One Pan Wonder
Updated: Aug 21
If there is any dish that says or symbolizes Spain, you would have say this is the National dish, Paella. What we come to relish is a saffron flavored rice dish cooked over a real wood-burning fire. The dish becomes “whole” and more than just the sum of the ingredient parts, when the flavors meld. Valencia claims it as its' own – home of the Paella and most experts agree! As a principal Eastern port on the Mediterranean along with being the largest and most important rice producing area, Valencians believe the best paella can only be made in their region.
The dish Paella is said to be a perfect merger between two cultures the Romans, for the pan and the Arabs, that brought rice. There is an old story of how the Moorish kings' servants created rice dishes by mixing the left-overs from royal banquets in large pots to take home. It is said by some that word paella originates from the Arab word “baqiyah” meaning left-overs. The term Paella actually refers to the pan that it is cooked in. All the way back to the ancient Sanskrit language the term Pa means “to drink”, and the Roman culture from the Latin made words like Patera, Patina, Patella which could mean a container to drink, or perform other cookery functions. The Romans set up shop in Valencia in 136 BC bringing with them irrigation and farming techniques which eventually led to rice production.
Each restaurant and every household has its regional flares and today Paella is made in every region of Spain, using just about any ingredient that goes well with rice. But the rice needs to be Bomba, a short grain rice, often sold as Calasparra, the geographic indication. Besides rice, saffron and a wooden spoon; it can have rabbit, snails, chicken, sausages, seafood or just vegetables.
It is a man’s work, like in the US the outdoor grill is usually a man’s domain and in Spain also it is usually cooked outside. Because it was a farmers’ dish, it is always served in the pan…that is key! Since there were many workers in the fields, cooking it over an open fire also would be the most practical. Spain is not known for forests and lots of timber, so the small available twigs and branches from pruning that are green gave a quick hot fire instead of a slow burning one from logs. Using a flat pan were the heat had maximum contact with the rice on the bottom of the pan and it also imparts a slightly smoky favor. Don’t forget to let it rest off the fire, they say it is one of the most important steps, when the last of any juice is absorbed.
I can remember my very first in Spain, at a seaside restaurant in Barcelona…super crispy, but the seafood was perfect – I was an immediate member of the clean plate club! Every crunchy morsel of that seafood paella was memorable. I learned the word Socarrat that day! But from there – it was Arroz Negro at Set Portes with aioli, which is top of my list before anything upon arrival in Barcelona. And then there is Casa Benigna in Madrid where charming Norberto Jorge, who could be King of Paella makes a super thin version Arroz en Patella, worthy of a flight to Madrid.