Paella… it’s perhaps the best known Spanish dish in the world. And throughout Spain, you’ll see it on menus in practically every region. But, paella is a finicky beast. It’s hard to make right, easy to mess up, and surprisingly controversial. So if one of your Spain travel ideas is to search for the best paella in the country, then read on to discover the Spanish paella facts you need to know!
Spanish Paella Facts 101: Say Paella
Let’s start with the basics: pronunciation. Brits and Aussies, listen up! Pie. Ey. Uh. Every time you say “pie-ell-uh,” a Spanish chef spins in the grave. In Spanish, the double L is silent!
Also, did you know that the word paella actually refers to the round shallow pan a paella is cooked in? You can find paella pans in stores everywhere across Spain, including many hardware stores. It’s a must-have in any Spaniard’s kitchen collection!
Where is Paella Originally From?
You may also be wondering where is paella originally from? Well, it’s from the beautiful coastal region of Valencia. Hence the name of the traditional dish paella valenciana.
There is a storied paella history and origin in Spain. Traditionally, paella would have been a poor man’s food; a hearty midday meal for laborers working the rice fields. This explains why rabbits and snails were typically used. They could be caught (free food!) and were widely available.
Nowadays, paella valenciana and other paella types can be found all over Spain. But, purists will tell you that the very best paella is still made in the Comunidad de Valencia. There is even a paella day that is celebrated annually in Valencia!
What’s in a Traditional Paella Valenciana?
- A short-grain or round rice (or specifically, look for Bomba rice)
- A sofrito (a sauce base made with garlic, peppers, and tomatoes)
- Saffron (azafrán)
- Stock or water
- Chicken, rabbit, green beans, large white garrofón beans… and snails
Another traditional paella is a seafood version called paella de marisco. This paella typically includes mussels, shrimp, and squid rings. It is based on a stock made of shrimp heads. Sometimes chicken is thrown into the paella de marisco which makes it a paella mixta…. not quite “authentic,” but still acceptable.
Pro Spanish Paella Facts
Notice how I didn’t include chorizo in either of the above paella versions? That’s because a true paella would never have it! Despite Jamie Oliver’s best efforts to start a Twitter war over the matter, a Spaniard would never think of combining the smokey pimentón of chorizo with the delicate flavor of azafrán.
The only time you’ll see chorizo studded among the rice grains of a paella? In a tourist trap restaurant on the Plaza Mayor in Madrid! (BTW, don’t eat on the Plaza Mayor. Have a drink but know that the food is universally terrible. This tip can also apply to most main squares and tourist zones around Spain. You only pay for the atmosphere!)
Another interesting fact is that pro chefs know never to include onion in paella. This is because the moisture from the onion can make the rice soggy. And soggy rice is basically the most awful sin one could commit when making a paella! That’s also why chefs say you shouldn’t stir the rice while it cooks, but instead just shake the pan slightly to distribute the liquid.
And finally, one of the most important things to know about paella is that the crusty, caramelized, toasty part of the paella on the sides and on the bottom…. that’s intentional! It’s called socarrat, and it gives the paella a nice texture and flavor. If you order paella and it doesn’t have even a hint of socarrat, then sadly, you’ve stumbled upon some subpar paella.
What to Know About the “Other” Rice Dishes
Hey, but what about those beautiful dishes of paella with lobster on top? I’ve seen those, right? Yes, but that, my friend, is not a paella.
In Spain, they’re picky about this. Remember, paella is paella valenciana or paella de marisco. Everything else? That’s just arroz, or rice.
When we’re making fun of Chef Oliver’s chorizo rice dish? That’s arroz con cosas, “rice with things.” It’s a lightly-pejorative way to say: that ain’t paella. But, “rice with things” is common on Spanish menus. In fact, a restaurant famous for paella and similar dishes is called an arrocería.
Here are some other typical rice dishes you should try:
- Arroz negro: “black rice”. My personal favorite! A beautiful rice dish tinted black with squid ink, filled with fresh squid (sepia) and shrimp, and topped with homemade aioli.
- Arroz con bogavante: “rice with lobster”. If you’re a lobster lover, this is your dish. A slightly soupier rice dish (in Spanish called meloso) that incorporates chunks of lobster. The dish is crowned with a beautiful halved bogavante.
- Arroz a banda: This dish is one of the simpler rice preparations. It’s commonly made with chunks of calamari and is based on a fumet fish stock. Traditionally, after a fisherman sold his best catch at the market, arroz a banda would be made using the cheaper fish remains.
Ordering Paella at a Restaurant
Okay, so you’re armed with some knowledge and are ready to eat! You’ve remembered to stay away from restaurants in the major tourist zones (like Plaza Mayor in Madrid) and have decided to order a paella de mariscos. Good.
Next, you decide to ask for some recommendations for a good dinner spot, right? Nope. Not right. While you may see paella served at some places for dinner, that’s just wrong. Spaniards only ever eat paella for lunch.
Some of that is due to its history as a lunch dish for Valencia’s rice workers. But, mostly now it’s thought to be just too heavy a meal for the evening. Also, making a good paella takes time and a lot of care. No one wants to embark on that process in the evening!
So, to get a truly outstanding paella experience, book a table for lunch. Also, allow yourself plenty of time to enjoy a coffee and postre, or dessert, afterwards.
Below are some of my recommendations for some of the best paella in Valencia, Madrid, and Barcelona.
Where to Eat Paella in Valencia
Alquería del Brosquil
Entrada Casa el Llarc, 1
963 757 970
Avenida de la Plata, 12
963 950 215
Carrer d’Isabel de Villena, 155
963 710 073
And, literally anywhere in the nearby town of El Palmar! This little town is the birthplace of paella and truly, every restaurant serves incredible rice. It’s worth renting a car to explore the area, which is home to Albufera National Park. It’s in this park’s vast lagoon that much of the rice in Spain is harvested.
If you do decide to go check out this part of the region (it’s about 30-40 minutes outside of Valencia’s city center), then we recommend you book an outdoor table at Casa Angel. It’s an unusual little spot that butts right up against the water. You can even take a boat ride while you’re there if you’re adventurous!
Where To Eat Paella in Madrid
Calle Carlos Caamaño, 3
913 453 074
Calle Manuela Malasaña, 5
663 439 110
Calle de Benigno Soto, 9
914 133 356
Where To Eat Paella in Barcelona
Carrer de Sant Carles, 4
932 21 50 12
Restaurant El Racó de l’Agüir
Carrer de Tamarit, 117
934 26 68 39
Carrer de Vila i Vilà, 71
934 41 30 89
Armed with Spanish Paella Facts… You’re Ready to Eat!
Okay, I know I just gave you a lot to think about! So let’s recap.
Here are the most important Spanish paella facts you need to remember to ensure you only taste the best when you visit Spain:
- Paella is pronounced “pie-ey-uh” and NOT “pie-ell-uh.” The Spanish shutter at the latter pronunciation!
2. The word paella actually refers to the round, shallow pan the dish is cooked and served in. If your “paella” doesn’t come out in one of these pans, then you’re probably just eating “rice with things.”
3. Paella originated in the Community of Valencia, and the most authentic version has rabbit and snail. If that doesn’t sound appetizing, the version with seafood, or mariscos, is also considered acceptably authentic. However, any other variety is only considered a rice dish and is not really authentic paella.
4. Chorizo is a strictly forbidden ingredient. Sorry Jamie Oliver.
5. Onion is another forbidden ingredient. Real chefs will tell you the moisture makes the rice soggy.
6. Don’t be alarmed by the toasted, crunchy parts of the paella called the socarrat. This deliciousness is made by intentionally turning up the heat at the final stages of cooking to give added flavor and texture to the dish.
7. And finally, remember paella is a lunch meal… ordering it for dinner is considered a major faux pas committed by only the most clueless of travelers…. which is definitely not you!!
So, now that you’re armed with some Spanish paella facts, go out and eat! And let us know how your experience goes. We’d love to hear from you.
Also, if you’re interested in learning more about Spanish food, check out my article Spanish Food Facts That Will Surprise You!