A history of Paella

Understanding Spices

What is Paella?

Originating from a region called Valencia on the east coast of the country, paella is a rice dish which is internationally seen as Spain’s national dish (although the Spanish might think differently, as they’ll tell you it’s a Valencian dish!). However, it’s found in every region of Spain and there are as many versions of the dish as there are cooks.

But despite the varieties, there are five main types of paella:

  • Paella Valenciana: this is the most authentic paella. As well as rice, this includes chicken and rabbit, although if you order it in a restaurant you may not get rabbit as it’s less familiar with tourists.
  • Paella de Marisco: this seafood paella doesn’t contain any meat and tends to have a lot more moisture than other varieties. The juices from the seafood add to a more intense flavour.
  • Paella Mixta: this is a combination of paella Valenciana and paella de marisco, and contains both chicken, meat and seafood.
  • Paella de Verduras: as this is a vegetarian paella a variety of vegetables including beans, artichokes and bell peppers replace meat and seafood.
  • Paella Negra: this paella is black in colour as it’s cooked with squid ink. It’s often made with a range of seafood including cuttlefish, crab and shrimp.
Paella de Marisco

Essential ingredients in Paella

  • Rice: either short or medium-grained rice is used, as these absorb water better than long-grained rice. Try Spanish Bomba, Calasparra or Italian Arborio rice.
  • Sofrito: this is a sauce used as an aromatic base in Latin American, Spanish, Italian and Portugese cuisine. Sofrito used in Spanish cooking is made from green or red peppers, onions, garlic, olive oil and tomatoes.
  • Stock or broth: this is essential for a rich-tasting paella. Meat-based paellas tend to use chicken stock, whereas seafood paellas use fish stock.
  • Seafood: prawns, shrimp, clams, mussels, crayfish, squid and langoustines are the most popular ingredients in seafood paella.
  • Meat: rabbit, chicken and snails are the main ingredients for a traditional paella. Pork and Spanish chorizo are also quite popular.
  • Vegetables: a traditional Valencian paella typically uses three types of beans: ferraura (string beans), garrofo (similar to a lima bean) and tavella (white beans). If you order paella outside of Valencia, you are more likely see green beans, peas, lima

Main spices in Paella

Of course, no paella would be complete without paella spices and paella herbs. While these vary depending on the region and the cook, the main paella spices and paella herbs are:

The origins of Paella

The Moors were the Muslim inhabitants of Northwest Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily and Malta during the Middle Ages. In 718, they arrived in Spain via Valencia, one of the largest natural ports in the Mediterranean. They brought rice with them, and Valencia became the most important rice producing area in Spain. Interestingly, the Spanish word for rice is ‘arroz’ which is derived from the Arabic ‘al-ruzz’.

Short-grain rice

Paella was originally cooked by farmers and farm labourers. They cooked rice together with whatever was available in the fields – tomatoes, onions, snails and few beans. Meats like chicken and rabbit were only added on special occasions. The paella would be cooked in a large pan on an open fire. This distinctive pan is appropriately called ‘la paella’, which comes from a Latin word ‘patella’ meaning pan. Today, it’s still eaten in the traditional way – straight from the pan.

The Spanish food historian Lourdes March once said that paella “symbolises the union and heritage of two important cultures: the Roman, which gives us the utensil and the Arab, which brought us the basic food of humanity for centuries.”

Today, paella is still an important part of life in Spain. As well as eating it in restaurants, paella is often cooked at family gatherings, picnics and holiday areas. It’s also very often a centrepiece for fiestas. Cooking is very often left to the men – much like a BBQ in the UK!

Wherever there’s a mass gathering, there’ll be a paella simmering somewhere. Whether it’s a festival, political campaign or protest, it’s customary to have an enormous paella cooking. Spain is also home to many paella competitions, most notably the Concurs Internacional de Paella Valenciana which is now in its 60th year. This competition originated in the city of Sueca, Valencia and searches for the best paella in the world.

Fancy a shot at cooking the world’s best paella? We’ve got all the paella spices and paella herbs you will need to start practicing. Or you could cheat by using our paella spice mix.

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