The popular Spanish dish made from rice and seafood is called paella. Paella originates from the Valencia region of Spain and has become one of Spain’s most famous dishes. It is a rice dish that is cooked in a shallow pan called a paellera and typically contains rice, seafood, meat, vegetables, and saffron. The rice absorbs the flavors from the other ingredients creating a delicious and iconic Spanish meal.
History and Origins of Paella
Paella has its roots in the rice dishes of medieval Spain when rice was brought from the Moors. Workers in the fields around Valencia would cook the rice over an open fire with whatever ingredients were available at the time. This evolved into paella valenciana, the rice dish cooked on a large flat pan to feed several people.
The name paella comes from the old French word “paelle” meaning pan. The pan used to cook paella is wide, shallow, and typically made of steel with two handles. This allows for the rice to cook evenly and absorb more liquid.
Paella became popular across Spain once the dish reached Madrid in the mid-19th century. Each region developed its own twist with local ingredients. Seafood paella originates from coastal cities like Valencia and Barcelona while paella from inland regions omitted the seafood.
Main Ingredients of Paella
While paella recipes can vary, there are several key ingredients that are essential for making authentic paella:
Paella is made with short grain white rice, usually bomba rice or calasparra rice from Spain. The grains are able to absorb a lot of liquid and flavor while remaining firm and separate when cooked. Using medium or long grain rice is not recommended as it can become mushy in the paella.
Saffron is the quintessential Spanish spice that gives paella its characteristic yellow color and unique flavor. The saffron is soaked in hot broth then poured over the rice. Using quality saffron is key as it stands up to the bold flavors of the seafood and meats.
Meats and Seafood
Paella can contain a variety of meats and seafood depending on the regional variations. Chicken, rabbit, duck, Land snails, pork, squid, shrimp, mussels, and clams are popular proteins. The seafood is typically cooked first on the bottom layer of the paella.
Onions, tomatoes, red peppers, green beans, artichokes, and peas are commonly used to add color and freshness to paella. The vegetables can be sauteed before adding the rice. Beans and artichokes pair well with the smoky flavors from meats like chorizo.
Herbs and Seasonings
Paprika, garlic, oregano, rosemary, thyme, parsley, and bay leaves are used to season paella. Smoked paprika adds depth of flavor while fresh herbs brighten up the dish. Lemon is squeezed over paella when it’s finished cooking.
Types of Paella
There are several main types of paella named after their place of origin or distinct ingredients:
Valencian Paella (Paella Valenciana)
The original paella from Valencia uses chicken, rabbit, green beans, white beans, tomatoes, snails, and saffron rice. This is sometimes called arroz con costra meaning rice with crust because of the toasted rice at the bottom of the pan called socarrat.
Seafood Paella (Paella de Mariscos)
Seafood paella incorporates different types of fish and shellfish like prawns, monkfish, squid, mussels, and clams along with peppers and peas over saffron rice. Often made along the Mediterranean coasts of Spain.
Mixed Paella (Paella Mixta)
Mixed paella combines meat and seafood typically using chicken, chorizo sausage, prawns, and squid cooked with onions, peppers, and herbs over rice.
Vegetable Paella (Paella de Verduras)
Vegetable paella excludes meat and seafood creating a vegetarian or vegan paella. Artichokes, peppers, tomatoes, beans, asparagus, mushrooms, and spinach are featured with sofrito as the flavor base.
Black Paella (Paella Negra)
Black paella uses squid ink in the broth and rice to turn the entire dish an inky black color. Often made with cuttlefish, squid, prawns, mussels, and clams.
The Traditional Cooking Process
Cooking authentic paella requires some technique and attention to detail:
1. Make the Sofrito
Sofrito is the flavor base made by sautéing onions, tomatoes, garlic, and herbs until soft and aromatic. This adds depth to the broth. Paprika is also added here to give color.
2. Sear the Proteins
The meat and seafood are seared on the bottom of the paellera pan then set aside. Chicken thighs, chorizo, squid, shrimp, or mussels work well.
3. Toast the Rice
Uncooked rice is toasted in the pan for 2-3 minutes to nicely coat each grain before the broth is added. This enhances flavor.
4. Add the Broth and Simmer
Hot broth is poured over the toasted rice until just covered. Saffron and seasonings are added. The proteins are arranged decoratively on top.
5. Cook Undisturbed
Paella is cooked over a fire without stirring. Rotating the pan occasionally allows for even cooking. Simmer for 15-20 minutes as the rice absorbs the liquid.
6. Finish Socarrat
The bottom layer of rice develops a toasted crust called socarrat, considered the most delicious part. Let it cook another 5 minutes undisturbed.
How to Cook Paella Perfectly
Follow these tips for cooking picture-perfect paella at home:
Use a Paella Pan
Cooking paella in a wide, shallow pan allows for that essential socarrat to form. Paella pans range from 10 inches to 60 inches wide. Choose a pan size based on your portions.
Have All Ingredients Prepared
Since paella cooks quickly without stirring, have the proteins cooked, rice toasted, vegetables chopped, and broth ready to go. Timing is key.
Use High Heat
Paella starts over high heat then reduces to medium-low once simmering. High heat is needed to toast the rice and develop the browned crust on the bottom layer.
Cook Without Stirring
Resist the urge to stir the rice as it cooks. Let it form that tasty toasted crust on the bottom layer. Rotate the pan instead if needed.
Look for Socarrat
Listen for crackling sounds as the socarrat develops. Check the bottom by lifting the edge with a spatula or peering underneath when the rice is almost done.
Rest Before Serving
Let the paella rest for about 5 minutes before serving. This allows the rice to fully absorb the remaining broth. Garnish with lemon, parsley, or aioli.
Paella Presentation and Serving
Paella is beautifully presented family-style right from the pan:
Decorate the Paella
Arrange the proteins artfully over the rice in lines or groups when building the paella. Seafood shells can decorate the sides.
Garnish with Herbs and Lemon
Fresh parsley, lemon wedges, or aioli are ideal garnishes. Scatter the parsley over the top and serve lemon wedges on the side.
Bring the Paellera to the Table
For a sensational presentation, bring the paella pan straight to the table for guests to admire before serving.
Serve Socarrat First
Scrape up the caramelized socarrat rice from the bottom and serve it to the guest of honor. This flavorful crust is a treat.
Spoon Generous Portions
Using a large serving spoon, scoop out generous portions taking care to include the rice, meats, seafood, and vegetables in each.
Paella Variations Around the World
As Spanish cuisine has spread, paella has been adapted with new flavors and ingredients:
Latin American paella adds beans, sweet plantains, avocado, chili peppers, and sometimes substitutes rice with quinoa.
Filipino paella called bringhe combines native flavors like coconut milk, chayote, and longanisa sausage with Spanish ingredients.
American style paella features Cajun seasonings, Creole sausage, crawfish, bacon, and beer for a Southern flair.
Italian paella includes risotto rice, plus sausage, mushrooms, truffle oil, and parmesan cheese for a unique Italian twist.
Indian paella incorporates spices like turmeric, cardamom, ginger and curry leaves for flavor along with cashews and raisins.
Tips for Making Leftover Paella
Paella makes wonderful leftovers. Here are some ideas for enjoying paella the next day:
Fry it Up
Sauté leftover paella in a skillet with a little olive oil until crispy and heated through. The rice crisps up nicely.
Make Paella Arancini
Mix leftover paella with eggs, breadcrumbs, and parmesan then form into balls. Fry the arancini until golden brown for an appetizer.
Add an Egg
For a quick meal, top leftover paella with a fried egg. The runny yolk complements the rice perfectly.
Make Paella Salad
Combine cold leftover paella with mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, olives, and vinaigrette dressing for a room temperature salad.
Turn it Into Soup
Ladle chicken or vegetable broth over leftover paella and simmer until heated through for an easy soup.
Where to Eat Paella in Spain
When traveling in Spain, try authentic paella at these notable restaurants:
La Pepica – Historic restaurant in Valencia dating back to 1898. Known for excellent seafood paella.
Casa Carmela – Charming family-run restaurant serving homemade style Valencian paella.
El Palmar – Waterfront restaurant in a former fishing village specializing in rice dishes.
Can Majó – Refined restaurant near the beach featuring classical paella valenciana.
La Esquinica – Casual spot serving hearty portions of seafood paella in the Barceloneta district.
Can Solé – Historic venue preparing paella in a wood-fired oven resulting in delicious socarrat.
Carboneras – Local favorite known for their mixed paellas bursting with seafood.
Las Teresas – Cozy restaurant with a covered courtyard serving vegetarian paella.
Luz de Luna – Romantic restaurant with performances where you can watch paella being cooked.
– Paella is a traditional Spanish rice dish originating from Valencia, made in a wide shallow pan called a paellera.
– Main ingredients include short grain rice, saffron, vegetables, proteins like chicken, seafood, beans, and herbs.
– Sofrito, toasted rice, and socarrat crust are signature paella cooking techniques.
– Paella Valenciana and seafood paella are popular variations but each region has its own special flavors.
– Cook paella over a wood fire in a paella pan without stirring for authentic results.
– Paella is served family-style straight from the pan for a lovely presentation.