Paella is the main dish of Valencia. Even though it is served elsewhere in Spain, it originated here.
The rice produced in Valencia is a wonderful short-grain rice that is flavorful and creamy. When making paella, the key is to have the rice become crusty on the bottom and soft on top. Although cooking in Spain is squarely in the woman’s domain, paella is a manly dish. It could be considered a contact sport for cooking. Men are very competitive about their paella. It is somewhat akin to barbecuing in the United States.
To be true paella, it must be cooked over a fire. And I have heard women talking about rice dishes that look exactly like paella, but they say are not paella because the cook added pepper. Traditional paella includes chicken, rabbit, snails, flat beans and large butter beans.
Mike, my husband, hikes on Saturdays with a Spanish man he met named Hector. Hector is working on his English and has also taken it upon himself to become our adviser in all things Spanish. After hiking with Mike and getting a bocadilla and beer for the traditional “almuerza,” Hector goes home to make paella for his girlfriend on Saturdays.
He has been coaching Mike on the art of paella and was appalled that Mike had been cooking it in the oven in a non-paella pan. So Mike bought a paella pan and proudly had Hector over to see it. Hector grimaced and said, “Oh, Mike, I sorry to tell you that you no buy good pan. This not true paella pan.” Needless to say, this has been the source of endless joking by our teenage son.
As part of its annual fundraiser, the American School of Valencia holds a paella contest. It is set up in an open field with fire pits spread around. Groups of men sweat and tend the fires, nervously eyeing each others’ progress. There is a great rivalry that borders on true anger between a group of Spanish men and an Irishman who has lived in Spain for many years. The contest winner is chosen through a blind taste test and the Irishman has won for the past two years. There is much grumbling that an Irishman should never beat a Spaniard when it comes to making paella.
This year, there was also a group of college-aged boys that entered. It was their first year, and they received much ribbing from the older men, especially because they didn’t finish boiling down their rice by the time the contest ended. As a result, they were forced to enter a soupy concoction.
Paella is so popular that there is also the fast-food version served everywhere (looked down on by true paella connoisseurs). It is strange to stop in gas stations and see a big pan of paella, go to an amusement park and see paella stands or drive by “paella to go” fast-food restaurants.
Here’s the truth, though. I am absolutely sick of paella. I can hardly look at it now. It is another example of something that seemed exotic when we moved here and now has become common. I feel that after living in Spain for four months, I can actually criticize it without guilt. When you go to the “carneria” and order a chicken or rabbit for paella, they cut it a certain way. They pull out the meat and cut it up with a cleaver right in front of you.
However, they don’t cut it as we are used to into white and dark meat. They basically just chop the whole chicken into pieces of a certain size. So you may pull out a piece of chicken that only consists of a rib or a spine with no meat on it at all. This grosses my son out so much that Mike has started buying separate chicken breasts, even though we have accepted that it means we are not eating pure paella.
The other thing that is interesting to me is how many Spaniards order paella at restaurants. Paella is actually very bland and after the first few tries. It seems more like eating your mom’s pot roast every Sunday or meatloaf on Saturdays – comfort food you have once a week at home but would never order in a restaurant.
Yet, people here can’t get enough of it. Mike continued to order it at restaurants long after the rest of us had moved on until, two weeks ago, he pulled a rabbit skull, complete with teeth, out of his paella dish. This was too much even for him. So our paella sampling is on hold for a little while, except as a weekly Sunday lunch cooked by Mike with unauthentic chicken cuts in our sub-par pan.