Paella is one of the most popular and famous of global dishes, to define exactly what paella contains is almost impossible. There are as many variations of paella as there are cooks, with many claiming that their recipe is the best tasting or most authentic. The origins of the dish, however, are quite humble. Understanding a little of its history will help explain why so many varieties exist.
Valencia in Eastern Spain is the undisputed home of paella. It is one of the largest natural ports in the Mediterranean and has been one of the most important rice-producing areas in Spain since rice was introduced by the Moors over 1200 years ago. In fact, the Spanish word for rice is ‘arroz’, which is derived from Arabic, not Latin like most of Castilian Spanish.
Paella was originally farmers’ and farm labourers’ food, cooked by the workers over a wood fire for the lunchtime meal. It was made with rice, plus whatever was to hand around the rice fields and countryside: tomatoes, onions and snails, with a few beans added for flavour and texture. Rabbit or duck might also have been added, and for special occasions, chicken plus a touch of saffron for an extra special colour and flavour. Paella was also traditionally eaten straight from the pan in which it was cooked with each person using his own wooden spoon.
Little by little, as ‘Valencian rice’ became more widely available, paella recipes were adapted with new variations appearing. With Valencia being on the coast, it is no surprise that various types of seafood crept into the recipes over the generations. Now paella is the generic name of 200 or so distinctive rice dishes or ‘arroces’ from the Valencia region let alone other parts of Spain and the rest of the world. To this day a “true” Paella Valenciana has no seafood but a mixture of chicken, rabbit and snails with green and white beans.
‘Paella’ – where did the name come from ?
It’s a little confusing but ’paella’ or to be more exact ‘la paella’ is the name for cooking pan itself and not the dish. The word comes from old Valencian (in Valencia they have their own language somewhat similar to Catalan) and probably has its roots in the Latin ‘patella’ meaning pan.
There are however, some other wonderful (if less likely) theories about the origins of the name. The most romantic of them suggests that the dish was first prepared by a lover for his fiancée and that the word is a corruption of ‘para ella’ (meaning ‘for her’ in Spanish). Like all myths there is a small grain of truth in this and although many women still traditionally do the cooking in Spain, making paella is usually left to the men – very much like BBQ’s in the UK!!!
It has also been suggested that the word ‘paella’, is derived from the Arabic word “Baqiyah”, which means ‘leftovers’ – once again emphasizing both the dish’s humble and arabic beginnings.
Paella – the most sociable of all culinary occasions
In Spain paella is still unique. Not only do families congregate on mass to eat paella in restaurants, but it is often cooked at weekends at holiday homes in ‘bodegas’ or ‘txokos’ (large dining areas where families gather) or at beach or mountain picnic sites. There are many paella competitions all over Spain and very often a giant paella is the centrepiece for many fiestas.
It’s easy to see why – paella can create a party, a ceremony and a debate (often over the making of the paella itself!!) – making it one of the most sociable and enjoyable of all culinary occasions.
And finally, if you don’t already know – and you want to impress your friends, “paella” is pronounced “pa-e-ya” with the “e” as in “bet”.
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 large onion chopped
- 2 large cloves garlic finely chopped
- 1 small red pepper, sliced into small pieces
- 2 large boneless skinless chicken thigh fillets cut into bite-sized pieces
- 250ml dry white wine (sauv blanc, pinot gris) — optional
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 10-12 mussels scraped and cleaned properly
- 250g calamari rings
- 500ml chicken stock (or homemade fish stock)
- 0.25 kg medium grain or jasmine rice
- 1 tsp saffron powder (or saffron threads)
- 1 tsp paprika (sweet or smoked)
- ½ teaspoon each garlic and onion powders
- 12 – 14 large prawns
- 2 tbsp fresh flat leaf chopped parsley
- Heat oil in a large sized non-stick pan or well seasoned skillet (or a paella pan if you have one), over medium heat. Fry onion, garlic and peppers together; cook until onion is transparent (about 3 minutes).
- Sauté chicken until golden on all sides. Cook for 5 minutes.
- Add the wine, mussels and calamari rings. Allow to cook for a further 5 minutes; allow the wine to evaporate to half the quantity, then pour in the stock (or broth), rice and saffron. Mix all ingredients until well combined.
- Bring to a boil; reduce the heat and cover to allow MOST of the liquid to absorb into the rice, while stirring occasionally to prevent rice from sticking and burning to the pan underneath. (Cook until the rice is ALMOST cooked through.)
- Add in the prawns, mixing them through the rice, and cover again to allow the prawns and rice to cook completely.
- Once cooked, sprinkle with the parsley. Place capsicum strips over the top of the paella for enhanced flavour to serve. Drizzle with a small amount of olive oil over the top before serving.
- Seafood: Fully shelled prawns are ideal and traditional in paella, but I prefer peeled, tail on prawns. If you don’t like seafood, replace with 2 large chicken thigh fillets.
- Chicken: Substitute with pork if desired.
- Rice: Medium grain or jasmine rice yield the best results.
- Fire roasted peppers: Make your own by placing them on direct flame over a gas cooker or stove top until they char and the skin begins to crease and peel.