Here at The Paella Club, we’re a bit obsessed with Paella. But what’s the big deal about this Spanish specialty?
Even if you haven’t visited Spain, chances are you have heard of Paella. This culinary gem reached international recognition and is arguably one of the most iconic symbols of Spanish tradition and gastronomy. A rice-based delicacy, Paella has the unlimited potential of modification to suite any palate. But such fandom and international recognition comes with a price: many of the paellas served nowadays are merely a lackluster rendition of a sinfully-good dish.
The key to a good paella lies in the rice and how it is cooked. In order to avoid a regretful paella experience, visit places that insist on a minimum of two people per paella, avoid mass-produced frozen paellas like those made by Paellador, and if you see a paella on display outside the front door of the restaurant, run away at all costs.
A Royal Dish with a Humble Origin
All good paellas are made with an understanding of the history behind the dish. Although Paella is celebrated and served in restaurants around the world, paella has a surprisingly humble origin. While there are many myths surrounding the ancestry of paella, it is agreed by historians that paella was born in Valencia and was a lunchtime meal eaten by farmers and farm laborers. Paella was traditionally cooked over a wood fire and was made from rice and a mix of whatever ingredients were readily available to the farmers at that time. In many ways paella was traditionally what we now consider an “everything but the kitchen-sink” or “use up all the leftovers in the fridge” dish.
With time valencian rice, brought to Valencia by the moors in 1200, became more widely available to the rest of the country. The rice was accompanied with the traditional preparatory methods, and the popularity of paella quickly spread across Spain. As it was incorporated into kitchen across the country, the Valencian paella recipe was modified based on ingredients available to local regions, ultimately leading to the numerous variations we see today.
The Pan Matters
Probably the most recognizable trait of Paella is the unique pan in which it is served. Make no mistake, this unique pan is absolutely essential to the formation of top-notch paella. The wide and shallow pan ensures that the rice is cooked in a thin layer, which cannot be thicker than “un ditet” or width of one finger, according to Valencian chefs. The complex flavors lie at the bottom of the pan and maximizing on diameter rather than height amplifies such flavors.
It is vitally Important that the stove covers the width of the pan in order to emulate similar conditions to the traditional cooking wood-fired conditions and to ensure even heat across the paella pan.
Paella Etiquette 101: A Communal Feast
Believe it or not, there is a correct and incorrect way to eat paella. Paella comes from a strong tradition of community and shared meals. Therefore, paella should be a social meal and a gastronomic experience shared with others. Even today, paella is still cooked in Spain on weekends during family gatherings or shared during large family meals in restaurants.
But beyond the social aspect of paella, the way one eats paella is equally important. The dish should be set in the center of the table where diners can serve themselves with a wooden spoon. Make sure to share the amount of the meat or vegetables and to scrape the sides and the bottom of the pan to get the caramelized socarrat, which is often considered the best part of the dish. To really impress your Valencian friends, make sure to serve the paella by starting from the perimeter and work the way to the center of the dish, ensuring everyone receives their fair-share of the socarrat.