It is the trademark dish of the Spanish cuisine, but what characterises good paella?
Spain’s perhaps most famous dish was created by poor labourers in Valencian rice fields. So, at least, goes the story. At lunchtime they would cook rice in large pans over fire. They would eat it straight from the pan using wooden spoons. The ingredients? Whatever was available: tomatoes, onions, vegetables, snails, beans and rabbits. “It’s a peasant’s dish; an everyman’s dish. It came about as a result of needing to work in the fields,” says Nick Blythe of Paella Fella, a Spanish food caterer. “It was backbreaking work.”
Others tales go differently. In the time of the Moorish kings, another story says, servants would make rice dishes by using leftovers from royal banquets. They gathered the food in large pots and took it home. The theory also says the word ‘paella’ derives from the Arabic word for ‘leftovers’.
Exactly where it came from is difficult to say for certain, even if Valencia, the Mediterranean city on Spain’s eastern coast, is generally credited with its invention. Perhaps it was a combination. Either way, Paella has long spread into the many homes of Spain. Chefs and families make it for all occasions. Social communal meals are particularly popular. Large events will often feature gigantic paella pans designed to feed entire crowds. The paella’s mix-and-match nature allows it to be served in any format.
There is no ‘classic’ paella. People add whatever they like. Ingredients often depend on location. “All 12 regions in Spain have their own paella recipe,” says Ruth Leigh, of Paella & Tapas, a Spanish catering company. “For example, in La Mancha in central Spain, you will get meat paellas, because there is lots of pork available. On the coastal regions you will get much more seafood.
“Valencian paella is typically made of rabbits and snails because it was a poor area, and that was all people could afford. They would go out scavenging and see what they could find.”
And so the only requirements for paellas are rice, a large, shallow steel pan, and saffron, which gives the rice its characteristic yellow colour. But how do you make it taste good? “Despite what people put in paella, it is all about the rice, and about getting the taste and the texture of the rice right,” says Blythe, who has been cooking paellas for 19 years. “Parts of Spain like it differently, and there are as many recipes for paella as there are cooks. They all have their own tweaks.”
The chief differences centre on the way rice is prepared. “The way you cook it can vary the flavour massively,” Blythe explains. “Some in Spain like their rice slightly underdone. In other parts of Spain they like it wet.” A key composition, he says, is the ‘soccarat’ – the rice at the bottom of the pan. “As the rice absorbs the stock, the rice at the bottom of the pan in the middle starts to toast and turn golden and brown,” he says. “That is important to get right, and in Spain they consider that a delicacy.”
Photos: eZeePics Studio, holbox, Mikhail Zahranichny [all via Shutterstock.com].