Most people have one thing they want to eat when they come to Spain: paella. It makes sense: this single dish is now almost synonymous with Spanish cuisine.
But what is this crazy popular Spanish rice dish, really? And is it actually as Spanish as it seems?
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 it 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 this incredible dish 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.
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 its history 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.
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 use local orange branches to start a fire and cook their rice on top of the heat.
Key Paella Ingredients & Equipment
The ingredients you'll find or use in your paella depend on what kind of paella it is. The classic Valencian version relies on ingredients from the land, whereas the seafood-laden varieties many travelers seek out in Spain incorporates shrimp, calamari, mussels, and more. And of course, there are some incredible vegetarian paella versions full of bright, fresh veggies.
But no matter what kind of paella is in your pan, there are always a few constants. Extra virgin olive oil, short-grain Spanish rice, water, and salt are used in every authentic recipe, and saffron and paprika are the classic spices.
A good paella pan is large and flat to encourage the evaporation of liquid, and the development of a good socarrat: that crispy, caramelized layer of rice on the bottom.
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 dish. But today the two are synonymous, and you can't have one without the other.
While these pans are ubiquitous at stores selling home and kitchen supplies here in Spain, you'll have to look a little harder to find them elsewhere in the world. Luckily, there are plenty of options online. If you're in the US, family-owned La Tienda sells excellent quality paella pans just like the ones we use here in Spain.
While the stuff on top might look mouth-wateringly good, a good paella is really all about the rice. Starchy, round, short to medium-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!
You might be wondering why the specific type of rice is so important here. The answer: absorption. Spanish rice varieties like bomba can soak up three times as much liquid as similar varieties without breaking apart. The result: a flavor-packed rice dish down to the very last grain.
Traditional Valencian paellas were originally cooked over an open fire made of branches from the region's ubiquitous orange trees. These helped infuse the paella with an even more aromatic flavor.
Today, cooking paella somewhere outdoors over an open flame or grill is still a popular option. Many Spaniards make their rice this way for barbecues with friends and family.
If you don't have access to someplace where you can cook outdoors, no worries. You can still achieve great results at home on the stovetop (as many Spanish home cooks do), and there are even some excellent paella kits online that will ensure your rice turns out perfectly every time.
The Importance of Sofrito
Before the rice goes into the pan, you need to develop a good flavor base from sofrito: the classic Spanish mix of slow-simmered veggies along with aromatic saffron and paprika. Frying the rice together in a pan with this gorgeous sofrito helps it take on tons of flavor.
Water or Stock?
Believe it or not, traditional Valencian paella is cooked with water—not stock!
If you're eating a really good paella valenciana, you'll see that stock wasn't really necessary in the first place. A well-made sofrito will give the rice tons of flavor on its own.
That said, there are still plenty of paella recipes that do use stock—homemade seafood stock can really elevate seafood paella to the next level. Definitely give the stock-free traditional recipe a try, but feel free to experiment, too!
The Elusive Socarrat
While dishes like risotto have the cook stirring their rice for seemingly forever (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.
That's because the key 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 to heavenly heights.
Meat or Seafood?
There are dozens of paella recipes out there, including plenty of excellent vegetarian versions. But for those that do use some sort of protein, there are a handful of combinations you'll come across again and again.
- Paella valenciana is made with chicken, rabbit, and (traditionally) snails, though the latter is not always included today. The earliest recipes also included eel!
- Paella de marisco (seafood paella) comes in many delicious varieties. The most common additions are shrimp, squid, mussels, and clams.
- Paella mixta, or "mixed paella," is the best of both worlds. The paella world's answer to surf-and-turf combines fresh seafood with meats such as pork and chicken.
What About Chorizo?
In 2016, British chef Jamie Oliver unintentionally set off a fierce debate in the online food community when he shared his paella recipe. The reason: he included chorizo, a very non-traditional ingredient.
Oliver was far from the first person to make a chorizo-infused paella, and won't be the last. But his recipe angered thousands of purists who insisted that the popular Spanish sausage had no place in Spain's most emblematic rice dish.
Despite the uproar, there was a side of the debate that slipped under the radar: Many Spaniards do make paella with chorizo!
Several celebrated Spanish chefs have published paella recipes that include chorizo on the ingredients list. One was Simone Ortega, who included it in her cookbook 1080 Recetas—considered by many Spanish cooks to be a sort of bible of national cuisine.
History leans in favor of chorizo, too. There are records of paella made with chorizo (in Valencia!) dating from the 19th century.
The verdict: There's no right or wrong answer here. After all, experimentation and improvisation are at the root of many humble Spanish recipes. Chorizo lends a smoky, umami-packed flavor to rice dishes and is worth trying at least once!
Traditional Valencian Paella
The popular image of a paella piled high with seafood entices millions of visitors to Spain. But this is a far cry from the original Valencian version of the dish.
Being inland, the farmhands and field workers who cooked early versions of the dish 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.
How to Make Paella
Most Spaniards would agree that real paella needs to be made in the corresponding pan, and cooked over an open flame if possible. 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 sofrito.
Once the rice and liquid get added to the pan, it’s a waiting game. You’ll see chefs looking at their 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 liquid 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 dish. And you almost definitely won't be adding in the fresh chunks of eel straight from the river.
But toppings are where things can get regional. The valencianos love their chicken and rabbit, but in Barcelona you're more likely to see huge, juicy prawns and chunks of salted cod. And once you head down to Murcia, you'll be in vegetarian paella territory.
How to Find Authentic Paella in Spain
So if paella is really just from Valencia in the traditional sense, 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. However, the stuff 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 include socarrat, and load the dish up with way too many toppings rather than letting the rice itself shine!
However, that's not to say that you can't find good paella outside Valencia. If you look hard enough, and follow a few simple rules, you'll be able to satisfy your 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 or de verduras.
- 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, serving out 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 most likely been frozen and microwaved back to life.
Top Paella Restaurants in Spain
For more tips, check out these recommendations:
- The Best Places to Try Authentic Paella in Madrid
- Best Paella in Barcelona: 5 Authentic Spots where Locals Go
- Where to Eat the Best Paella in Valencia
- 4 Places to Find the Best Paella in Malaga
- 5 Spots for Paella in Granada
- The Paella Spots in Seville that Locals Love
- Where to Eat Paella in San Sebastian
What to Serve with Paella
Part of the fun of eating paella at a restaurant in Spain isn't just the rice itself. The whole meal is a full experience, from the first sip of wine to the last bite of dessert!
Some classic tapas to accompany paella are croquettes and patatas bravas, both of which easily elevate any meal to a full-on Spanish restaurant experience. Another great option would be a chilled dish like gazpacho, salmorejo, or ensaladilla rusa. These refreshing tapas are a great way to open your appetite before diving in to the hearty paella!
Ready to experience Spain's most iconic rice dish for yourself? Here are some excellent recipes to get you started.
- Seafood Paella
- Traditional Spanish Paella
- Paella with Prawns and Chorizo
- Vegetarian Paella
- Black Paella (Arroz Negro)
The word "paella" originally referred to the large, shallow pan that the rice dish was cooked in. Using the right pan is so important for achieving perfect results, so today the word can refer to both the dish and the pan. (Sometimes you'll also see the word paellera used to refer to the pan, in order to avoid confusion.)
Paella has its roots in eastern Spain—more specifically, in what is today the Valencian Community. The fertile inland areas here provide perfect conditions for growing rice.
Paella can be frozen for up to two months without losing much quality or texture. Let it come to room temperature, then store in an airtight container to freeze. When you're ready to eat it, let it defrost in the fridge overnight, then heat it back up in a pan on the stove before serving.
Seafood paella has a few special considerations to take into account. If the seafood you used was previously frozen before cooking, freezing it again may not be ideal. Additionally, you'll want to remove any shells from ingredients like mussels and shrimp before freezing.
The best way to reheat paella is on the stovetop over medium heat with a bit of olive oil. This will help the rice retain its texture and won't compromise the flavor, either.
Update Notice: This post was originally published on August 14, 2019 and was updated with new text and photos on April 5, 2021.
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