When I arrived in Ontinyent for my second year of living abroad, I intended to improve my Valencian but not renew informal classes. Instead, I thought of other beneficial alternatives such as finding Valencian-speaking roommates and exposing myself to more Spanish media and news.
However, the most lucrative idea I came up with for myself was learning how to cook food from the region. This all-encompassing activity involved eating foods I tried while traveling, reading and listening to different recipes in cookbooks or online videos, and conversing with my colleagues and others about how they approached cooking the dish and any tips they knew about the food I was learning to make.
In addition, I already held an immense interest in pursuing a career in the food industry because my high school offered a culinary program. With that interest in mind, I felt horribly disappointed I could not say yes to the question, “can you make paella?” while I was home in New York visiting friends and family over summer.
Bridging this gap in my culinary repertoire not only presented a chance to improve my language and culinary skills, but it also provided a chance for my passion for the culinary arts to be rekindled. I also received the opportunity to reflect on the cultural knowledge I gained from my two years living in Spain that I can keep with me for the rest of my life.
Before we start, I’d like to emphasize that this is not my favorite rice dish from the region. Nonetheless, it’s hard to deny how iconic and how well-known this dish is. That’s why I’ve presented it as the featured recipe out of the hundred I learned for this article.
First, some cultural context. Paella is the word for “pan” and the name of the dish itself in Valencian. In some parts of the region, this applies to other types of rice as well. For example, black paella can be called either paella negre or arròs negre, which translates to black paella or black rice respectively. Personally, because there are defenders of traditional paella cooking, I prefer to call any rice dish that doesn’t adhere to tradition the latter.
This Dish Is Part of the Region’s Culture
Secondly, what goes into a Valencian paella? It’s easier to establish what doesn’t than what can, but first it must be understood that this dish is integral to the region’s culture. Families reunite on Sundays in a country house to partake in each other’s company, and this tradition has persisted for many, many years. Before massive grocery chains managed to make many ingredients available year-round, paella ingredients included whatever the chef had on hand. Valencians consider chickens, rabbits, broad beans, saffron, artichokes, and other ingredients from the recipe below as paella ingredients.
In all fairness, Valencia is geographically diverse with national parks encompassed by a variety of environments, such as mountains, flatlands, and beaches. If duck was the only meat available, duck went into the paella. Rich meatballs created from recently-slaughtered rabbit blood can also be prized paella ingredients. Depending on the season, perhaps the dish has artichokes rather than beans.
When Is “Paella” Not Paella?
This doesn’t mean that chorizo, potatoes, carrots, fish, or peas can accompany this dish if you’d like to get creative. Traditionalists will tell you that those ingredients are better suited for some lentils or a soup, however. Above all else, it’s best to strive to avoid Valencians labeling your dish as the endearing yet snarky name of “rice with things.”
Despite their chastising, there is some truth to it. Stuffing the rice with too many different ingredients lessens the importance of the rice. However, if you are going to be a little more gratuitous about your ingredient variety, I encourage you to avoid calling your creation paella. It goes back to the cultural context I discussed earlier. Paella is a dish of cultural significance to many people and it’s a disservice to ruin that legacy and traditional dish with an excess of non-traditional ingredients. More importantly, as a cook, have some pride in whatever dish you feel inspired to make. Avoid labeling it something it is not. After all, if this dish, named after a pan, managed to be iconic, any dish name has a fair chance. Come up with your own!
Below is my recipe for Valencian paella. I opt to have more vegetables with my rice, but the amounts can easily be switched. If you can’t or refuse to use a rabbit, double the amount of chicken.
- Chicken Legs, Quartered – 200 g
- Rabbit – 200 g
- Broad Beans – 200 g
- Frozen Lima Beans – 200 g
- Paprika Grated – 1 tps
- Tomato – 50 g
- Water – 1.4 L
- Saffron – 5 sprigs
- Short-Grain Rice – 200 g
- Place a 34cm paella pan over medium heat.
- Once hot, add enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Salt the bottom of the pan then add the meat. This will help prevent oil splatters. Brown the meat on all sides, for approximately 15 minutes.
- Lower the heat and add the broad beans until brown, which will take approximately 10 minutes.
- Sprinkle the paprika over the contents of the pan and stir constantly for about 10 seconds to toast the paprika and prevent it from burning.
- Raise the heat to medium, add the grated tomato, and stir to combine the ingredients. Cook until most of the liquid has evaporated.
- Add the water and raise the heat to high. Make sure to scrape the bottom of the paella (pan) to deglaze the caramelized bits.
- When the water comes to a boil, reduce the heat for the broth to simmer, add the lima beans and the saffron. Allow to simmer for 20 minutes.
- Salt to taste. Raise the heat to high and sprinkle the rice evenly around the pan. Using a spoon, make sure the rice isn’t above the stock. Cook for 10 minutes.
- Lower the heat to low and cook for 8-10 minutes.
- Allow to cool for 10 minutes, then serve.
Follow my recipe (no skipping steps) and you will have a paella that is both tasty and traditional. Buying the ingredients will improve your Valencian language skills. You will also be well on the way to becoming a honorary local.