What Is Paella & Where To Eat Paella In Valencia?
Paella is the most famous dish from Spain, but what is the authentic paella and where to eat paella in Valencia? You will find answers to all paella related questions in this post.
This blog post was originally published on November 5, 2016 and updated on July 25, 2017.
How to pronounce “paella”?
It is pronounced as “pah-eh-yah”.
The word paella (comes from “patella” in Latin – a pan) in Valencia is the name given to the large & shallow round pan – the traditional vessel for Valencian rice. In other regions of Spain the same pan is called a little different – paellera.
The origin of paella
Rice was brought to Spain by the Moors soon after the invasion (year 711). Valencia is one of the first regions in Spain where rice started to be cultivated, on the shores of Lake Albufera.
Paella valenciana, as we know it (with chicken, rabbit and 2 kinds of locally grown beans), was born in the 19th century near Lake Albufera. The wealthier layers of society took up a habit of cooking up a paella on Sundays during their outings (a social event similar to barbeque in other parts of the world).
The traditional paella valenciana. Made by yours truly!
When the economy got better, more and more people joined in on this delicious tradition. Historically, poor people used the meat of the marsh rat as the dish’s protein component.
Snails continue to be part of the traditional version, but are often overlooked. Therefore you can ask you server not to add them during the cooking process.
What paella is and what it’s not
Soupy rice is not paella.
When Valencians talk about paella in general, they refer to the classic recipe – rice with rabbit, chicken and 2-3 types of locally grown beans. That is called paella valenciana and it’s the mother of all traditional Valencian rice recipes cooked in a wide shallow pan.
In the past, fishermen on boats (and their wives at home) would cook up paellas substituting the chicken and rabbit with the fresh catch. That tradition created paella marinera (fishermen’s or seafood paella). Its variations are called arròs a banda, arròs al senyoret and paella de marisco.
So, to sum up, in the strictest sense, there are only 2 types of paella: paella valenciana and paella marinera (with its 3 traditional variations listed above).
People from other regions of Spain and foreigners more often than not have a mistaken idea of what paella is. But Valencia, being the paella’s birthplace, takes its rice recipes very seriously. Basically, mixing yellow colored rice with any ingredients does not make the dish a paella.
The renowned British Chef Jamie Oliver mixed rice with an unorthodox ingredient such as chorizo and called it his version of a paella. Needless to say, that incident almost brought on an international scandal!
Paella valenciana and paella marinera are the only types of paella. The rest of the traditional rice dishes are called “arròs” – rice, followed by a short description. For example, arròs negre – black rice (and not ‘black paella’).
Touristy places serve all sorts of rice mixtures that they call paella – even in Valencia. Avoid the so called “paella mixta” – a creation for tourists that combines meat and seafood.
Tips for a perfect paella
- Authentic paella is always made with products from locally-farmed produce and a small amount of animal protein.
- Eat paella at places where Chefs have mastered achieving the perfect socarrat – the crispy layer at the bottom. Not burned!
- Paellas cooked over an open fire with wood from orange branches and shoots transport the dish to the highest culinary plane.
- The depth of the rice should only be between 1 and below 2 cm (no more than 3/4 of an inch) to ensure even broth absorption and flavor.
- Paella is a dry type of rice – it should not be soupy and the rice should not be too soft or mushy. (Soupy rice dishes is a separate category of recipes, and you guessed it, they are not called paella).
Traditional regional variations of paella valenciana
The classic paella uses the 10 basic ingredients listed below. Each region of the Valencian Community adds their local products, thus creating a slight variation, which are accepted as a regional variation.
EVOO, salt, rice, tomato, baxoqueta (local green flat string bean), saffron, chicken, rabbit, water, garrofón (local white broad bean).
- artichokes, peas with pods and pork ribs in Castellón
- bell pepper and meatballs in La Ribera and La Safor regions
- local ñora peppers in Alicante province
Paella is not a dinner dish
Arròs al senyoret – a variation of paella marinera.
It’s often the case with the Mediterranean cultures, that particular foods and drinks are eaten at a particular time. After lunch local people sip an espresso or café del tiempo, have a huge bread roll and a glass of wine at 11am, and eat paella for lunch only (and traditionally – on Sundays), because it originated as a meal for a family reunion. Sunday was the only day off that majority of common people had until just a few decades ago.
So do not be surprised if you cannot order paella for dinner – although nowadays with the influx of tourists, many restaurants have adjusted their paella making hours.
For example, one of the most respected paella restaurants (that has been making rice over wood fire since 1922) – Casa Carmela – only opens for lunch from 1pm until 4pm, because they specialize in rice.
Where to eat the best paella
The best place to eat paella is in Valencia, Spain. Period.
There are plenty of restaurants that serve amazing paella in Valencia. That doesn’t mean however that one is safe from falling into a tourist trap. Please do you research! Having a mediocre paella when in Valencia – paella’s birthplace – is a shame. Make sure the restaurant is frequented by locals and doesn’t display its rice dishes photos at the entrance.
If you want to have a great paella, have it in Valencia. The number of restaurants in Spain and in the world that make authentic paella can be counted on 2 hands. Spanish cuisine is highly regional – it’s always best to eat local dishes in their birthplace.
In other areas of Spain you can find “paella” with almost any ingredient you can imagine. Valencians call this kind of dishes “arròs amb coses” (“rice with things”).
Some of my favorite restaurants where you can taste the authentic Valencian paella and other traditional rice dishes:
Lake Albufera. Image source: Ron Theunissen
L’Establiment – set in a rural setting on Lake Albufera.
Casa Carmela – rice made over wood fire since 1922.
Las Bairetas – located in Chiva, this restaurant is able to prepare 143 Valencian paellas cooked over firewood. They also have a magnificent rice restaurant in Denia.
Barraca Toni Montoliu – an unforgettable experience in the countryside.
La Teja Azul – a rustic restaurant not far from Alicante in the little town of Villena, where cordiality is endless and the food is high quality.
There is a little secret to finding the best paella, and it’s very simple – have it in Valencia! And if you would like to not only taste a great paella, but learn about local culinary traditions, join me on my delicious central market tour!
For more resources on paella visit wikipaella.org – a project that strives to safeguard the paella tradition, bring awareness and define the authentic paella recipes.
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