The menu fixed to the restaurant wall in front of me proudly offers 176 rice dishes. The first question that springs to mind is: “How?” Followed rapidly by: “Why?” How can you possibly prepare that number of dishes using the same main ingredient, and why on earth would you want to do so, anyway? But this is Valencia, on Spain’s eastern seaboard; they take their rice seriously hereabouts.
Paella is often dismissed as the catch-all cuisine of Spain. This iconic dish first saw light of day in the campo around Valencia City. During the Moorish reign from the early 8th century until the time of Columbus, this was the most agriculturally productive area in the then-known world. The vast watery tracts of the Albufera, the freshwater lake to the southeast of the city, provided not only the water that irrigated the paddies, but also the fish, eels and fowl that bred there.
The romantic (although some might say ridiculous) origin of the name paella comes from a story that the dish was first cooked by a young man for his lover—he made it para ella (for her). The more realistic origin is that the dish takes its name from the shallow, two-handled frying pan in which it is traditionally cooked and is derived from the Latin patella.
To the uninitiated, a paella is a paella is a paella, but the subtleties of its preparation, the exact timing of when to add the water and for how long it should lie before being served are the subject of fierce debate.
There’s a legend that there is a Spanish restaurant in New York that imports its water from Valencia to make paella. Valencianos believe that a true paella can be made only in Valencia because the water has as high concentration of calcium which affects how the rice is cooked. If they go to the mountains or somewhere else to make paella, they take the water with them.
The basis of paella is very simple; it was a poor man’s food at a time when most people lived at subsistence level. You used what you had around you: tomato, a little garlic, meat, a few vegetables and then whatever else you had to hand. But you never mixed meat and fish, a modern deviation for the guiris, a tongue-in-cheek name for a foreigner. But the essence of the meal was rice—and everyone has different opinion about how to prepare it.
Just as a flamenco aficionado will tell you that only a gypsy born of poverty in the south of Spain can truly dance flamenco (which rather flies in the face of the fact that the flamboyant dance form actually came from India), a Valenciano will tell you that only a true son of the Valencian soil will be able to make a genuine paella, and each will guarantee you that his own recipe is the best—although they had to chew on their words a bit when a Japanese chef won the region’s main concorso de paella (paella competition) two years in a row.
Every Sunday morning I go to the campo with my pal Vicente and a group of friends to work on a patch of land he’s trying to bring back to horticultural life. Once a month he’ll make a huge paella and invite family and even more friends, as is the Valencian tradition. Everyone stands around throwing in advice while nursing a beer or a glass of wine, although they seldom actually make any effort to help in the preparation or cooking. “Put more water in.” “No, you’ll make it to soggy!” “That’s too much garlic.” “You need to let the meat brown more.” Vicente ignores them all and sticks to the same recipe his ma handed down to him. It’s a big family event, and when it’s ready we devour it in the traditional way, everyone sitting at the same table, eating out of the pan using their own wooden spoon.