Every country has a national dish, and Spain is no exception. The dish that most people associate with Spain is the rice dish known as paella.
Paella is, on the one hand, very simple, and on the other hand, very complex and confusing.
It also has a surprising history touching on almost every major period in the history of Spain.
Learn more about paella, the national dish of Spain, and how it might technically even be Spanish on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
This episode is sponsored by the Tourist Office of Spain.
There are many great places to visit in Spain, but one of my favorites has to be Valencia.
Valencia was the first place I ever visited in Spain, and it has a special meaning for me.
It also happens to be the home of paella, as well as one of my favorite restaurants in Spain, Casa Montaña.
You can also visit the famous City of Arts and Sciences and view the exceptional structures designed by the Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava. If you’ve seen a recent science fiction TV or movie, there is a good chance they had a scent shot there.
And, if you happen to be in Valencia at noon on a Thursday, you can also witness the meeting of the Valencia Water Tribunal, the world’s oldest continuously operating democratic body. It convenes just outside the Valencia cathedral, which also just so happens to claim to be the location of the Holy Grail.
If you want to plan your trip to Valencia or anywhere in Spain, you can get all the information you need at Spain.info.
Once again, that is Spain.info.
If you aren’t familiar with paella, I’ll provide a brief description of the dish, and for those of you who are not familiar with paella, you owe it to yourself to go and try some.
The key to paella is rice. If there is one and only one thing you take away from this episode, it is the fact that paella is a rice-based dish.
Paella is cooked in a wide, flat pan, which is known as a paella. Paella is just the Valencian word for pan, from which the dish gets its name.
A proper paella pan is more than just a frying pan. A paella pan is very shallow, and they can get very large. I once attended a conference in Spain, and for lunch (which, like all proper Spanish lunches, began at two in the afternoon), we had a giant paella, which had to be carried out by a team of six people.
If you visit Spain, you can find shops that specialize in paella pans of all sizes, as it is something you usually wouldn’t find in a normal kitchen store.
Beyond saying that paella is a rice dish is where it gets tricky. Paella, to this extent, is a lot like pizza. You know a pizza when you see it, but beyond pizza dough, literally everything else about a pizza could change.
There is no one single recipe for pizza, just like there is no one single recipe for paella.
To understand what paella is beyond just rice, it is important to understand the history of the dish.
In the introduction to this episode, I said that paella might not technically be a Spanish dish. The reason for that is that paella wasn’t something that was traditionally made all over Spain. It comes from one particular region in Spain, Valencia.
To understand how this dish began in Valencia, we need to go all the way back to when the Romans ruled Spain. The only thing you need to know about this period of time is that the Romans didn’t grow rice. There was no rice production anywhere in Spain, even though the area around Valencia was uniquely suited to it.
However, the Romans did end up contributing two things that helped create paella. The first is the pan itself, and the second is olive oil.
If you remember back to my episode on rice, it was probably first cultivated in southern China and then spread throughout Asia. So how in the world did it get all the way over to Spain on the far western end of the Eurasian landmass?
That was due to the Islamic invasions which took place in the 8th century.
The Moors brought with them not only Islamic culture but many of the crops that they learned to cultivate, including rice.
This can be seen in the fact that the Spanish word for rice, arroz, comes from Arabic, not Lain.
By the 10th century, rice cultivation was firmly established in the region around Valencia.
The reason why Valencia became a rice growing region was simply due to geography. There were flat plains and ample fresh water which was available, especially from the nearby Albufera lagoon.
The Moors built an extensive irrigation system in the region to support rice production. If you remember, way back, I did an episode on the Valencia Water Tribunal, which is the world’s oldest, continuous democratic body. They meet once a week in Valencia, and they were established to resolve water disputes between rice farmers.
While the Moors brought rice to Spain, rice remained the primary agricultural produc in the region around Valencia after the Reconquista and the final expulsion of the Moors in the 15th century.
Some foods have a very definite origin story. We know exactly where and when it was created and who created it.
In it case of paella, the origins are a bit more shrouded in history.
The origin story, which is usually told, is that paella was a dish made by farm laborers who worked in the rice fields.
Paella was made on an open wood fire, and the workers added whatever they could find in the fields to the meal. This included animals and pests that they found in the rice fields, usually including rabbit, chicken, duck, and snails.
From the fields, the dish then found its way into kitchens, and it became the defining dish for the Valencian region.
When exactly paella first appeared is in question. The most commonly given date is in the early 18th century. This is when the term paella first appeared in print. However, at this time, the word paella still referred to the pan, not the dish itself.
By the 19th century, this simple dish, which was created by Valencian rice farmers who just wanted to make lunch, had caught on. It began being cooked in the kitchen and at social get-togethers. It was basically the Valencian version of a bar-b-q.
It wasn’t until 1840 when a Valencian newspaper first referred to the dish as paella, not just the pan it was cooked in.
As the dish began to spread, people adapted it to what they had at hand.
Valencia is very close to the sea, so people who lived on the coast began to substitute rabbit and chicken with prawns and other seafood. Then, other people mixed the two to create a mixed paella.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, paella spread throughout Spain, with more variations on the dish appearing as more people made it. However, for the most part, during this entire time, even though it was served outside of Valencia, it was still considered to be a Valencian dish.
How was it that this regional dish from one of the few rice-producing regions in Spain ended up becoming the national dish representing all of Spain?
That was actually the result of a very conscious decision made by one man in the 20th century.
Spain, despite being a single country, is actually a collection of regions with different foods, customs, and languages.
Between 1939 and 1975, Spain was ruled by a military dictator named Francisco Franco. Franco wanted to create a unified Spanish identity, so he took a best-in-class approach and took different things from different regions that he liked.
Hence, many things we associate with Spain are, in reality, things that really are only part of one region’s culture. Flamenco dancing, for example, is a product of Andalusia. You aren’t going to see flamenco dancing in the Basque Country unless it is part of something explicitly Andalusian.
Well, when it came to food, it turned out that Franco liked paella. That was pretty much it. Franco liked it, so it was promoted as the Spanish national dish.
After Spain returned to democracy in the 1970s, the perception of paella as the Spanish national dish sort of stuck, at least outside of Spain.
A paella spread, paella traditionalists began to push back on what they saw as a corruption of true paella. This is sort of the equivalent of pizza traditionalists saying that the only true pizza is Neapolitan pizza.
Paella purists will insist that only true paella is what is better known as paella valenciana.
Paella Valenciana usually consists of the following ingredients: round-grain rice, usually bomba rice, rabbit, chicken, saffron, garrofó beans, which are a type of lima bean, and ferradura, which are a type of long, flat green bean from Valencia.
This is all cooked in olive oil and chicken broth. The saffron will give the entire dish a golden color.
While these are the rough ingredients of the original Paella Valenciana, within Valencia, you will still get a great deal of debate as to what makes the best paella.
During one of my trips to Valencia, I was able to go into the countryside and have a traditional paella lunch on one of the farms. Even there, at the very heart of paella country, I heard differing theories on how much juice vs. how dry a paella should be. Everyone has slightly different recipes, which usually have something to do with how their grandmothers made it.
One thing that most Valencians will agree on is that one of the best parts of paella is what is known as the socarrat. Socarrat is just the Valencian word for scorched, and it is the name of the rice at the bottom of the pan. To get this caramelized, crunch rice, you can’t stir the paella, which goes against every natural instinct you would have if sitting over a pan of paella.
There are other customs and traditions associated with paella. For starters, paella usually isn’t something you eat at dinner. It is something you eat as a mid-day meal. Chorizo is often added to paella, but purists consider it a no-no. However, some food historians have found that chorizo was, in fact, used in paellas in the 19th century.
If you are in Spain, there are some things you should know about ordering paella. For starters, at every restaurant I’ve been to, unless they specialize in paella, you have to order it for two people. I’ve seen this stipulation on the menu many times.
To properly make a paella, it takes a few hours. If you are ordering it off the menu, they might either just be warming something up that was frozen or refrigerated, or if it takes 20 minutes, they might just make the rice and have the other ingredients premade.
If you can, find a place that specializes in paella where they have probably been cooking it for quite a while by the time you walk in.
Despite the purists, you will find different types of paella even in Valencia. One unique type of paella you might find is known as black paella. Literally, everything in the paella is black, including the rice and the beans. The dark color comes from squid ink.
There is an entire community that has recently sprung up around paella.
In 2016, an emoji was approved for paella. Technically, the Unicode name for it is “SHALLOW PAN OF FOOD,” but it clearly shows a seafood paella, which is the most popular type outside of Valencia.
In 2013, a group of paella enthusiasts launched Wikipaella, a website devoted to paella. In 2018, they inaugurated the first World Paella Day, which is held on September 20th of every year.
In the course of researching this episode, much of which came from my own paella experiences in Spain, I realized that many people listening to this might never have tried paella. I can say I’ve never had paella outside of Spain.
I searched online, and I found the closest place to me that serves it is a tapas restaurant about a 30-minute drive from where I live. Depending on where you are, you might have to go out of your way to find a place that serves it.
Before I close, I want to address some of you who might be thinking that a rice based dish like paella sounds awfully similar to dishes that are found in South Asia and the Middle East.
Well, there might be a reason for that.
In the course of doing research for this episode, one of the most interesting theories I came across is that when the Islamic Caliphate came to Spain, they didn’t just bring rice. They brought with them ways to prepare it.
Arab traders had been trading with Persia and India for centuries. Dishes such as pilaf, pulao, and biryani would have been familiar to them, and those who brought rice to Spain were probably already making similar dishes.
These rice dishes, or something like them, were probably prepared before the creation of paella in the 18th century. So it is very probable that the forerunner of paella did, in fact, come from Persia or South Asia.
So, the national dish of Spain is really something that developed out of the single region of Valencia, popularized by a 20th-century dictator, using a product brought by Islamic farmers, who may have gotten the original recipe from Asia.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.
Today’s review comes from listener Thomas Beyene over on Podcast Republic. They write:
I love your podcast so much! It’s the best thing I’ve ever listened to. I’m proud to be part of the completionist club from Eritrea. I hope you can make a special episode about Eritrea someday. Keep up the great work!
Thanks, Thomas! I have to admit that I had no idea there was a completionist club chapter in Eritrea. It is one of the few completionsist clubs in a country that I haven’t visited. I hope to visit the club in person someday and do a formal grand opening in Asmara.
Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.