Let’s be clear:
- Stove-top paella is decent.
- Nothing beats wood-fired paella.
- Paella is easy to fuck up. Be patient, the learning curve is very steep.
- If it’s got chorizo in it, it’s NOT paella.
A perfectly executed paella is what Spaniards may call a “manjar.” A delicatessen that will silence the entire table. It represents a perfect meal. The smell of hot fresh seafood as whiffs smoke from the wood fire arrive at your nostrils.. these are the first details to stir your senses. Then it arrives so yellow and gleaming. Your eyes cannot look away from the symmetry of the dish and the details of prawns which are laid out like a mandala. Your hands subconsciously take over as you rip open a piece of fresh baked bread. The cool lemon juice drips down your palm as you anxiously drizzle it over your steaming plate. Then it hits your mouth. And then you explode. You are so effing happy.
Its beginnings are simple and humble. Residents of the Valencian coast took advantage of the “Albufera,” a word of Arabic origin* meaning ‘small sea’. This coastal lagoon and estuary is now a protected natural park with abundant vegetation and serves as a rest stop for migratory birds. The lagoon & the moderate Mediterranean climate made it an ideal place for rice fields. Together with fresh, local seafood, meat, veggies and extra virgin olive oil, the dish now known as “paella” was born on a wood-fire stove on the Valencian coast.
*as are most Spanish words that begin with “al”
Indeed it has evolved throughout the centuries, and though we all may be stubborn critics, it is a general crowd pleaser. Former Prez FDR was a huge fan. So am I. Are you in this club, too?
Because most of us will never master the art of producing the PERFECT PAELLA, here is some helpful info for ordering the correct paella.
- Minimum order is usually always 2 persons.
- Many a “menú del día” will offer paella. It could be decent, but if you’re only in Spain a short time, do it right. Order the group paella.
- For mayo lovers, alioli is a must. Just a dab.. not to overpower the flavors, but seriously. And none of that store bought shit. HOME. MADE. ALIOLI. In Valencia you will most likely have the “homemade” option everywhere. Not likely everywhere else. But most restaurants do have alioli even if it’s store bought.
- Reserve a table at the weekend
- Wood-fired paella 4ever
Ingredients: Apart from tomato, saffron, rice, water and salt, garlic, onion, red pepper here is what the typical paellas will contain:
- Paella Valenciana: chicken, rabbit, flat green beans, big white beans….extras depending on the region: artichoke, duck, paprika, snails
- Paella de Marisco: shrimp or prawn/crayfish, mussels, clams, calamari/squid
- Paella de Carne: chicken, rabbit, pork ribs
- Paella Mixta: chicken, rabbit, and possibly pork rib + shrimp/prawns, mussels, baby clams, and maybe calamari/squid
- Paella de Verduras*: red and green pepper, carrot, beans (big white and/or green), peas, artichoke, wild mushrooms
*this paella is the least popular so there’s no standard for veggie paella. Depends on the chef’s personal taste
Other ingredients you might come across:
- veggies: peas, green pepper, carrot, green beans, garbanzos
- seafood: monk fish, cuttlefish
- herbs/seasoning: veggie or chicken or seafood stock, bay leave, parsley
- ingredients: white wine, food coloring
There’s also a dish which some call Paella del Senyoret or Arroz del Senyoret. It’s kind of hilarious, here’s the breakdown: there are people who can’t handle pulling the head off the prawn. Or pulling the mollusk out of it’s shell. So it’s like fuss-free rice (or paella if you dare call it that. Some might scold you). Hence the name, gentleman’s rice dish. It’s got all the same ingredients but no getting your hands dirty. LOL. Fussy little Señores.
Last piece of advice, and this is true with anything regarding food in Spain: Choose the place packed with Spaniards. Trust me on this one: applicable to bakeries, butcher shops, seafood markets. Spaniards do not tolerate shitty quality for things they consider basic (fresh meat and fish, bread and pastries, a national dish ehhhem paella). Avoid the spots where foreigners go because they read about it in Conde Nast. And DO NOT judge the quality of the food by the cleanliness of the bar/restaurant. This is tricky and goes against every American health code inspector’s advice. BUT FOR REAL. So many of the best kitchens in this country have the worst bathrooms and zero Instagram appeal. Trust the locals. Trust the lines.
Lastly, if you find yourself in Benicássim near Castellón, do reserve your table at “Les Barraques.” Outdoor and indoor seating, but shit fills up fast!! There’s a music festival in this cute little coastal town, but I can’t say I’ve ever been. I am however, looking forward to the paella festival in January!