La paella, the origin


Today we are here with a very tasty post. Yes, today we are going to talk about one of the most delicious typical Spanish dishes.
In one of our latests workshop for Centro MundoLengua (one of the best Spanish Academy in Seville) someone became interested in the story of paella. And we thought … why not include that story in a post, so our readers could also enjoy it?

This is the result.

La Paella

Internationally recognized, this is a national staple dish from Spain, alongside the potato egg tortilla, and the star dish in every get together. Cooked on a wood fire, preferably pine wood; it has always been eaten, still to this day, in the same dish used to cook it.

It’s one of the tourist attractions of our country for food lovers, and there simply is no tourist who does not succumb to a delicious serving of paella.

But, what is the origin of this dish?

Paella emerged in rural areas of Valencia between the 15TH and 16TH centuries, because of the need for farmers and shepherds to have an easy meal to make and transport, and to be able to do it with ingredients that were at hand in the field (vegetables, rabbit, chicken, snails). To be more precise in the lagoons of Albufera, product of natural leaks of the waters off the Valencian coast of the Mediterranean Sea, an area of where the first crops of rice in it Iberian Peninsula were cultivated. Later becoming one of the icons of Spanish gastronomy to this day.

It is one of those dishes that can be prepared virtually with any ingredient, each master uses whichever they like the most and there are never two paellas alike. There’s simply no recipe that unifies the great variety of possibilities of this dish.

Already in 1818, Francisco de Paula Martí mentioned in a small annex, talking about the use and consumption of rice [1], one of the first recipes of the Valencian-style rice. This description shows just how popular the dish was in the early 19TH century, and how it was starting to be replicated in other regions.

This popularity has made paella undergo some transformations from the original recipe of paella valenciana (made with chicken, duck, rabbit and snails) to some other variants, such as the seafood paella, made with a combination of fish and/or shellfish (originating in the Alicante area), the mixed paella, occasionally also known as surf and turf, which consists of a mixture of beef and seafood (or fish), and the mountain paella, which incorporates different typical products of each region, such as ribs, rabbit, chicken, sausage or mushrooms. And finally, the two more variants: black rice, made with squid ink, arroz con costra, originated in Elche and mentioned in the Llibre de Coch from Ruperto de Nola in 1520; and the arroz a bandas, made with seafood, whose distinguishing feature is that it has to be made with a good fish and seafood fumé (rich fish stock).

Rice, the main ingredient of the Valencian paella, is grown in the province of Valencia, in large rice fields. That is the case of the “bomba” rice, a medium to short-length grain with the particular feature of absorbing more stock that the rest. This is the most often one used for making paellas.

Saffron is added to give the dish more flavor and aroma.

Paella got its name from the particular pan in which it is made, because the word “paella” in Valencian means “frying pan”, with the same origin as the deprecated Castilian term “padilla”, which came from Valencia, from the French, at the end of the 16TH century.

Its Latin origin comes from the word “patella”, which in Latin means “pan”, losing the – t ending in the word “paella”.

Other authors describe the origin of the word as Italian, which came to Spain from Naples, when this port city belonged to the Spanish Crown, arguing that the first mention referred to belongs to the recipe book of Bartolomeo Scappi, head chef for the Pope Pius V in the 16TH century, where the word “padella” appears in an engraving of his book Opera, where it already appears with the same meaning it uses today.

The word paella in Spanish was synonymous with ‘Valencian rice’ or ‘Valencian-style rice’ (as a Valencian dish) from the 1900s.

The name of the Pan: Paella or paellera?

As stated in the Valencian Community: “paella yes, paellera no”. Because in Valencian, paella means pan and ‘paellera’ would be the woman responsible for cooking it, not the utensil used for cooking it. However, in the rest of Spain people call ‘paellera’ the vessel where it’s cooked.

The Real Academia Española (Royal Academy for Spanish) admits both words for a while now, but recalling in its etymology that this means “pan”.

Thus, this is called paella in Valencia and paellera in the rest of Spain.

Theoretically, each paella or paellera is sized for a certain quantity of rice, although dimensions vary wildly according to needs or ways of cooking paellas from every chef. One of the traditional ways of measuring rice is to pour it into the pan in a cross or blades shape, from handle to handle of the pan, letting the stock rise above, and this, in turn, should meet the marks where the screws of the handles of the pan are.

Do you like Paella? 🙂 Come to Spanish by Doing and enjoy it!

¡Hasta pronto!


[1] ALONSO DE HERRERA, Gabriel | Agricultura General. Capítulo adicional de Francisco de Paula Martí. Madrid, Imprenta Real, 1818, Tomo 1, págs. 189-197

About the Author

Somos Alicia Duarte y Nuria Camacho, profesoras de español para extranjeros y apasionadas por la enseñanza. Nos encanta ayudar a personas interesadas en aprender español y guiarlos hacia sus objetivos.

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