If I were to ask you what the traditional dishes of different nations are there is a chance that for England you may say Fish and Chips or a Sunday Roast with Yorkshire Pudding, for France you may say Frogs Legs, Italy Pizza and Pasta, Ireland you could say Bacon and Cabbage, America has the hamburger, Mexico has Chili con Carne and of course Spain has Tapas and Paella. These are just stereotypical dishes but none the less we associate food with the culture of a nation and whilst these dishes are all somewhat clichéd as clichés go they all get our taste buds going and tantalise our senses.
The name of the dish Paella comes from the vessel it is cooked in, quite simply a “La Paella”. This is a Valencian word and describes the round shallow pan with two handles that the ingredients are cooked in and traditionally then served in directly from the fire. The dish we all know and love today originated in Valencia and was a poor mans meal that has developed into one of Spains most popular and beloved dishes with variants of the recipe across the different provinces in Spain. Some La Paellas are huge and you may have seen them being used at social occasions for large parties as the showcase centre piece, with the men of the gathering taking pride in the preperation and cooking of the much loved dish.
The dish has its beginnings firmly entwined in Arabic culture. The Spanish word for rice is Arroz which derives from the Arabic word Arruzz and Valencia is its birthplace. As one of the largest Spanish ports it was a gateway to Spain for Arabic immigrants some 1200 years ago. Rice was and still is one of the staples of Arabian dishes and they brought the grains of their beloved food with them. It was inevitable that Valencia soon became established as a rice producer in the country.
Paella was originally the meal of peasants, cooked over an open wood fire in the rice fields that they worked in. The original dish was made of the rice from the fields and anything else they could throw in... Onions, tomatoes, snails, green beans anything for taste and texture. Duck and rabbit were also popular when available and this dish soon became such a popular meal of convenience that on special occasions chicken and saffron were added.
Due to the location of Valencia the Mediterranean Sea soon became a resource for the dish and sea food was added to the recipe. A real Valencian Paella today though is still the traditional peasants recipe and has no shell fish added and is simply a choice of chicken, duck, or rabbit, snails, green beans and garbanzos.
Next time you are sitting in your favourite Restaurant in Spain and you order a Paella close your eyes and picture where this exquisite dish came from. Picture the Arabic ships docking in the great port of Valencia with their sacks of rice, imagine the peasants in the paddy fields doing gruelling work and lighting their fire at the end of a long day, preparing the rice they have gathered and adding ingredients they have available to give flavour and texture. Picture the delight of a celebration when chicken and other meat was added and the merriment that would have followed and you will really appreciate not only how far this wonderful dish has come but just how exquisite a dish it really is... From a poor mans meal to a dish for Kings and Queens and of course you and me...