What is paella?
Paella (pronounced: ‘paa-EL-ja’) is a Spanish rice dish from the Valencia region, where the short grain rice used in the dish has been cultivated for centuries. In addition to rice, staple ingredients include seafood – with squid, shrimps and mussels popular – as well as saffron and beans. Paella is prepared in a special shallow pan, with this pan (known as a patella in Latin) giving the dish its name.
A good paellero (that’s a paella cook) knows how to time the cooking of the rice perfectly, removing it from the heat at just the right time when all the moisture has been absorbed and the underside has become brown and a little crunchy.
Ingredients and recipe specifics vary depending on the region, season and chef in charge of the cooking. Purists, who would prefer to call it arroz and paella (rice in a paella pan), would agree that a true Valencian paella should include rabbit or chicken amongst its ingredients. Lima beans and snails are also considered hallmarks of an authentic paella. Throughout the rest of Spain and beyond, it’s chorizo that’s seen as a must-have ingredient.
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A paella is a little like an Italian risotto, with both dishes framed around rice cooked in a broth. There are two main differences, however. With a paella, all liquid is added to the pan at once, while risotto is slowly fed with the broth, spoonful by spoonful. Stirring is also essential when making risotto, whereas paella is left alone to simmer away. The result? Risotto ends up with a creamy consistency, while paella is more succulent and dry.
How to make paella
Outside of its native Spain, paella is often cooked incorrectly, with too many ingredients added to the dish, stealing focus away from the rice that should be the star of the recipe. A true paella master knows that all additional ingredients in a paella are present only to enhance the rice with added flavour.
To make paella, a flavour base of fried onion, garlic, saffron and tomato is prepared in a shallow pan. Rice is baked alongside this base for a short time. Any vegetables, pulses and chicken or fish that might be called for are generally fried separately. At this point in the recipe, a good measure of fish stock is introduced, with the rice left to cook for around ten minutes. It’s crucial you let the rice cook without adding a lid to the pan. Also, resist the urge to stir. Final ingredients are added, with the dish left to cook until tender and dry.
At the end of cooking, the heat is turned way up to add a crispy finish. You’ll smell that signature fried aroma to let you know a delicious crust has formed. Leave everything to rest for around ten minutes before serving. Lemon wedges and chopped parsley are all the garnish you’ll need.
How to eat
The Spanish tend to eat paella straight from the pan, even when prepared in an oversized pan with servings enough for dozens of people. Eating paella is a delightfully social dining experience. If you’re looking to recreate this dining atmosphere, place the paella pan at the centre of the table and give your guests a simple spoon to help themselves.
Some will tell you paella can only be eaten al fresco. More specifically, you’ll want to eat it underneath a fig tree, with mealtime scheduled for around noon and never in the evening. It’s up to you if you want to heed that advice, of course.
Fideua is the pasta version of paella, with the seafood classic swapping out rice for noodles.