Paella is a rice dish that originated in Spain's Valencian region. “La Paella" is really the
cooking vessel. Translated into "The Pan", it is not the actual meal itself and it is
traditionally made of iron or steel, but today it is often made of cast aluminum and
stainless steel. The base of the paella is flat with shallow sides and of a good thickness.
The word itself is Valencian and most likely has its roots in the Latin 'patella', a flat basket.
The original paella was considered a poor man's meal and was usually made with
whatever ingredient was on hand at that time, even the occasional marsh rat. Paella is
traditionally a Sunday dish eaten when the whole family and is best cooked outside over
an open wood fire.
The Moorish people of the Muslim region in Spain often would cook a combination of rice,
fish and spices for family get togethers and holy day feasts, establishing the tradition of
eating rice. This led to rice becoming a staple by the time of the Muslims were forced out
of Spain by the Catholics in the 15th century. It then became the custom to combine rice
with some vegetables, beans and dry cod, providing an meal that could be used for the
religious period known as Lent, the weeks preceding Easter.
During the centuries following the introduction of rice in Spain by the Moors, the peasants
of Valencia would use the paella pan to cook rice with easily available ingredients from
the countryside like tomatoes, onions and snails. On special occasions wild rabbit or duck
might be included, and to those who were wealthy enough to afford it would use chicken.
As living standards rose in the late 19th century in Spain, the original paella ingredients
were being replaced by the more expensive ones including seafood. This dish became so
popular that in 1840 a local newspaper started using the phrase paella to refer to the meal
rather than the pan.
There are three widely known styles of paella: Valencian paella, seafood paella and a
mixed paella, but there are regionally many others as well.
Valencian paella consists of white rice, green vegetables, meat, snails, beans and
Seafood paella replaces meat and snails with seafood and omits beans and green
Mixed paella is a free-style combination of meat, seafood, vegetables and sometimes
beans. But they all have in common the use of saffron and olive oil, probably today two of
the most expensive ingredients that this dish includes.
So whatever version of this landmark meal of Spain you prefer, remember it’s not the dish,
it’s the pan.