What Is Paella And What Makes It So Special?
Illustration by Giulia Pelizzaro.
Purists, nonconformists and opportunists alike will tell you how paella is really done, but that’s simply not in the spirit of the Valencian dish: It’s something that embodies a transformative blend of old and new, local and foreign, tradition and adaptation. Its humble inception originates with rice farmers, as it was meant to serve as a tasty lunch foraged from fresh ingredients that could be shared among many. But today there’s a war over paella that boils down to personal preference.
So what is paella and what’s so special about it?
A Short History
In order to answer the question “What is paella?”, you first have to understand its history. This story starts with Spanish rice farmers who lived near Lake Albufera in Valencia in the 15th century. They cooked, typically over vines or orange branches, what they could rummage from the rice fields for their lunch. These ingredients included plump tomatoes, sweet onions, beans, occasionally snails, and — of course — rice.
Since the Arabic Moors bought rice to the Iberian Peninsula in the 800s, Valencia has been one of the most significant rice-producing regions in Spain. Valencian rice, as it was coined, consists of three medium short-grain, “rice pearl” varieties: Bahia, Bomba, and Senia — the second is the most common pick for paella. It uniquely doubles or triples volume without opening or sticking during cooking, thus absorbing intense flavor (and deliciousness).
It’s important to harp on about this rice because paella is, above all, a rice dish. Most agree that the essential ingredients for paella are rice, some form of protein (chicken, seafood, rabbit), legumes and/or vegetables, olive oil, and saffron (also brought to the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors). You might hear people today arguing that seafood has no place in a traditional paella, but the fact is that seafood paella was born because it served the same purpose as the original: People needed a simple and affordable dish to prepare with local (in this case, coastal) ingredients.
Etymology And Pronunciation
In terms of etymology, the word paella means “frying pan” in Valencian-Catalan. It alludes both to the typical dish and the container that it’s cooked in (in Castilian Spanish, this pan is commonly called a paellera).
In terms of pronunciation, unless you’ve been coached by a Spanish speaker, globetrotter or food enthusiast, it’s likely that you’ll butcher the pronunciation of paella. (That’s understandable — it looks deceivingly straightforward.) Castilian speakers in Spain pronounce it something like pah/EH/yah, with the emphasis on the second syllable. In Castilian Spanish, a double L will always sound like a Y (like in “yet”), while in some parts of South America, you can hear it pronounced as a soft J sound. In any case, the [ll] sound in Spanish is never pronounced like an English L, so watch out!
The Traditional Way
This might be a controversial opinion, but I would argue there is no one traditional paella. It wasn’t created by an individual, so it doesn’t follow one exact recipe. When Spain became a hot tourist destination, paella was swept up, chewed up and thrust into international fame. Some argued that this diluted the integrity and quality of the dish, and so they went on a search to find what constituted true paella. They formed Wikipaella, a non-profit association that conducted 200 interviews with restaurants in Valencia, Alicante, and Castellón to create a “bible” of sorts for paella. Now the site includes a statistical breakdown of ingredients and classic recipes for others.
Here are the things everyone can agree on: You need a paella pan because its shallow and wide shape allows the rice to have maximum contact with the base. Then, after warming some olive oil, you must add the meat to crisp and brown, followed by vegetables. When those are done, the pressure is on: The tomato, saffron and paprika go next, then you add water to the brim, add the rice, and perhaps a dash of food colorant (if desired) — in that order. From there, stirring the rice is non-negotiable, but be careful! Be gentle so that the paella can develop the socarrat, heralded as the “Valencian caviar.”
The socarrat, not to be confused with burning the bottom black, is a lightly toasted layer at the base of the pan. This is achieved by increasing the heat during the final stages of cooking. Once the paella is finished you must wait until the dish dries up slightly, plus an additional 10-15 minutes for it to become just right before digging in with a wooden spoon. This process is called reposar. Apart from this, the only real normality is to enjoy with others at lunchtime.
The Beauty Of Adaptation
While we can all appreciate traditionalists’ frustration with a gluggy, microwaved paella, I’m a supporter of paella‘s adaptation because it’s in the spirit of the traditional identity. After all, food is something to be shared, enjoyed, and passed along. Each region, town and household likely has their own recipe, each slightly different, so it’s only fair to celebrate its diversity. Some favored and practical diversions include cooking over a hob or in the oven, including local produce, and experimenting with local herbs and spices. If you’re feeling adventurous, why not cook it for your friends at a dinner party rather than at the traditional lunchtime?
Some Tips From A Local
Since I’m not Valencian, I asked a friend from the region to share some local tips. He said that his mom’s paella is what you would call a traditional Paella Valenciana with artichokes (a controversial addition). She soaks them in lemon before adding them to the pan, which gives them a delicious tang. The real secret, he says, is cooking the meat to perfection at the beginning. When you think it’s fully cooked, fight the feeling and cook it a tiny bit longer to get that crispy shell, which also adds extra flavor to the stock afterward. The final tip? Try cooking the dish at least 100 times, and you’ll eventually make a good one.