The Spanish national dish – or is it? Join us as we dig into the truth of paella.
If you ask anyone from around the world what food most reminds them of Spain, the answer will almost certainly be paella.
But if you ask a Spaniard, they’ll tell you that paella is a Valencian dish. If you ask a Valencian they’ll tell you that you can’t get a decent paella anywhere else! And so it goes on…
The history of a confusing dish
Paella is actually the name of the dish that the meal is cooked in. A paella is a wide and very shallow dish, anywhere from 12 inches to several feet in diameter, that allows the food to be cooked very quickly over a high heat.
This was originally necessary due to the lack of decent firewood to create a slow-burning fire used to cook the more traditional soups and stews that arose in Northern Europe. The origins of paella come from a marriage between the Roman and Moorish cultures. The Romans supplied the pan and the Moors brought the rice.
The dish was originally ‘peasant food’ made by servants using cheap rice and adding in any leftovers from royal banquets. Modern farmworkers created the dish we know today as paella as it was easily cooked in the fields during breaks.
The basics of paella
Despite its many variations, any paella must have the basics right. You need a proper paella pan, bomba rice to absorb plenty of liquid and some saffron to give the rice its distinctive yellow colour.
It’s important to remember that paella is a rice dish, like an indian biryani, so adding too much meat, veg or beans is simply not the done thing. Its best feature is the socarrat – the layer of chewy caramelised rice that sticks to the bottom of the pan.
Valencian paella purists would say it consists of chicken, rabbit, snails, butter beans, runner beans, great northern beans, artichoke and tomatoes, seasoned with saffron, paprika and garlic with a little salt and olive oil. It should also use water rather than broth or stock to avoid giving it too much of a meaty flavour.
That said, just because a ‘proper’ pizza should consist of nothing but bread, tomato sauce and cheese doesn’t mean you shouldn’t add some ham and pineapple if that’s the way you like it!
Variations of the dish
Besides Valencian, the main types of paella are meat, seafood and mixed. A meat paella is similar to Valencian but is likely to contain chorizo.
A seafood paella will contain a mixture of shrimps, king prawns, mussels and white fish. Finally, a mixed paella will contain both meat and seafood for the best of both worlds. Arroz Negro – black rice – is a dish similar to paella made using squid and squid ink to give it a deep black colour.
Fideua is a similar dish to paella made using pasta instead of rice. It’s found more in Catalonia than in the rest of Spain, but it makes a nice alternative to paella.
Where to find paella
It couldn’t be easier to find a good paella in Spain. Almost every restaurant will have it on the menu and most will be delicious. If you’re heading to or near Valencia, it’s a good idea to have one there as you know you’ll be getting the real deal and not a ‘turistica’ copy.
Feeling hungry, or perhaps inspired to plan a trip to Spain just to sample some traditional paella? You’re not the only one! Why not share your plans on Pinterest? We’ve got just the pin for that…