A paella by any other name…
Defining paella, and why Spanish people argued that the original paella emoji was only “rice with stuff”
When most Americans who have any experience with Spain think of Spanish food, they probably think of paella. Paella, as we non-Spanish-natives know it, is a rice dish that has meat and vegetables and is cooked in a flat pan. It’s the food that travelers most frequently encounter, illustrated on sandwich boards outside restaurants to lure in unsuspecting visitors with promises of The Best Paella in Town!
Mentiras.1 The truth is, paella is a complicated dish, and most of what you’ll find in those touristy eateries isn’t even actual paella. In fact, the term paella and the meal’s contents are rather controversial.
The Spanish, much like the French and the Italians, take their food seriously. Cuisines are often highly regional, and paella is no different. While the dish is now enjoyed all over Spain, it originated in the province of Valencia in the 19th century. In fact, although tourists may think of paella as a Spanish food, most people from Spain actually think of paella as a Valencian food.2 Similar to gazpacho, it was a meal primarily eaten by farmers and field workers due to its ability to be cooked over an open fire, its ease of transport, and its potential to feed a large group of people. Interestingly, one source states that paella actually started as a breakfast food, although now it’s typically eaten for lunch.3
Similar to how sparkling wine can only be called champagne if it comes from the French region of the same name, paella valenciana carries a Denominación de Origen.4 That means that in order to be called paella valenciana, the dish may only include the following ingredients:
Green beans (the flat kind, sometimes called romano beans)
Garrafón (a special type of white bean similar to large lima beans)
While the DO does allow a specific list of nontraditional ingredients such as artichoke and duck, dishes that include these ingredients are required to be classified as paella de [insert city/region here] since true Valencian paella only has the components listed above.
So what does this have to do with emojis? Way back in 2014, a Valencian ad executive named Guillermo Navarro decided to lobby the tech world to create a paella emoji as a way to promote the rice brand of a client. After consulting famous chef José Andrés and talking with and subsequently being ignored by several companies in Silicon Valley, Navarro decided that the only way to get the emoji powers that be (formally known as the Unicode Consortium) to pay attention to him was to show them just how many people wanted a paella emoji. He launched a Twitter campaign that had over 20,000 tweets and led to the debut of the much-anticipated emoji in December 2016.
But there was a problem. When the Spanish people saw the emoji, they revolted (okay, slight exaggeration— they angrily tweeted about it and several media outlets covered the controversy). The paella emoji, instead of showing the traditional ingredients listed above, displayed shrimp, mussels, and peas. That emoji wasn’t paella; it was “arroz con cosas.”5 Luckily, the Unicode Consortium quickly changed the icon to represent the classic version of the dish, and order was restored to the universe (I say this a bit tongue-in-cheek, but food emojis can actually be quite political. See the Vox article linked at the bottom for more on this).
Earlier in 2016, Jamie Oliver had also felt the wrath of paella enthusiasts due to his addition of chorizo to his own version of the dish. Unlike Silicon Valley, Oliver was not repentant of his fallo6, and he even went on to say that paella tastes better with the chorizo. I can imagine many of Jamie’s cookbooks somehow found their way to the basura7 shortly after.
Although paella valenciana was awarded its DO way back in 2011, that clearly didn’t stop US tech bros and UK top chefs from butchering its recipe. As a result, this past November, paella was officially given protected status by the government of Valencia, who declared the dish an item of cultural significance. The bulletin8 also professed September 20 as World Paella Day, a holiday I’ll be happy to take part in this fall.
According to Wikipaella (which was founded by Navarro, the same ad exec from emoji fame), there are only three acceptable forms of authentic paella: arroz a banda, paella de conejo y caracoles, and paella valenciana. The first stars fish and seafood, the second rabbit and snails, and the third is the traditional preparation laid out above. You can find out more about the exact ingredients here.
These may be the only verdadera9 paella preparations, but that doesn’t mean that they’re the only rice dishes accepted in Spain. You can find all sorts of them, but they’re technically arroces10 and not paella. Some dishes feature arroz seco like traditional paella, but others are prepared as arroces caldosos or arroces melosos. What’s the difference? Arroz seco means “dry rice” and is a dish in which all the liquid is absorbed. Arroz caldoso is “broth-like rice” and has to be eaten with a spoon due to its soupy texture.11 Arroz meloso, roughly translated as “honey thick rice,” is the middle point of the other two.
I love paella (who doesn’t?), but I very rarely eat it out at restaurants. I’m incredibly spoiled and David has perfected how to cook the traditional Valencian version at home. The recipe we use is very similar to the one shared by José Andrés recently in his own newsletter. However, we do use water in place of chicken stock (like Andrés explains, simmering the bone-in chicken and rabbit pieces low and slow makes a rich caldo12) and instead of using canned tomatoes we grate fresh tomatoes into a pulp. We frequently make paella for David’s family for lunch on Sundays, as is tradition in Valencia, but we’re not too proud to make it for dinner (usually still on the weekend since the process does take a couple of hours).
A few other random notes and facts about paella:
Unlike most rice dishes in the US, paella is made with short grain rice. Arroz bomba and arroz bahía are the two most-recommended varieties for the best result.
If you’re going to cook paella at home, it’s best to do it over an open flame or using a gas ring to evenly distribute the heat.
One of the best parts of paella (and other arroz seco) is the socarrat. Socarrat is the Valencian word for the caramelized layer of rice on the bottom of the cooking pan. It’s slightly charred, slightly crunchy, and highly delicious.
The pan in which you cook the paella is super important. If you use a pan that’s too small the layer of rice will be too thick and won’t cook evenly, since the grains near the bottom will spend more time simmering in the broth compared to those on top. Be careful about the portion sizes listed by the cookware brands: our pan (with an outer diameter of 55 cm, or a little over 21.5 inches) is recommended for serving 10-12 people, but we use it for 4-5 servings to achieve a thinner layer of evenly-cooked rice (also important for getting that socarrat!).
Speaking of pans, the word paella is actually the name of the pan used to cook the rice dish. The food itself used to simply be called arroz, but today the RAE accepts the use of paella to describe the meal, too. But only if it follows the Valencian guidelines!
There is a lot to say about paella, so in the interest of not putting you to sleep (or making you ravenous), I’ll stop here. If you’re interested in reading more, here are some additional sources I used in my research and a few other websites and articles of interest:
How to Eat Paella Tutorial from Wikipaella
La paella tradicional valenciana ya tiene su Denominación de Origen (Traditional Valencian paella finally has its Designation of Origin) from Levante-EMV
The Secret History of the Paella Emoji from Food and Wine
El emoji de la paella auténtica frente al arroz con cosas (The Paella Emoji Versus Rice with Stuff) from El Diario
Time for you to talk! Have you ever had “paella,” and if so, did it fit into the traditional definition? Are there any controversial dishes in your culture or where you live? Let me know in the comments!
On paella as a Spanish food vs. Valencian food: I feel like people from the US sometimes view European countries as a homogenous entity. Decor, traditions, etc are often described as being “very European” but what does that even mean? Europe is comprised of many countries with very distinct cultures. The same thing happens when thinking of Spain: Americans likely envision the beaches and sangria of the south much more frequently than hearty stews like fabada and the rainy region of the northwest.
Paella for breakfast: I could not find any other sources to corroborate this, but I found it interesting considering now it’s standard to eat paella only for lunch. See more about this “rule” and others in a previous newsletter I wrote.
Denominación de origen: Designation of origin
Arroz con cosas: Rice with stuff
Bulletin protecting paella’s status: If you speak Spanish (or Valencian), you should really check out the linked decree. It has a lot of interesting information about the history and cultural significance of paella in Valencia.
Arroces: Rice dishes
On eating arroz caldoso with a spoon: Some paella traditionalists argue that paella valenciana should also be eaten with a spoon, a wooden one to be exact. This is how it was historically eaten, scooping the rice straight from the pan.
10 Crimes Against Paella article: Although in Spanish, you can get the idea by scrolling through the pictures, which demonstrate a variety of attempts to innovate the traditional dish.