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What is Paella and Where Does it Come From?

multiple types of paella and one noodle based dish in various paella pans

If you are looking to expand your cooking skills and recipe knowledge, a great recipe to start with is paella. However, if you are from anywhere outside of Spain, chances are you may have never heard of paella or barely know what it is. At Machika, we believe part of appreciating food and knowing your way around the kitchen is knowing the history and origin of the dish.

After all, cooking is not about strictly following instructions, it’s about making a recipe that fits your lifestyle and taste. And the best way to do that is to know the tradition and history behind the dish you wish to adjust. That way, you get a thorough understanding of the components of the dish and how to customize it to your needs! For example, paella is made with meat, but turning it into a vegetarian dish is possible if you know what you are doing. With this in what, we should answer the question of “what is paella?”

Paella: Not Always A Famous Spanish Staple

Paella is most commonly known to be from Spain. However, many researchers believe that paella has its origins out of Spain. Instead, historians and cooks sometimes believe the dish was initially brought over by Moors thousands of years ago. It was not until the 10th century that rice cultivation began in areas of Spain like Valencia. Even then, it took around 5 more centuries for rice to become a staple food in Spain. Anecdotal evidence, stories passed down, point to the beginnings of paella being the growth of rice brought over by Moors as a staple food, and early Moorish cooking. A story passed down points to a Moorish tradition of taking leftovers from royal feasts and cooking them with rice. This type of paella differs from Valencian Paella or “Paella Valenciana”.

You can essentially describe paella as a dish bred out of the unity of different cultures. Without the contribution of Moorish culture, the dish may not be where it is today. Nowadays, paella is beloved worldwide and not exclusive to Spain. You may find certain areas of Spain do not eat paella as much as the area you live in! The dish has gained massive popularity in regions throughout Europe and the Americas. It is truly beautiful to think about how illustrious of a history paella has. This dish has over 1,000 years of history dating back to when Moors first brought rice cultivation to Spain.

The Origins of Paella Valencia

The beginnings of paella start in a very specific region of Spain, Valencia. This area is located in Eastern Spain and is known to be the origin of the recipe in Europe. When looking to cook paella, you may even come across rice named “Valencian Rice”, which is perfect for paella and sometimes listed as an ingredient in recipes. The other types of rice like Bomba, a type of short-grain rice, are also grown in abundance in Valencia. Truly, farming the ingredients of the region reflect the dish itself.

While the dish was around for centuries, some of the first public use of the term “paella” was not until the 19th century. This can be for multiple reasons, but some hypothesize it is because of the cost of making the dish properly in the past. After all, while we take quality meat and having ingredients from all over the world for granted, they were not so easy to come by in the 10th century. People who would have enjoyed paella then were likely wealthy nobles or farmers with access to rice and some meat. This makes more sense when you consider even the story about the Moorish origins: note that the meat was taken as leftovers from nobles and feasts. Whatever the reason may be, the term “paella” began to grow in popularity around the 1800s in Valencia, Spain. The dish is sometimes referred to as “Paella Valenciana”.

Why Did Paella Become Popular?

Man getting seafood paella from restaurant in Spain.

Some of the most common reasons for paella becoming known as a Spanish staple stem from societal needs at the time. As rice cultivation became more widespread, so did the money Spain gained from exporting and growing it. Eventually, farmers and poor workers were surrounded by rice while other types of food were harder to come by in the region. Now, rice was easily accessible to the point where it was more accessible than other grains. Over time, farming spread throughout Spain as availability and uses grew. In a couple of hundred years, rice became a staple grain and paella was naturally very popular because of this.

What Paella Is

In its simplest definition, paella is a single pan dish where various meats, vegetables, and short-grain rice are combined and cooked together uncovered in a frying pan. The word “paella” means frying pan. Everything from the ingredients to the preparation, to the equipment used, is relevant in making authentic paella. But what even is “authentic paella?” Well, you may find differing definitions. The earliest known Spanish paellas were known to use different types of meat compared to modern paella recipes. For example, some early dishes used eels or snails. These types of meat were used because they were cheap and available in abundance.

However, as better types of meat became affordable and the quality of life increased, so did the ingredients used. Rabbit and chicken, later on, became a popular meat ingredient while snails were phased out, for the most part. Seafood paella using shellfish is another type that is popular throughout the world. Once you know how to cook real paella and how it should taste, you will get a better understanding of how to customize the dish in a situation where you may not have all the necessary supplies available. Switching out ingredients becomes easier when you know what the result should taste like.

How is Paella Cooked?

Modern paella is cooked in special large but thin pans that are specifically made for the dish like our Machika enameled paella pans. The meat and vegetables are typically added and cooked a bit before the rice and liquids are added. The dish is then cooked at a simmer until the rice absorbs the liquid. You will want to produce something known as “socarrat” when cooking the dish. It is the crispy layer of rice at the bottom of the dish that is caramelized with spices and oils. If you do not get socarrat, then the dish may not have cooked long enough. It should not be full of liquid when you finish.

Paella Cooking Equipment

man holding large machika paella pan

The most important paella cooking equipment is going to be a paella pan. However, you will need more than that to cook the dish properly. For one, you will need a large enough burner. A small burner may heat the center of the pan too quickly. While the pans are made to disperse heat quickly throughout the pan, you can still burn the center with a small and very hot burner. Outdoor gas burners are a great choice since they are typically for larger pans. Open fire pits are also a great choice when cooking paella. If you have a small pan and are cooking a small number of servings, then your home stovetop will also work fine. Just keep in mind your stove space burner size when buying a pan. Beyond that, you will just need a non-scratch spatula or spoon to mix your ingredients.

Paella Ingredients

Since paella can come in many different types and ingredients, I will be focusing on your average modern paella recipe. For a modern version of the dish, you will need paella rice (bomba is a great choice), extra virgin olive oil, bell peppers, an onion, a lemon, saffron, green beans, chicken broth, or water, and paprika, garlic, and parsley. While the meats may change, the other ingredients are common across most modern and traditional dishes.

Cooking Paella

Cooking paella is as simple as the ingredients! All you have to do is add your oil, brown your meat, and then sauté your vegetables. Some recipes may call for removing the meat before beginning cooking your vegetables. After you add all your vegetables and seasoning excluding the saffron, you can add your rice (and reintroduce your meat if removed for the vegetables). From there, you add your saffron and mix all the ingredients. After your rice is well mixed and starts to change color from the saffron and spices, you add your chicken broth or water. Then, all you have to do is mix a couple of times and wait for the rice to finish cooking. After about 30mins, the dish should be done and ready to serve. Before serving, you should take your lemon and top it off with lemon juice and garnish with parsley.

Common Types of Paella

Paella can come in all types of shapes and sizes. Modern dishes commonly come in three different varieties. The first most common type of paella is the seafood version of the dish. This type using shellfish and shrimp. Some recipes may even use fish. The second type is chicken chorizo. This popular recipe uses chorizo sausage and chicken instead of seafood. The third type you may see on various recipe sites is vegetable or vegetarian paella. Many people do not eat meat so a non-meat paella is great for those with a restrictive diet or who are vegan.

Buy Authentic Valencian Paella Pans and Find Paella Recipes at Machika Today!

If you are looking to cook paella at home today, then Machika has the perfect pans for you. You can buy a polished steel paella pan or an enameled steel paella pan today! And what’s better than having recipes at hand to make use of your new paella pan? You can check out the Machika Cookbook here for traditional and new paella recipes, and interesting articles. And remember, at Machika, #Everyoneisinvited


Machika author blurb Maria Perez

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