All About Paella, History, Origin, and Variations

Paella is perhaps the best-known dish of Spanish origin in the world and gets its name from the large pan in which it is cooked. It originated between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries near Lake Albufera in Valencia, Spain, as food for peasants and shepherds.

Later, this dish was popularized in other Spanish regions, variations were made such as paella marinera or mixed paella. The original ingredients were products found in the rural area, such as saffron, rice, field rabbit, birds, snails, and fresh vegetables, many of these were introduced to Europe through different trade routes on the Silk Road, with the exception of animal inputs (which were hunted in the Albufera region) and legumes (originating in America)

Where Does The Word Paella Come From?

There are many different theories about the origins of the word ‘paella’, one of them is its origin from Latin and specifically from the word ‘patella’ which in Latin means frying pan. Another theory is that it comes from the Arabic word ‘baquliyah’ since rice is a cereal that was brought to Spain by the páramos (inhabitants of North Africa) in the eighth century.

But the most romantic of all is the one that tells that a man prepared paella to win the affection of his girlfriend. And that the name had derived from the Spanish phrase “por ella” or “para ella”.

An Indispensable Tool.

If the ingredients of paella may vary depending on their availability, it is certain that there is no paella without the appropriate tool to prepare it. The very name of the recipe comes from the typical pan used to cook this delicious dish, an iron pan equipped with two handles. In Valencian, the pan for cooking the typical dish of Iberian gastronomy is called “paella”, while the term paellera, used in other areas of Spain to name the same tool, would be more correct its use to define the woman who cooks the paella and not the container in which it is cooked. The Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, however, admits both meanings.

The History And Origin Of Paella

If there is a dish that perfectly defines the gastronomy of Spain, it is undoubtedly paella. A dish is known worldwide and to which any self-respecting tourist ends up falling surrendered sooner or later. In fact, it is one of those tourist attractions, together with the potato omelet or Iberian ham, that manages to conquer even the most demanding palates.

The reason? It is perfect for all tastes, something that is directly related to its great variety, which not only has to do with its many and different interpretations more or less accurate, but with its ingredients that can include from seafood and fish to meat, only vegetables or a mixture of both.

But leaving aside the tastes, the truth is that paella has not always been as we know it today, nor has it always carried the same ingredients. In fact, the origin of the authentic Valencian paella is humble and after many circumstances have ended up becoming what it is today: the most emblematic dish of Spanish gastronomy. Here we tell you the history of paella.

Its beginnings date back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and place it in the rural areas of Valencia, specifically in the emblematic Albufera. A dish that was born as a claim of the peasants and shepherds, being an easy meal to prepare with the ingredients they had in the field.

In fact, in its beginnings, it came to be composed simply of rice, flour, and almond milk. A recipe that little by little was enriched by adding other types of ingredients available to farmers such as birds, rabbit or hare, duck, chicken, or even snails. All mixed with the vegetables they grew, rice, saffron, and olive oil, and all of the course was cooked over low heat and with firewood, specifically with orange wood.

Some beginnings that were totally different in the sea areas, where this dish derived to include seafood or fish, giving rise to what we know today as seafood paella.

This dish would soon conquer even the highest classes becoming so popular that in the nineteenth century it would end up being the preferred dish for celebrations and, not only in Valencia but also throughout Spain, even beginning to be known outside our borders, in renowned celebrations or even used as a diplomatic tool to deal with political conflicts.

It is precisely this popularity that makes around 1885 the first alternatives to the original recipe begin to appear, diversifying so much that at the end of the nineteenth century some enlightened people begin to qualify it as the “great gastronomic circus”.

Is There A Unique Recipe?

It could be said that paella is one of those dishes that admits practically any ingredient and that even using them, one paella will never taste the same as another. So far from being a dish or a unique recipe, it has many possibilities that vary depending on the taste of each one, but that in its beginnings was the result of everything that farmers could have and that as we have already mentioned included snails, duck, chicken, rabbit, tomatoes, beans, peppers, zucchini, onions and finally saffron to give more flavor.

But the truth is that fish and seafood paellas have also made their place in Spanish cuisine, becoming another of the great favorites.

What Are The Paella Recipes?

Paella does not have only one recipe, in other words, the ingredients are not fixed either. The cook can include different elements in a paella. Revenues can therefore be diversified. In addition, some farmers have not been satisfied with classic meat for their paella. They also used snails in the field.

And for more taste, it was necessary to introduce saffron into the paella. Vegetables like carrots and zucchini are not on the margins.

In addition to accentuating the flavors, they give more color to the dish. Even artichokes are used to prepare paella. Chefs are not uncommon to add pepper, but of course, the main ingredient remains rice. For seafood lovers, they can choose between lobsters, crayfish, or crab. Fish like monkfish will not be refused to perfect the recipe. As for the paella of Valences, it consists of rabbit meat and chicken. Bomba rice is the one that is used for this type of paella. Note that this rice originates from Valencia itself

Types Of Paella: The Main Variants

From the peasant culture of the Albufera, paella has been able to spread to every latitude. Starting from the same Comunidad Valenciana (the Iberian region of which Valencia is the capital) to the whole of Spain and beyond. Being also a dish that consists of various elements, it has lent itself to numerous reinterpretations, characterized by the use of ingredients typical of the territory.

In seaside resorts, for example, paella de mariscos has spread, where meat is replaced by mollusks and crustaceans, while the growing vegetarian culture has led to versions based only on vegetables. Not infrequently it happens then to come across the mixed paella, that is, with meat and fish together. Finally, there are more breaking variants, as in the case of arroz negro and especially fideuà, where the base is no longer rice, but a particular type of short pasta, similar to broken spaghetti.

  • Traditional Valencian Paella:

It is prepared with the ingredients of the territory that come from the “huerta”, the great plain behind the city, cultivated with fruit, vegetables, citrus groves and rice fields. It is therefore a paella of land with the flavors of the countryside. The council of agriculture of the province of valencia has established that valencian paella can be marketed under this name only if it contains the ten basic ingredients of the traditional preparation: rice, chicken, rabbit, turkeys, white beans, tomato, oil, water, saffron and salt. Some additional ingredients such as garlic, artichoke, duck, paprika, snails, rosemary and chili pepper are allowed, but nothing more.

  • Paella De Mariscos, The Version With A Taste Of The Sea

In addition to the countryside of the hinterland, the Comunidad Valenciana is characterized by a long coastal area: from the Costa de Azahar, in the east, to the Costa Blanca, the one west, with the Costa de Valencia in the middle. Here the paella culture has been reinterpreted to enhance the resources that the sea offers. So here is the paella de mariscos, where there are mussels, prawns, squid, cuttlefish and scampi with a little tomato puree to tie them and the chili pepper to add a touch of spiciness.

In this case the broth in which the rice is cooked is based on fish, while saffron is added in the final part to complete everything and give the typical yellow color. Paella de mariscos is now widespread almost everywhere in the seaside resorts of southern Spain, from Catalonia to Andalusia, where it is a specialty in great demand by tourists who flock to them.

  • Mixed Paella, The Successful Marriage Between Meat And Fish

Who said that the dilemma between meat and fish must necessarily be resolved with the exclusion of one of the two? Mixed paella is a worthy example of this, blending together the peasant culture of Valencian paella and the sea culture of paella de mariscos. In a single preparation there are therefore both morsels of meat and fish and crustaceans, often accompanied by vegetables and with the classic final addition of saffron. A dish of substance, in which the white meat does not go to dominate, but rather enriches and completes the delicate flavor of molluscs and crustaceans.

  • Paella De Verduras, The Vegetarian Version

A common trait of all the versions of paella seen so far, in addition to rice of course, is the presence of vegetables. If until a few years ago, however, the vegetarian world represented a niche, today more and more people have adopted this type of diet. Reason why the menus of the locals that offer paella almost always also include the vegetarian version. The preparation follows that of the traditional Valencian paella, except of course for the meat. Space therefore to every kind of vegetable: from the classic peas, tomatoes, jackdaws and peppers to artichokes, beans, asparagus, mushrooms and so on and so forth. Paella de verduras is an authentic triumph of the plant world.

  • Arroz Negro Or Paella Negra, The Version Of Black Rice

From the paella de mariscos comes a version in which it is always the fish that is the protagonist, but in a different guise, starting from the way of presenting itself. This is the arroz negro or paella negra, which is already striking for the chromatic impact: the predominant color is in this case, as the name suggests, black. No saffron yellow here, but just a lot of cuttlefish black. The base is, in general, always the good Arroz de Valencia, soaked in fish broth and with a seasoning that provides, in its traditional version, only cuttlefish.

They are not unusual, however, versions in which shrimp, squid and mussels also find space. Widespread especially in the coastal area of the Comunidad Valenciana and Catalonia, arroz negro (arròs negre in the Valencian sense) is often served as an accompaniment to aioli sauce, an emulsion very present in Spanish cuisine, which is similar to mayonnaise, but whose protagonist element is garlic.

  • Fideuà, The “Paella Of Pasta”

Fideuà is a dish directly related to paella, from which it originates, but which differs in its basic element: rice is, in fact, replaced by fideos. It is a round and thin section pasta, similar to our spaghetti, but shorter. The most typical version of the fideuà features fish, with bites of monkfish, accompanied by molluscs and crustaceans, such as prawns, mussels, cuttlefish and squid, and vegetables.

Fundamental is the fish broth, which, together with the tomato puree and the spiciness with paprika and saffron, constitutes the savory base of the dish. In some cases it is then used to serve it with aioli sauce to be added at will. For the preparation, which always takes place in the classic wide pan with low edges, we proceed in a similar way to paella, although with reduced times, since the cooking of fideos is faster than rice. It is especially typical of the area known as La Safor (named after Mount Safor), which is part of the Comunidad Valenciana and whose main city is Gandia. Here since 1974 is held every year an international event dedicated to fideuà.

The Ideal Rice For Paella

In Spain there are three categories of rice and they are produced in the area of Valencia, the Ebro Delta in the province of Tarragona and Calasparra in Murcia. Among these, Bomba rice is the most prestigious. With a round and pearl white grain, it is suitable for paella for its characteristics: it keeps cooking very well even if it exceeds the recommended time (about 18 minutes), and has the ability to absorb greater quantities of broth, retaining the flavors of the ingredients better.

The alternative is to use an Italian rice that comes closer to these characteristics such as Vialone Nano, which appears as the most suitable. The shape of the small and round grain and the lower amount of starch it contains, allows to obtain a well-grained paella, with a slightly creamy bottom, just like the original one.

Another Italian rice indicated for paella is the Arborio, but its grains while absorbing liquids very well, keep less cooking. Be careful not to overrun beyond the times indicated. Carnaroli, the king of risottos, is also a good choice, but compared to the others it contains a greater amount of starch, so you will get a creamier result.

The Different Terms Around Paella

The question arises as to who cooks paella. The answer to this question is paellera. It is indeed the woman who is responsible for cooking the paella and providing it with so many subtle flavors.

And paella, on the other hand, is the name of the kitchen utensil that is used to make paella. Paella does not only define a dish based on meats, vegetables and spices. Indeed, it also refers to a pan made of polished steel. It is without a handle, but is equipped with two handles allowing it to carry the weight of the dish. What is more, the paella has a diameter of about 20 cm. Its edges measure between 5 and 10 cm. The whole is a function of its diameter. A paella is capable of containing a given amount of rice. It is therefore important to point out that paella can be enjoyed in the container in which it is cooked.

Paella Is Served: World Paella Day

On September 20, in the city of Valencia, World Paella Day takes place, ambassador of Valencian gastronomy in the world. Paella Day is organized by the municipality of Valencia in collaboration with the tourist office (Agencia Valenciana de Turisme) and other local societies. On the occasion of the event, all these bodies work together to ensure that paella is the dish of the day in restaurants, hostels, and hotels throughout the Valencian Community, as well as in the restaurants of the Senate and in the canteens of Spanish companies all over the world.

And we conclude with a fact… record-breaking: the largest paella that has ever been cooked is that of the Valencian restaurateur Juan Galbis who in 1992 prepared a huge pot with a diameter of 20 meters: so large that it managed to serve as many as 100,000 people.

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