Paella: Spain's Signature Dish

June 2005

Explore with me one of Spain's signature dishes, paella. In many parts of Spain, this famous rice dish has been a tradition for centuries. Some communities even have paella festivals with giant pans that serve two thousand people at a time!

Creating a delicious paella is well within the reach of a regular cook. If you use authentic ingredients to start with, you do not need to be a master chef to prepare something delightful for your friends and family. I know you will have fun experimenting - it can even be a common project, with everyone pitching in to prepare a perfect feast.

My wife Ruth and I appreciated the versatility of paella when we had to plan the rehearsal dinner party for our son Jonathan and his bride Stacey a few years ago. We were to hold the party in a rented house in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. So, rather than struggling with the logistics needed to stage a sit-down dinner in a strange town, we decided to serve festive pans of paella graced with local seafood. 

We were no experts - we just thumbed through Penelope Casas' ¡Paella! cookbook and selected recipes that seemed particularly appealing. I assembled the key ingredients, including fresh seafood from the local fishing boats. Then Ruth cooked seven paellas of various configurations - some with seafood, many without! It was great fun, and it was a big hit with the wedding party, contributing to the celebratory atmosphere.

Where does the name 'paella' come from? Some say that the dish was first prepared by a lover for his fiancée and that the word is a corruption of por ella (meaning 'for her'). Others say that 'paella' is from the Arabic word "Baqiyah", which means 'leftovers' (which were tossed onto the rice.) More likely, though, 'paella' takes its name from the two-handled cooking pan, paella (from the Latin patella, meaning pan), in which the dish is traditionally cooked. 

Paella originated in the 8th C when the Moors first brought to El Palmer, Valencia, sacks of a strange white grain called rice. The local Valencians garnished the rice with readily available ingredients - vegetables, snails, and perhaps a rabbit - and the original paella was born. It was everyday food for field workers - not a gourmet item garnished with shellfish and other seafood.

An interesting aside: Due to prevalence of marsh malaria in the Albufera wetlands, Valencians ceased growing any rice there from 1448 until 1860. They believed that the rice was a carrier of the disease! I have often speculated as to why our friends in Calasparra started growing rice in mountain valleys high above sea level. I can see now that the motivation was to raise rice far, far away from the disease-ridden marshlands. They were able to produce rice in a healthy atmosphere because they could channel fresh mountain streams through aqueducts built centuries before by the Romans! (La Tienda imports this same Bomba rice today.)

It was not until over 400 years later that the locals were convinced that it was not the rice, but the mosquitoes in the flatlands, that bred malaria. From this moment onward the Albufera rice fields flourished! It is also from this time that outdoor cooking of paella became popular as a festive family event in Valencia. No longer was it simple workers fare. 

As tourists from other parts of Spain vacationed on the coast in the summer, the dish spread throughout other regions of Spain. Variations have evolved to include locally available produce. In Sevilla and Cádiz, they add big prawns and langostinos. Along the Costa del Sol, mussels, prawns, ñora peppers and lemons became favored ingredients.

Remember - paella is a simple rice dish. So keep it simple. Use Spanish short-grained rice, such as Bomba -- it absorbs prodigious amounts of broth with each grain remaining distinct. (Arborio rice is creamy; Asian short grain is sticky; aromatic basmati rice is fragile, and regular long grain is not absorbent). Use real Spanish saffron. In poorer times, Spaniards substituted 'colorante' a yellow artificial coloring - but it is not the same thing. Finally, pay attention to your broth. Make a flavorful broth for the rice with fish or chicken stock (or bouillon cubes). 

Paella can come in handy at the most unexpected times. In the aftermath of Hurricane Isabel, we were without electricity for days on end here in Williamsburg, VA. Undaunted, one of our neighbors set up his paellero (propane burner and tripod). With a paella pan and whatever ingredients were at hand he put together a delicious paella to feed the whole neighborhood! 

A perfect recipe? Probably not. But for me the authenticity of paella is gauged by the community it builds. What better way to enjoy your friends than to sit around the communal paella and share it together? That is what life is all about.

Best wishes to you and your family,