What is Paella, Really? Your 101 Intro to Spain’s Most Popular Rice

Today David takes on a very controversial question — what is paella? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Most people have one thing they want to eat when they come to Spain: paella. It makes sense; paella is now almost synonymous with Spanish cuisine. But what is this crazy popular rice dish, really? And is it actually as Spanish as it seems?

A plate of Paella
Paella: what is it really?

You might be surprised to hear that to most locals, paella isn’t really “Spanish” at all! Even more surprising, they’ll also struggle to agree on what paella actually is. What are the ingredients? Which goes on top, meat or seafood? What color should the rice be? And most importantly, where does it come from? 

These are the controversial questions that get plenty of Spaniards arguing over the dinner table well into the night.

So today, let’s try and answer one seemingly simple question: what is paella?

What is Paella?

Paella is Spain’s most popular rice and the icon of its cuisine. It’s hard to see a big pan full of paella and not feel instantly hungry! That warm orangey-gold glow of the rice, the strips of verdant vegetables and juicy prawns or chicken—this is what deliciousness looks like. 

Paella Rice

While the stuff on top might look mouth-wateringly good, a good paella is really all about the rice. Starchy, short-grain varieties of Spanish rice like bomba or calasparra take center stage here. You’ll see some locals disregarding the toppings altogether, and diving straight into the rice! 

Prized Calasparra rice — perfect for paella. Photo by Alpha on Flickr CC.

Paella Sofrito

Fried together in a pan with gorgeous aromatics like garlic, saffron, paprika, and one hell of a good stock, the rice takes on bags of flavor. While dishes like risotto have the cook stirring their rice for hours on end (and working up a fierce sweat in the process), paella is more forgiving. In fact, most recipes ask you to leave the rice in the pan without stirring. 

Making the sofrito for paella.
Making the sofrito for paella.

Paella Socarrat

That’s because the key to a good paella is the socarrat. This is the bottom layer of rice in the pan; that crispy, almost burnt crust. Eating a good socarrat is an ephemeral experience. It’s chewy, crunchy, caramelized goodness, and it lifts the flavor of a paella to heavenly heights. 

Things to try in Valencia - Paella in Valencia at Casa Carmela
Forget the toppings, paella is all about that rice. Get a good socarrat crust on the bottom to bring Spaniards to tears of joy!

Paella Pan

A good paella pan is large and flat to encourage the evaporation of stock, and the development of a good socarrat. In fact, the pan is so important to the dish that it’s where the name comes from! Originally, a paella was the pan, not the rice. But today the two are synonymous, and you can’t have one without the other. 

Where does Paella come from?

Ask a Spaniard where you can find good paella, and they’ll tell you to jump on a plane to Valencia. While the history of paella is a bit contested, most people agree that it originated in this city on Spain’s eastern coast. 

The dish has its roots in the fragrant, saffron-spiced plates of rice served at Moorish banquets in southern Spain. The Moors were part of an Arabic culture that stretched from Spain to Persia, with rice dishes like pilaf traveling throughout these lands. 

Spanish rice fields
Spain’s rice paddies. Photo by nomdefinitivo on Flickr CC.

But those dishes pale in comparison to the saliva-inducing paella. This particular rice owes its creation to workers tending Valencian fields just a few centuries ago. Putting a bunch of rice in a flat pan, and covering it with local veggies and scraps of meat, the workers would set it to cook in the morning and come back at lunchtime for a well-cooked meal. 

Traditional Paella Ingredients

A traditional paella doesn’t have the ingredients that you might be thinking of. Being inland, these farmhands didn’t dress their rice with different kinds of seafood. Instead, they took whatever was close at hand.

The traditional ingredients of a paella valenciana are rabbit, snails, chicken, and garden veggies! Back in the day, a bit of eel was even known to pop in there too, but thankfully that ingredient has been lost to the sands of time. 

paella valenciana with chicken
The classic paella Valenciana: snails included! Photo credit: El Confidencial

How to make Paella 

Most Spaniards would agree that real paella needs to be made in a paella pan, and cooked over an open flame. The goal here is to get the rice perfect and achieve a good socarrat crust. To infuse the rice with flavor, you need good fresh spices and a well-made master stock.

Casa herminio Murcia rice
Cooking the paella over an open flame is ideal.

Before the rice goes into the pan, you need to develop a good flavor base from sofrito–the classic Spanish mix of onions, garlic, and diced tomato–aromatic saffron and paprika. Once the rice and stock get added to the pan, it’s a waiting game. You’ll see chefs looking at their paella pans with the focused concentration of a Buddhist trying to achieve enlightenment. 

Ask them what they’re looking for and they’ll silence you with a curt “shhh!“. Why? They’re listening for the socarrat. Once the rice is ready, the last dredges of evaporating stock will start to whistle, and the crispy base will crackle with anticipation. Paella is an experience for all the senses!

There are also plenty of different options when it comes to toppings. Unless you’re a real diehard traditionalist, you probably won’t want to add in a handful of snails to your paella. And you almost definitely won’t be adding in the fresh chunks of eel straight from the river. 

arroz con conejo y caracoles, Rice with rabbit and snails
A traditional paella with lots of socarrat, and snails and rabbit as the main ingredients.

But when it comes to toppings, anything goes. The valencianos love their chicken and rabbit, but get a paella in Barcelona and you’re more likely to see huge, juicy prawns and chunks of salted cod. Head to Murcia and you’ll be in vegetarian paella territory. Just remember that no matter what, you should never put chorizo in it, as British chef Jamie Oliver learned the hard way

While most good paella recipes are in Spanish, you can find a decent English one right here

chorizo paella is not at authentic Spanish dish!
NOT a paella! Spaniards get outraged by the suggestion of adding chorizo to their favorite rice.

Eating Paella in Spain

So if paella is really just from Valencia, can you still eat it in the rest of Spain? Well, it’s complicated. 

You’ll definitely see restaurants all around the country that loudly advertise “the best paella in [insert city here]!”. But most locals wouldn’t be caught dead ordering rice at those places. Most restaurants catering to tourists feel that they need to offer paella since it’s what first-time visitors want to try.

The worst paella in Spain!
When you see this sign – run in the other direction! These are frozen paellas filled with food coloring.

But the paella from these places lacks the soul of the best dishes. The rice is never as fragrant as it should be, and it’s usually got its golden color from additives, not saffron and paprika. Fearing that tourists will send back burned rice, they also never cook a paella with socarrat, and load it up with way too many toppings!

However, that’s not to say that you can’t find good paella. If you look hard enough, and follow a few simple rules, you’ll be able to satisfy your paella cravings and get a delicious meal! 

My Top Tips for Eating Paella in Spain:

  • Unless you’re on the coast, avoid seafood paella. If it’s not fresh, you don’t want it! Go for the classic inland version, and try a paella valenciana
  • Never order paella for dinner! This is a lunchtime dish through and through. Spaniards don’t like heavy rice dishes for dinner, and that includes paella.
  • It might not be on the menu! A lot of bars and restaurants will do one big pan of paella as a lunchtime special, and serve plates of rice until they empty the pan. Look for places that offer a lunchtime paella special one day a week (in Madrid, that’s almost always Thursday!). 
  • Make sure you can see the paella pan. If they serve good lunchtime paella, a restaurant will just cook up one giant pan, and serve portions straight out of it. If you can’t see the pan, and the paella is offered in “tapas”-sized portions, then it’s probably been frozen and microwaved back to life. 

Top Paella Restaurants around Spain

For more tips, check out these recommendations:

And my last tip? Why not try fideua instead! This is paella’s less famous cousin, but one that’s just as delicious. Take out the rice, and add in thin, crunchy noodles instead and you’ve got one hell of a plate of food.

Fideuà is a noodle and seafood dish that’s one of the typical foods from Valencia.
Not your average rice. Try out fideua, the lesser-known dish of Valencia!

Read More

There’s more to Spanish rice than paella! Read about Lauren’s experience with finding local rice dishes in Murcia. Known to locals as the “Spain’s Vegetable Garden”, this eastern region is full of traditional rice recipes!

You can also learn about Spain’s other delicious rice dishes here: 7 Spanish Rice Dishes that Aren’t Paella

Is there anything else you’re interested in learning about Spain’s most famous rice? Ask me anything in the comments below!

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