What is Paella?
First off, the word paella actually refers to the pan in which the dish is prepared, which is traditionally wide in diameter and rather shallow, with two handles on each side and normally black in color. People sometimes call this pan a “paellera” but this isn’t technically correct, but it has become an accepted term.
Paella is a rice dish that originated in the epicenter of Spain’s most famous rice-growing region: Valencia, more specifically in the marshy estuary known as the Albufera. It was originally a humble workers dish that used a variety of ingredients that were readily available in the area: rice, chicken, rabbit, snails, etc. The use of this type of pan was both for its ability to cook rice evenly, but also because it was perfect for sharing among several people. Paella used to be cooked on an open fire in the fields.
Another very common crop in Valencia are oranges, and the wood from this tree is the traditional kindling used when cooking paella on an open fire. This wood, as you can imagine, has a very particular smell and smoke, which adds another layer of flavor to the Paella. The first gas paella maker was invented by chef Salvador Ten Montoliu (1897-1974), who patented the device in 1950.
The exact ingredients of the original recipe is a subject of much debate. The most popular modern varieties are Valencian Paella, Seafood Paella, and Mixed Paella which includes meat and/or poultry. The two essential ingredients however are rice and saffron, both of which were introduced in Spain separately.
Rice was brought to the Iberian Peninsula by Alexander the Great in the year 330 BC. Alexandre had taken the crop from India after several incursions into the Asian continent. Saffron on the other hand is one of the Earth’s most ancient crops and was brought to Spain by the Moors during their occupation of the peninsula.
It took a long time however for Europeans to use rice as we do today. Rice was used more as flour and for cooking porridge or puré. It was also considered to be peasant food and too unrefined to be featured on an aristocratic table.
The first evidence of rice being used as it is today came during the XV century when mentions of rice boiled in beef stock and cooked with different meats begin to appear in books and articles of the time. In this period both “Arroz a la Valenciana” the precursor to Paella, and Risotto are starting to be developed into proper dishes.
Paella would get an official recipe in the XVIII century and the dish becomes wildly popular all across Europe, as does Spanish rice. During the XX century, the popularity of Paella spread across the world. In fact, Paella was one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s favorite dishes he enjoyed at the swanky Delmonico Restaurant in NY.
As for the ingredients of Paella, the government of Valencia established the official ingredients to make a proper Valencian paella as follows: chicken, rabbit, bajoqueta (Valencian green been, garrofón (a large Valencian white bean), tomato, rice, olive oil, water, saffron, and salt. Also, depending on the region of Valencia, other ingredients are permitted as well such as garlic, artichoke, duck, paprika, snails, and rosemary. If any other ingredients are used, it cannot be considered an authentic Valencian Paella.
What is Fideuá?
Fideuà, which basically means a lot of noodles in Valenciano is another invention from the region, and not, as many think, from Catalonia. Fideuá is a seafood dish that shares some similarities with paella but is closely related to another seafood rice dish known as Arroz a banda, also from the region of Valencia.
Fideuá uses short hollow noodles instead of rice, cooked in fish stock, with fish (commonly used are rockfish, monkfish, cuttlefish or squid), and shellfish (prawns, shrimp, etc.). It is usually accompanied by lemon or ali oli.
Legend has it that the dish was invented by the cook of a Gadia fishing boat by the name of Gabriel Rodriguez Pastor. The story goes that the skipper of the boat loved rice, so much so, that he would frequently finish the entire boat rations, leaving none for the rest of the fishermen. As a solution, the cook substituted the rice in his Arroz a banda recipe for noodles, in the hopes that the resulting dish would be less appetizing for the captain. The dish became so popular on the boat and in the harbor that restaurants such as the “Pastaora House” began serving it and quickly became distinctive and essential in the area.