Paella is an iconic Spanish dish, on prominent display on every restaurant signboard from Seville to Valencia—or so it might seem to the average traveler. But one thing you don’t learn to appreciate between bites of elegantly spiced, saffron-yellow rice, mussels, and prawns is the history behind this complex dish, the different types of paella—and the essential elements of a true paella.
A Thousand Years of History
Paella originated in Valencia, a city on the eastern coast of Spain, whose Mediterranean beaches are a destination in themselves. Rice was not available in Spain until the arrival of the Muslims in the year 711 CE. In fact, the word “arroz,” which means “rice” in Spanish, is actually drawn from Arabic.
Valencia soon became one of Spain’s largest rice-growing areas, and from there, paella was born as a food common among laborers and farmers. Whereas today you might see paella served on a white tablecloth at some of Spain’s most elite restaurants, it started out as a kind of amalgamation of whatever meat might be at hand.
The most recognizable paellas today have seafood, but that’s not how the first paellas were made—and that’s not what Valencian paella looks like today. In the earliest paellas, you might toss in any vegetables you were growing in the garden (especially beans), chicken, then rabbit or duck if it was available or if you were celebrating something special. You might also added snails or chorizo, a Spanish sausage.
The whole family would gather around and eat straight from the distinctive pan used to make the dish—itself called “la paella,” and the origin of the name of the dish.
Paella is traditionally cooked over a fire, most commonly with a type of rounded, medium-sized rice called bomba rice.
Essentials for Cooking Paella
Paella always starts with the pan. It’s wide and shallow, and may be as small as a foot wide—or can span several feet. When paella is served for special occasions, such as at Spanish festivals, street fairs, or village celebrations, a single pan of it can easily serve 300 people. (The world-record largest paella was made in 2001 and fed 110,000 people.) Surprisingly, the pan doesn’t get any deeper as it gets wider, and there’s one important reason why.
That reason is called socarrat, and no paella dish is complete without it. Socarrat is the word for the rice that gets crunchy and brown as it cooks at the bottom of the pan. For the uninitiated, this might look just a little like burnt rice. But no rice dish is considered to be a true paella without this toasted rice. It lends a great deal of flavor and texture—and it’s the reason why the dish can’t get too deep. A good proportion of the rice needs to be able to adhere to the bottom to achieve the socarrat.
Cooking over a fire can help your rice develop the socarrat, but make sure to keep a close eye: just a few minutes too long and you might end up with rice that’s simply burnt. Also, as with most rice, make sure not to stir—that will help you achieve this crispy layer.
Valencian paella today is still based around chicken and other meats that farmers could have traditionally foraged. But seafood paella featuring prawns and mussels has become common in other coastal areas of Spain.
No matter where you are, though, one of the most fundamental ingredients will be saffron. It lends an earthy flavor and the rice’s distinctive yellow color. Try to buy Spanish saffron if you’re making paella at home.
Read more about the authentic Spanish foods you need to try at Let’s Travel Spain.