Paella: Spain’s Use of Rice and Elevating It to Culinary Perfection

We are off to Spain, so the food research commenced without fail.  One of the first dishes I am anxious to discover in its native land is paella.  I’ve loved paella ever since my first bite, and while researching potential destinations, Valencia, Spain  was on this list when I discovered this area was the birth place of paella, well of course my curiosity was piqued.

If you asked me to pick a dish that exemplified Spain, prior to this research, I may well have picked paella, and I would have been wrong.  Most Spaniards consider paella a regional dish hailing from Valencian, and most Valencians regard paella as a defining dish for them.

Paella is a Valencian rice dish that originated in the mid 1800’s near Lake Albufera, in Valencia.  Valencia is located on the east side of Spain, on its Mediterranean coast.

While chefs have taken great liberty with this dish, the three widely accepted basic paellas are:

  • Valencian paella (paella valenciana)
  • seafood paella (paella de marisco)
  • mixed paella (paella mixta)

Valencian paella consists of rice (bomba), green vegetables, meat (rabbit, chicken, duck), snails, beans and seasoning. Seafood paella replaces meat and snails with seafood and omits the beans and vegetables, and the mixed paella is just that, a free-for-all combination of meat, seafood, and vegetables. Other key ingredients include saffron and olive oil.

strands of joy

Bomba rice is not just any rice, but a Spanish short grain rice that when cooked expands width-wise, as opposed to length-wise like most other rice.  It can absorb three times its volume in liquid and the grains do not clump together, making it the perfect base for this tasty dish.  The crispy rice that develops at the bottom of the pan is a favorite part of the dish (and a sign of a good paella).  It is called socarrat, it reminds me of the tahdig (crust) on Persian rice (chelo).

Paella is a Catalan word derives from the Old French word paelle for pan.  Valencians use the word paella for all pans, including the special shallow pan used for cooking paellas. However, in most of Spain and throughout Latin America, when using the term paellera this is the pan that comes to mind.  Paelleras are commonly round, shallow and made of polished steel with two handles.

the key tool for making paella, the paelleras

The people of Moorish Spain often made casseroles of rice, fish and spices for family gatherings and religious feasts, firmly establishing the custom of eating rice in Spain. By the 15th century, when Spanish Catholics expelled the Muslims, rice was a staple.   Rice cooked with vegetables, beans and dry cod was a de facto choice for Lent in this Catholic country.

With improved living standards in the late 19th century in Spain, reunions and outings in the countryside became popular.  Paella was a natural choice to serve at these festive events, and given the added income, protein choices extended beyond snails and shellfish to rabbit, chicken, and duck (but certainly not limited to these three).  By 1840, this dish was popular that a Spanish newspaper first used the word paella to refer to the recipe rather than the pan.  Now there are so many versions of paella, its limited only to the imagine of the chef.  For the longest time, I thought chorizo was a required component, but have learned it was a late comer to this party dish.

According to tradition in Valencia, paella is cooked by men over an open fire, fueled by orange and pine branches to produce an aromatic smoke that infuses the paella with extra goodness.

and then there is the pasta version….

Just as the proteins are mixed up in the different versions, an addition option is fideuà which replaces the rice with thin, vermicilli like noodles.  Fideuà also originated in the same region, although whether it was Valencia of the nearby Gandia seems to be open to debate.

Paella de bogavante y pollo( Rice with lobster and chicken)

Adapted from Chef Jose Andres, author of “Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America”


  • 2 oz. Spanish extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 whole lobster (cut tail into medallions, claws in ½, body in ½, arms in ½, no little arms)
  • 12 oz. chicken thighs (cut 1-inch to 2-inch cubes)
  • 2 c morel mushrooms
  • 2 oz ñoras sofrito (recipe below)
  • 1-½ c Spanish rice  – Bomba or Calasparra
  • 5 c fish stock
  • Pinch  of saffron
  • Salt to taste
  • Alioli

Noras peppers

Ñora sofrito

15 ñoras (small, dried red peppers)
4 oz Spanish extra virgin olive oil
2 red peppers
4 garlic cloves
24 ounces grated tomato puree
Salt to taste

Fish Stock

6 pounds fish bones
4 quarts water
2 heads garlic
4 c red bell peppers, large dice
4 ounces ñoras
4 ounces Spanish olive oil
Salt to taste
1 lobster


For the Paella: Put the extra virgin olive oil in a paella pan over high heat. When it is hot, sauté the pieces of lobster. Remove and reserve.

Add the chicken and sauté both sides. Add the morels and sauté. Add the ñora sofrito, rice and saffron. Sauté for a few minutes and cover with the paella stock. Set the timer for 5 minutes and cook the paella over high heat. Stir in the rice.

Once the five minutes is up, do not touch the rice! Lower the temperature and set the timer for 6 more minutes. When the timer goes off, add the lobster, shell side down, to the pan. Set the timer for 5 more minutes. Do not touch the rice! Once the timer goes off, remove from the heat and let the paella rest for 5 minutes. Serve with alioli on the side.

Note:  By not touching the rice, that incredible crust, the socarrat, develops.  Trust me, you want that to happen.

Ñora sofrito

Deep fry the ñoras (small, dried red peppers) and set aside. Heat the olive oil and sauté the peppers until they get soft. Add the fried ñoras and cook until they get soft. Add the garlic and cook until the mixture has a nice brown color; add the tomato pulp and reduce. Pour the mix into a blender and add salt to taste. Add a little water to the pan to get the pan flavor, and add to the blender, mix until you get a thick paste consistency.

Caldo de pescado (Fish Stock)

Place bones, water, and lobster in large stockpot. Bring to a boil and simmer for approximately 1 hour. In another pot, heat olive oil. When hot, add red peppers, cook until tender. Remove and set aside.

In the same oil, add the garlic cloves. Cook until brown. Remove and reserve. In the same oil, add the ñoras. Cook until a little soft. In a large container, blend tomato sauce, garlic, red peppers and ñoras. Add mix to fish stock and simmer for approximately 1 hour.  Strain and season to taste. Let cool.

When Paella Goes Global – Filipino Bringhe

Given that the Philippines was occupied for a period of time by the Spanish, its no surprise that they have their own version of paella, bringhe.  I had to share this video, as this version sounds amazing.


Update me when site is updated

19 comments for “Paella: Spain’s Use of Rice and Elevating It to Culinary Perfection

  1. September 15, 2011 at 9:41 AM

    Yes, paella is a regional dish and far from being the only Spanish speciality that is well-known or worth trying… I guess it’s laidback aspect is what attracts foreign people.

    That paella sounds amazing! What a fabulous combination of flavors.



  2. September 15, 2011 at 1:46 PM

    Thanks for all the info on paella! As always, very informative! Your paella recipe sounds great. I love paella but have never made it myself.

    Have a great trip!
    Andrea@WellnessNotes recently posted..$100 American Express Gift Card Giveaway and Six Ingredient Dinner

  3. September 16, 2011 at 1:05 AM

    I keep thinking of this one Top Chef season when a Honduran (?) Top Chef contestant shouted happily, “PAELLA!” That scene was funny for some reason. Oh and Toby pronouncing “Paella” with a “L.” Hee hee.

    Hope you have a great trip to Spain! I’m jealous.
    sophia recently posted..Boys Have Cooties

  4. September 17, 2011 at 10:02 AM

    I’ve had a problem with it getting a bit soggy and when I was in Spain, I noted that they slipped a newspaper over the dish yet under the lid for a few minutes. That was the trick that I’d been missing to absorb the additional liquid.
    tammy recently posted..Tammy’s Top Ten (t3 report) Things to Keep in the Pantry

  5. September 17, 2011 at 3:26 PM

    I love the tradition “cooked by men”. :) A trip to Valencia, how exciting! That has been high on my list for when we make it to Spain as well. I would love to try paella from the source. I enjoyed watching people make it in the large pans at some of the outdoor markets we’ve been to in Europe. It’s such a pretty (and delicious) dish!
    Lori recently posted..Mini Peanut Butter Apple Pies

  6. OysterCulture
    September 17, 2011 at 3:35 PM

    Rosa – Totally agree, its one of those dishes that shouts “party!” to me, very communal, I’d never think to make it just for myself.

    Andrea – I can say I’ve never had a bad dish with Jose, he is a genius and I happy sample anything at his restaurants or from his recipes.

    Sophia – I’ve not had a chance to watch much TVm but that sounds hilarious!

    Tammy – Ah newspaper. It sounds like a great idea, my Persian friend does something similar with a paper towel. I’d be a bit concerned about the ink leaking in to my dish, but very clever none the less.

    Lori – I know, there’s a whole host of foods out there like that, sushi comes to mind as our women’s hands are too warm. I’ve never had a paella cooked with the branches of orange and pine trees and cannot wait to try and see the difference.

  7. September 18, 2011 at 12:55 AM

    Love paella, esp. when properly prepared with real fish stock.
    Angie@Angiesrecipes recently posted..Pumpkin Maple Cookies with Quark Frosting

  8. September 18, 2011 at 2:56 PM

    I too adore paella. However, I’m a bit disappointed to think I have not been properly preparing it. I’ve never used that type of rice for one. Uh oh, I must consider your version because one of the only “speciality” pans I own is indeed a Paella pan.

    Thanks for sharing, LouAnn. I just love to learn new things when I visit. Have a wonderful time in Spain!!! Bring back lots of goodies:)
    Louise recently posted..Cooking with the Stars

  9. September 18, 2011 at 3:56 PM

    Fabulous and informative article! I have been to Valencia, but didn’t have paella, darn it! Thanks so much for the recipes and videos too, LouAnn – you are a wealth of information!

  10. September 20, 2011 at 12:51 PM

    I recently found bomba rice at a local grocery store. I’ve been saving it for a special paella occasion. Now, if I could find Nora peppers. Have a fantastic time in Spain!
    lisaiscooking recently posted..Steamed Clams and Basil Pesto

  11. September 25, 2011 at 6:04 PM

    When we visited Spain in the 1990s paella was at every restaurant in many varieties, though I’ve never had the true Valencian one, I like to make seafood paella at home. We actually bought a coated paella pan from Corte Ingles while in Barcelona. They make great and dramatic dinner party meals.

    As to the food that typifies Spain, I’d have guessed jamon serrano.
    Stevie recently posted..potato omelet with zucchini blossoms

  12. September 27, 2011 at 8:02 AM

    I can’t wait to hear all about Spain and where you ended up visiting! I remember the first time I had paella – I think I was fifteen and a much older cousin of mine was dating a guy from Spain – they made a fire outside and cooked this amazing dish on a super huge pan. It was one of those meals you never forget.
    I love your version with lobster!
    gastroanthropologist recently posted..Peach Vinaigrette + Spiced Pecans

  13. September 28, 2011 at 1:23 PM

    Nothing beats an authentic paella. L♥ve the spices, the saffron-flavored rice, seafood, chicken and everything else in it. The last time I had an amazing one was in Valencia, Spain. It was to die for!

  14. October 1, 2011 at 12:10 PM

    Enjoy your time away……I too am a Paella fiend!
    Kitchen Butterfly recently posted..7 Links: The Most Beautiful, Helpful and ‘Downright’ Controversial!

  15. October 1, 2011 at 8:02 PM

    Paella is such a festive, convivial affair. The Spanish really know how to enjoy life with great food and wine. 😉
    Carolyn Jung recently posted..What is Portland, Ore.? (Part II)

  16. October 7, 2011 at 11:20 AM

    Such a great post! I recently made paella, but did a non-traditional vegetarian version. Hope you are having an amazing trip :)
    Magic of Spice recently posted..What’s on the side? Roasted Vegetable Fillo Triangles – A Guest Post

  17. October 24, 2011 at 4:14 PM

    I love paella!I love making it for parties….it is always a delicious and beautiful dish!
    Erica recently posted..Avocado Filled with Chicken (Aguacate Relleno de Pollo)

  18. November 2, 2011 at 11:28 AM

    MMMMMMMMMM,…I love a good paella. Recently, I was in Malaga & tasted the best paella I savoured in ages, in a typical classic modern restaurant. Thanks for this useful info!
    A tasty paella with lobster in it too! waw!

  19. November 15, 2011 at 7:36 PM

    I am so JEALOUS that you are traveling to Spain. Not only do you get to eat your way through the country, you’ll be enjoying authentic saffron laced paella! Thanks for sharing Jose Andres’ recipe. Impressive that the fish stock calls for a whole lobster to be thrown in.
    Christine @ Fresh Local and Best recently posted..Spicy Apple Orange Cranberry Sauce

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is using OpenAvatar based on