them, I knew it was important to try new things and embrace local flavors. I have also gone out to new restaurants or been invited over to eat meals with new friends and tried foods I never would have back home, including pho from a traditional restaurant in Paris, authentic Chinese food from a local restaurant in Barcelona, and home-cooked Argentinian asado. I have found some surprising new favorite foods and learned that things I was too scared to eat weren’t actually so bad! (Except anchovies, those were about as bad as they sound.)

Some of my favorite local foods that I have tried have been the tapas. I have tried ham croquetas, pan con tomate, patatas bravas, and many more. I have also enjoyed cava, the Spanish version of champagne, and went on a cava tour with my site director to learn about the history and production process of this regional drink.

Another local eating experience I had here was taking part in a calçotada – a large feast centered around sweet onions called calçots. The process of eating calçots is both messy and fun, and is an important local tradition that I absolutely loved experiencing.

Tapas feast from my welcome lunch with CISabroad
Tapas feast from my welcome lunch with CISabroad

Grocery Shopping

Trying new foods has also come naturally because of the different selection in supermarkets in Barcelona. Brands and even types of food from home are not found here, which has forced me to push myself outside of my comfort zone, craft new recipes, and pick up local habits. When one of those habits includes picking up a fresh-baked baguette daily, I’m not one to complain!

Grocery shopping in Spain was definitely an experience the first time I went. For one thing, the grocery stores are all closed on Sundays and often close much earlier than American supermarkets on weeknights. As a result, my first Sunday in Barcelona also happened to be a very hungry day for me! When I did find an open grocery store the next day, it took a little getting used to. I vividly remember shopping with my roommate, who was searching for milk. Eventually, she had to ask a woman in the store where it was. The woman gave her a confused look and proceeded to point right next to the shelf where the two were standing, not understanding how we didn’t know to look for the milk on the shelf and not in the refrigerated section. Embarrassed, we thanked her and proceeded to the checkout. However, another thing we did not know about grocery shopping in Spain was that grocery bags were not free. We tried to save some money by carrying our groceries home in our arms, struggling and laughing the whole way home. We did not know at the time, but the bags were only 10 cents – definitely worth getting to avoid dropping your eggs on the city streets.

Food has been a huge part of my experience here in Barcelona and has been a way for me to challenge myself to try new things, learn about local customs and cuisine, and immerse myself in the daily life of a local. I have learned to be open to new things, try my hand at cooking once in a while (I’m not quite as terrible as I thought), and use food as a way to connect with people and cultures from around the world.


Want to learn more about how you can have an amazing experience in Spain? It’s easy with CISabroad!