Paella Is Overrated

Title photo: Manuel Martín Vicente CC BY 2.0

What it is

Paella is an allegedly ancient rice-based bean porridge for peasants from the Valencia region that entrepreneurs a few decades ago figured out how to market to tourists as something exotic.

There are many variations and they are all equally mediocre, so let’s focus on the original paella valenciana, which is standardized by the Council for Agriculture of the Autonomous Government of the Communitat de Valencia. As we all know, nothing says «delicious» quite like being planned and approved by a government committee.

How it’s made

It only has a few required ingredients:

  • Browned rabbit and chicken/duck meat – necessary to give the sauce any body whatsoever since the official recipe stupidly insists on using water instead of stock. The rabbit is vital to this dish because otherwise it would taste all right but not be very memorable. Instead we’re going for memorable, but in a bad way. Make sure you retain the entrails from the rabbit, because as I said before, this is a peasant dish borne out of historic desperation masquerading as conscious culinary decisions.
  • Lima and runner beans – you know, the kind that come from Central/South America and not Valencia
  • Tomato – er…also from Central America
  • Saffron – if you can’t afford real saffron, you shouldn’t be making this traditional, ancient peasant dish because even the poorest people in the era of Moorish occupation could go to the saffron store and buy a few strands on Black Friday or whatever Amazon promotions were called back then
  • Bomba rice – again, if you can afford imported bomba rice, great. If not, just buy risotto rice and don’t overcook it. You won’t notice the difference because you’re not a rice douche
  • Rosemary – I have nothing bad to say about rosemary. It is wonderful
  • Paella pan – This is supposedly where the dish gets its name. Paella derives from the Latin patella, which means «little or shallow pan» (and also kneecap). If you don’t have a paella pan then just throw the rest of the ingredients you’ve already bought in the trash because there is no other way to cook this

Optional but common

  • Paprika powder – optional, also from Central South America. You know, as a brief aside…For an «ancient» recipe, there’re an awful lot of ingredients in the official version that didn’t exist in Europe prior to 1492
  • Snails – oh, fuck off. Though I will say, this is probably the most honest ingredient in the list aside from rice and beans. Imagine being a poor person in Spain 400 years ago walking around with an entire duck or chicken. You’d have been declared a witch and the bishop would’ve eaten it while you were getting your thumbs screwed off in the cellar.

There is a specific order to the ingredients, but this isn’t a cooking article and there are really only two steps which are of vital importance:

The first important step is when the liquid base has cooked down and melded a bit and you are ready to add the rice. Kneel in front of the paella pan. Then carefully pour the rice over the liquid in the shape of a crucifix (unless it’s St. Peter’s Day, in which case it is traditional to make a paella invertida). Bomba rice is incredibly absorbent, and this step ensures that the Catholic Church can permeate even the simplest joys of eating mediocre rice instead of leaving you alone for thirty god damn minutes.

The second crucial step is, once everything is mixed in the pan, to leave the kitchen and forget about the paella long enough to accidentally burn the bottom. You’ll be left with a reddish-brown crust called socarrat–reminiscient of Patrick Bateman’s skin mask–that everyone will insist is the best part (which may very well be the case because no one can make the argument that any other part of this dish is the best). It’s similar to the lies Swiss people tell to foreigners about eating la religieuse at the bottom of a fondue so they don’t have to toss it in the trash and make the whole house smell like cheese for days. 

This is exactly the reason why we needed that big paella pan before. We want a huge surface area so that the moisture evaporates as quickly as possible. Again–and I can’t stress this enough–if you don’t own a paella pan you need to do whatever it takes to get one before trying this recipe. Sell your computer. Take out a mortgage on your house if you haven’t already done so to buy saffron. Spend your next paycheck on lottery tickets and hope for the best.

What I like about paella

There is nothing bad about eating beans and rice. I could eat beans and rice daily. This combination is ubiquitous (in varying forms) all over the world because of its excellent ability to give people with poor access to food all of their daily amino acid requirements. And let’s be clear, that’s all this is: an efficient, low-cost protein delivery mechanism for people living below the poverty line dressed up with a few exotic ingredients to make it seem like an ethnic/cultural touchstone. Beans and rice taste like despair. Saffron smells like heritage.

What I dislike about it

Its selfsame ubiquity. Take away the saffron and it is nearly indistinguishable from any of the other ten billion beans and rice meals in the world. I suspect that’s why they keep tossing random stuff like crayfish into it and seeing what works. But those doesn’t make it unique either. Take gumbo, jambalaya, étouffée, sekihan, patbap, hóngdòu zhōu, etc., add some saffron, and you’ve got virtually the same thing.

How it could be improved

Use chicken/duck stock instead of water. Or even better, use stock and then stir in a splash of sauce espagnole or demiglace at the very end. Saute the rice like pilaf. Rely on the gelatin from the stock to make it saucy instead of the starches on the rice. Stop pretending it’s millennia old and somehow inseparably linked to the soul of Valencia and instead embrace the multicultural aspects of the dish that made it taste noteworthy in the first place. I mean hell, even the saffron and the rice aren’t indigenous to Spain and those are the key fucking ingredients. Paella is a lie.


Next time on Spainsplainer: determining the correct number of onions for tortilla de patatas with TensorFlow