Every time we get to eat Paella (pronounced Pie-eh-ah), it feels like a special day. It might be something about the nature of Spanish cuisine that feels like a party, or perhaps that this dish even looks like a party... Paella -the vibrant, comforting, and colourful dish is considered the ultimate reference to Spanish cuisine. It's become one of the world's most iconic dishes and is synonymous with culture, family and festivities (as is so much of Spanish culture).
Though variations of Paella can be found all over the world, this globally recognized dish originated in the rural costal region of eastern Spain called Valencia.
A well made Paella is hard to find, and chances are good - unless you've eaten one in Spain (and even then it's not guaranteed) the version you've eaten is a mediocre representation at best. It should be rich and savoury - dark and dry. It should be slightly dense but not creamy. It should almost have a texture and a slight chew.
Understanding two simple statements are critical in understanding Paella. First, Paella is fundamentally a rice dish. Second when directly translated in Valencian dialect - Paella translates to pan.
Rice is paramount to Paella and requires the use of Bomba rice, a rice native to Spain and found in rice fields like this in the Albufera lagoon in Valencia. Bomba rice and the growing regions are protected by the Spanish government to maintain the highest integrity of the product and authenticity of their national dish. Paella made with rice other than Bomba rice isn't considered Paella by Spanish standards.
Bomba rice absorbs liquid very well, and it stays firm during the cooking process. When cooking Paella, it's absolutely critical to never stir the rice, and only a well made Paella will form a perfect socarrat, what's known as the chewy and savoury crust that forms at the bottom of the pan.
While Bomba rice is considered the original and authentic rice for Paella - today, experimental chefs in Spain have been playing with varieties of Spanish rice (mostly Bahia and Senia) which are unavailable in North American markets claiming they cook more evenly. We, however, tend to be Paella purists and will stick to the original.
The pan is an important piece to perfecting Paella. Also known as “La paella,” the pan, though it looks similar to a skillet, has two handles on either side and is usually made out of polished steel. The pan can range in diameter (they come in sizes from small to giant!) however the depth of the pan is consistently shallow to ensure the rice has maximum contact with the heat source for consistent cooking (and again, forming the socarrat).
Another differentiating feature of La paella are the small dimples found inside on the bottom of the pan. These dimples not only assist in even cooking by trapping small amounts of liquid, they also contribute to the structural integrity of the pan as they prevent warping.
THE HISTORY OF PAELLA
Paella was born between the 14th and 15th centuries. Farmers and shepherds needed a dish easy to prepare with the ingredients of the countryside, and in this region of Spain, rice is the main staple.
Although there is no debate of where and when this dish originated, there is great debate on the components of a true "Paella Valenciana" also known as "Countryside Paella." The original ingredients in the first version of Paella were chicken, duck, countryside rabbit, regional fresh vegetables, snails, rice, saffron, olive oil and rosemary. All ingredients were combined with water and cooked over an open fire using wood from orange trees (another Valencia staple) which lends a very special flavour.
As the dish spread to other parts of Spain, ingredients regionalized to what was available locally. A choice for people that live near the sea is Seafood Paella made with vegetables, rice, cuttlefish, calamari, Norway lobsters, clams and mussels. Seafood Paella is the version Chef Ana teaches with her private Paella Cooking Classes via Skype with The Chef & The Dish. Mixed Paella uses a mix of Seafood and Meat, and there are vegetarian versions that include Cauliflower and Eggplant.
At the end of 18th century Paella was a well known dish all around Spain and it was known in other countries. In the 1800's you were able to order “Arroz a la valenciana” at restaurants in Belgium and in 1896 Eugène Lix from France, one of the earliest videographers in the world, filmed instructions on how to cook a Valencia Paella. Today, there are entire books written about Paella.
The family is the epicenter of Spanish life, and the family revolves around food. Paella is a symbol of belonging to a family and the dish carries the important Spanish value of family in the day to day life. Families meet around a table to eat this tasty dish, and as such, families make their own Paella using ingredients that are easy to source.
What constitutes a traditional Paella has been a source of great discussion. The Ministry of Agriculture of Valencia and the Regulating Council of the Denomination of Origin of Valencia Rice have outlined the rules about the commercialisation of Paella of Valencia. The ten basic ingredients of traditional Paella include: chicken, rabbit, green beans, large white beans, tomato, rice, olive oil, water, saffron and salt. Furthermore, depending on the region, garlic, artichoke, duck, paprika, snails or rosemary are also considered acceptable.
People across the world now make Paella, although the traditions are rarely as deeply woven into the fibre of a family as those of Spanish roots. One of our favourite and most beautiful displays of modern variations of Paella are from David Montero, a Spanish chef native to the region of Valenica who values the traditions and culture of the dish while incorporating his creativity and innovation. Although David is a Spanish only speaker you can follow him on Instagram at @ricepaella, where you can admire the beautiful photos of his creations. When we sat down with him to learn more about his love for Paella, it was quite simple, "One thing I love about my Spanish culture is it's very social. Food is social for us. In Valencia, every family has a tradition of making Paella on Sunday. It's very special."
Chef Ana, Spanish chef with The Chef & The Dish has beautiful traditions around this dish and can't wait to share them with you and your family and friends. Her Paella Cooking Class is one that will teach you more than just how to cook, she believes it can also teach you how to live.
Paella Cooking Class
Chef Ana, owner of Fresh Cooking Spain in the heart of the historic Seville, Spain will Skype into your home for a private 1:1 cooking class. Together you'll make Seafood Paella, Shrimp Stock and a Spanish Salad. At the end of your class you'll have been taught the secrets from a Spanish native and have an epic dinner to enjoy at home with your friends.
Tapas Essentials Cooking Class
If you love to entertain, this cooking class is for you. Master the Essential Tapas dishes and impress your friends with your authentic Sangria, Spanish Tortilla and Croquetas de Jamón! Chef Ana will Skype into your home from her kitchen in Spain and together, you'll cook these iconic dishes. Sign off and enjoy casual eating with friends!