The quintessential Spanish rice dish that has spawned varieties all over the world actually traces its roots to a peasant meal common in 18th-century Valencia. Ingredients like freshwater eel and marsh rat have since fallen out of favor (thank goodness), but many of the original ingredients like snail and rabbit are still popular today, and account for the Valencian variety's unique taste when compared to the paella served elsewhere in Spain and around the world.
Paella in Valencia has itself evolved into a dish for more modern and international palates. Chicken and other prime cuts of pork are now more commonly used and upscale restaurants are reinventing—and some say bastardizing—the local rice dish by offering seafood and vegetarian varieties.
Although ingredients are increasingly dictated by trends, only the variety of rice used remains unchanged since paella’s origins as a humble peasant dish. At the heart of paella is the rounded, short-grain rice called Bomba that cooks slower, but absorbs broth better than other varieties.
Valencians tell me the secret to a perfect paella lies in the long time it takes for the rice to simmer in the broth after all the ingredients are sautéed in the pan. The laborious process, which includes slowly stirring the broth and ingredients before adding the rice, helps it absorb the combination of flavors from the spices, vegetables, and meat without losing its shape and crunchy bite.
Authentic paella Valenciana is more than sourcing the right ingredients or following the traditional recipe; like all traditional dishes, the rice dish has a social context that can’t be replicated elsewhere. In the side streets and farms of Valencia, paella is still prepared by the man of the house on Sundays when work is out. It’s a tradition passed on from father to son, and still very much evident during the annual paella-cooking competition during the Las Fallas festival.
Cooked outdoors in large flat pans called paelleras, paella is a social event. Family members, friends, and neighbors take turns in cooking, tasting and tossing ingredients onto the paellera—a ritual almost always accompanied by the exchange of gossip and news about the community. Like their ancestors who gathered around the fire to feast and to strengthen bonds, paella continues to fulfill its social function in Valencian society.
Too bad most visitors to Valencia don’t get a chance to experience the traditional way of enjoying paella, but for taste alone, there are many restaurants that offer authentic recipes. If you don’t speak Spanish, La Lola along Calle Subida del Toledano tucked in a hidden street corner close to the Valencia Cathedral is one of the best in the city. Their paella is prepared the authentic way with rabbit meat and snails, and though you won't have a chance to help out in the cooking, the friendly owner and chef, Jesus Ortega, will willingly come out to chat and share his recipe with guests.
Photographs by David Celdran
This piece originally came out in Issue 4 2011 of Vault magazine.