‘Toasting over Sangria in Spain’ is definitely a thing to do on every traveler’s bucket-list, but you really can’t afford to miss the traditional Spanish Paella, as well. Lucky me, my wish was granted in Valencia in Spain, the home-land of this simple but sumptous rice dish. My first rendezvous with Paella had taken place in Johannesburg in South Africa in a Sunday Farmer’s Market. I remember being there early morning and noticing a lady cooking large quantity of rice with sea food, in a large shallow pan. She had plans to sell it later for lunch. Curiously, I had asked her the name of the dish and she had said, its Paella, (Valencian: [paˈeʎa]). I had no clue where it came from until I looked for it on the internet. The pictures looked delicious to the rice-lover in me. While Paella is the dish name, it actually refers to the huge and mighty, circular pan that it is cooked in. Sounds interesting? Read on to know whats special about Valencian Paella.
Paella – Is it Biryani of Spain?
To Indians, Biryani reminds of Hyderabad or Lucknow. In the same way, internationally, Paella stands for Spain. It is so popular that this rice dish with meat, vegetables or seafood has come to be the national dish of the country. In fact, my first instinct was that “Is it another version of our Biryani?” But before you even begin to have a wrong notion, let me clarify that its not. From the type of rice used to the method of cooking, everything about the two dishes is different. However, their stories of origination are close and relatively humble. I really like the fact that both have evolved in common man’s kitchen.
It is believed that Biryani was brought from Persia and introduced by Mughals to India because they wanted their soldiers to have a balanced diet of rice, meat and veggies. While the Nawabs of Lucknow preferred pulavs, the soldiers were given Biryanis on the celebratory days. The already cooked meat and vegetables were mixed with rice and exposed to slow cooking. Similarly, the servants of Moorish kings created this rice dish by mixing the left-overs of sea food and rice. It was farmers food too. Rice was mixed with everything that was available in their fields. Rabbit, duck, chicken were added to the rice on special occasions. Even today, families in Spain congregate together to eat paella. It is supposed to be a holiday affair.
The Paella that I ate in Valencia was different to the one I ate in Ibiza.
History says that the most traditional Paella was cooked in Valencia. And it did not have sea food. The ingredients were mostly affordable meat and veggies which farmers and servants could afford. Today, nearly 200 versions exist. With Valencia having a coast, sea food Paella gained popularity. But what remains unchanged about Paella is the fact that is a rice dish. A short grain variety with moderate amount of starch and the right amount of stock makes a good Paella.
Valencian Paella is mostly about meat so it is prepared with meat stock. Green beans, tomato, onions, saffron, rice and chicken/rabbit are some of the important ingredients. Reddish hue to the dish is given by saffron. The metal pan or “paellera”. in which Paella is made is very important and thus it must be made from iron (cast iron preferred) or polished steel. Uniform cooking is very important. Olive oil is a must.
Paella is an identity symbol for Valencia. Don’t forget to buy Paella magnets as travel souvenirs. Whoever may give you the paella recipe, do get it confirmed by a Valencian chef. Enormous paellas are cooked in Valencian community celebrations and festivities.
Some Facts Around Paella
“Paella” is pronounced as “pa-e-ya”. March 27 is celebrated as Spanish Paella Day.
One of the stories tells us that Paella was made by a boy for his girlfriend and the word originates from ‘para ella’ (meaning ‘for her’ in Spanish). Therefore, more than women, men know how to cook Paella in Spain.
Valencian Paella is supposed to be eaten straight from the pan in which it is cooked. Traditionally, everyone would use a wooden spoon and dig in the pan. Today, people serve themselves in small plates.
Even if the rice sticks to the pan in which it is cooked, it is not to be stirred. Only wooden spatulas are to be used to avoid metallic taste.
It is mostly preferred tepid than just out of fire.
“Paella,” also finds its origins in the Arabic word “baquia,” which means “leftovers.”
Developing a taste for Paella
I have a weakness for rice and anything interesting mixed with rice and spices sounds like a delicacy to my taste buds. Don’t expect too many spices like Biryani or Mandi and be ready to explore a new rice dish. Enjoy it with Sangria and you will love it. Get the rice to make some Paella at your home too.