An Introduction to Spanish Paella

Fresh paella in pan on wooden table

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Paella is currently an internationally-known rice dish from Spain. It originated in the fields of a region called Valencia on the eastern coast of Spain. Today paella is made in every region of Spain, using just about any ingredient that goes well with rice. There are as many versions of paella as there are cooks. It may contain chicken, pork, shellfish, fish, eel, squid, beans, peas, artichokes or peppers. Saffron, the spice that also turns the rice a wonderful golden color is an essential part of the dish.

Origins of Paella

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. Some say that that word paella originates from the Arab word “baqiyah” meaning left-overs. However, linguists believe that the word paella comes from the name of the pan it is made in—the Latin term patella, a flat plate on which offerings were made to the Gods.

The stories of servants creating dishes from the King’s left-overs are romantic, but we know for certain that it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that modern paella was created in an area around Albufera (a freshwater lagoon near the city of Valencia). During lunch, workers in the fields would make the rice dish in a flat pan over a fire. They mixed in whatever they could find—such as snails and vegetables. For special occasions, rabbit and later, the chicken was added.

The Basics of Paella

To prepare paella, there are three basic rules to follow.

  1. Cook Over a Fire: Paella is best prepared over an open fire, charcoal BBQ or gas paella burner. Use a round kettle-style BBQ, such as a Weber brand. The reason for this is so that the heat is evenly distributed and because the heat should gradually decrease as you are cooking it. First, the fire must be very hot to brown the meat; then it should be lower to simmer the rice. If you prepare paella often, you may want to invest in a Paella Burner & Adjustable Tripod Stand, designed specifically for cooking paella outside. They usually come with two-ring or three-ring burners and allow adjusting each ring separately. These burners connect to a propane tank via a hose and regulator.
  2. Use a Paella Pan - A traditional paella pan is a necessity. The pan is sometimes called a paellera, although there is some disagreement among Spaniards about the use of this word. It is a large, flat, open round steel pan with handles.
  3. Use Bomba Rice or Medium-Grain Rice – For best results, use the bomba variety of rice, which is an almost round rice grain from Levante (the eastern coast of Spain). If bomba rice is not available, use a medium-grain rather than long grain rice. Both bomba or medium-grain rice absorbs a lot of liquid, which makes it particularly suitable for paella. You can order bomba rice from many online Spanish food retailers.

How to Season a Paella Pan

Before cooking in a paella pan, be sure to season the pan. Although there are different ways to do this, the simplest method is to first wash the pan with warm water and soap and dry with a soft cloth immediately. While the pan is still warm, using a soft cloth or paper towel, rub olive oil over the entire inside of the pan. If the pan is not warm after washing, place it in the oven on warm for a few minutes, then rub the oil on it.

It is very important to thoroughly clean the pan immediately after each use. Then, before storing it, rub it with olive oil to prevent it from rusting.

If you ever pull out your pan and it has begun to rust, don’t panic and run out to buy a new one! Simple use a soapy steel wool pad to gently wash it and rub off the rust. Then, rub with olive oil to season it again.