If your image of paella is of heaps of bright yellow rice with red bits of pepper or chorizo, you haven’t had the real thing. The most famous Spanish dish originates from Valencia, which is why Valencians feel so passionate about it. So much so that they even launched a campaign to add a paella emoji in Whatsapp (and succeeded, it will be available in new updates of the app). It is time to unveil a few truths about paella.
Valencia is without doubt the best place to try paella and learn more about this dish. You can go on a tour of the Albufera lagoon and natural park and see the paddy fields where the rice is grown (particularly the bomba variety, best for paella). If you want to have a go at cooking one, join a half day masterclass at the School of Rice Dishes and Paellas. And to impress your friends, and enjoy paella like Valencians do, simply remember these top tips:
- There is no place for chorizo in a paella! Even seafood is more of a late addition to please tourists. The ingredients in the traditional Valencian paella are just the sort of things that farmers in the rice fields could easily get hold of: chicken, rabbit, even snails, and three different types of beans (green beans, garrofon broad beans, and sometimes also white beans).
- Paella is a lunchtime meal. Only guiris (the nickname given to foreign tourists) will be found eating paella at night.
- Paella is the name of the flat pan where the rice is cooked, whereas the paellero is usually an outdoor room in Valencian country houses where the barbecue fire is placed. Made of carbon, enamelled or stainless steel, paella pans can be found in all sizes, from small ones for 2-4 people to the giant “monumental” ones used at festivals that can feed hundreds. Traditionally, the whole paella is placed in the centre of the table and everybody eats directly from the pan. If you want to take one home, you can pick one from just a few euros in hardware shops.
- Although anybody can cook a paella, there is a certain male pride in doing so, a bit like barbecues. Ask any man in Valencia and they will probably have one tip or two about cooking the perfect paella.
- The proof of a good paella is in the burnt bits. For most Valencians, the best part of a paella is the socarrat, the slightly burnt (not charred!) grains of rice that stick to the bottom of the pan, crispy and full of flavour. Diners may even fight to get the last scraps off the pan! Beware though, learning to get the perfect socarrat in your paella may take years of practice…
- Patience is a virtue, and never more so than when cooking or waiting to eat paella. If your paella in the restaurant arrives too quickly, it means it was already cooked and may have been reheated. Cooking a proper paella takes time – you should allow at least 25 minutes. Many restaurants will ask you to pre-order your paella when you book, to make sure it is ready for your meal.
- Paellas are best cooked outdoors, over a wood fire. Some Valencians argue that orange tree wood, abundant in the region, is the best for this, as it has a steady combustion, without flaring up, and gives a nice aroma to the dish.
- When cooking a paella, the rice should be spread evenly on a thin layer all over the paella pan, and left to cook without stirring. If cooking over fire, it is important to ensure that the pan is perfectly level so you don’t end up with overcooked or undercooked rice. Remember when you order at the restaurant: the thinner the rice layer, the tastier it will be.
- The true colour of paella should be a golden hue which is provided by saffron. If you see a bright yellow rice, it means it has some artificial colouring added.
- Above all, eating paella is a social event. Very much like a Sunday roast, it is the leisurely occasion, particularly at weekends, when friends and family get together to catch up and have a laugh. You will also find crowds gather around giant paellas at festivals, as well as popular paella cooking competitions. For further proof, come to Valencia on Saturday 2 October this year for the official attempt to beat the Guinness World Record for the largest number of paellas cooked simultaneously (from 1pm at the Paseo de la Alameda). It will be a feast!