Not Hemingway's Spain: Paella Valenciana – the good, bad, and ugly
Valencia's traditional paella rice dish shows up on menus around the world, as do many questionable 'paella Valenciana' mixtures. Zach Frohlich brings it back to source.
I've grown to acquire the Valencians' sense of pride as well as profound irritation with all the misunderstanding out there surrounding this region's signature rice dishes, and above all, paella Valenciana. I recently contributed a series of entries on my mother-in-law's classic paella Valenciana recipe to The Spain Scoop, and in the process discovered some egregious examples of "paella valenciana" (in scare quotes) floating around out there in the blogosphere and worldwide web.
Consider this post my effort to clear up the record and call out some erroneous ideas out there about paella, what's in it, and where it's from.
It's my blog, so you'll have to forgive my pretension for listing my mother-in-law's version here among the good versions of paella Valenciana, but her recipe really is great, and follows the guidelines of the recent informal denominación de origen conferred on paella Valenciana. If you haven't already, I encourage you to take a moment and review those three entries at The Spain Scoop:
1) 'How to make my mother-in-law's Valencian paella – part 1': In part 1, I outline the basic components of the dish, listing the ingredients you will need, while sketching out some of the common misconceptions about the dish and what is used to prepare it.
2) 'How to make my mother-in-law's Valencian paella – part 2': This second entry is probably the most useful of the three – where I lay out instructions on how to prepare and cook all the ingredients, to actually make a paella Valenciana.
3) 'How to make my mother-in-law's paella Valenciana – part 3': And here I wrap it up by describing how it is served, and how Valencians love the crusted burnt layer of rice at the bottom of the paella pan, known as socarrat.
I've seen a few expats and Americans who have managed to accurately recreate this dish, so you don't have to be a card-carrying Valencian to do so. Fellow Valencia expat blogger, Leftbanker, posted a picture of what is undeniably authentic paella valenciana on his blog. (He particularly won me over with this hilarious rant about the English-speaker's tendency to mispronounce paella.) My Kitchen in Spain, Janet Mendel's fun culinary blog, creatively plays around with the paella recipe on her blog, though she's careful never to mislabel it paella Valenciana, so I don't hold it against her. And Mendel says that you can find the authentic recipe for paella Valenciana in her book, My Kitchen in Spain (2002) (I'll have to trust her, since I don't own it).
However, it is very hard to make the _real_ paella Valencianawell if you live outside of Spain, since the fresh staples that form the base of this dish aren't grown outside the Valencian province.
But in preparing blog entries on paella and Valencian rice dishes I have begun to uncover what I believe are the two main sources of many of the erroneous paellas Valencianas circulating online and especially among the foreign expats and tourists.
Source of confusion 1: There is no traditional paella (Valenciana or otherwise) which has any of the ingredients found in that other classic Valencian rice dish, arroz al horno, such as: costillas de cerdo (pork ribs... or really any kind of pork), morcilla, potato, garlic, chickpeas. If you find any of these ingredients, you know that the chef is dazed and confused about the traditions of paella-making.
Tip: Just because it's paella, it's traditional, and it's traditionally from Valencia, doesn't mean it's traditional paella Valenciana. I think a lot of people are confusing the ingredients which appear in other traditional Valencian rice dishes with fair-game paella ingredients, and are maybe also thinking that paella de marisco, a very traditional Valencian paella, is _the_ paella Valenciana... which it is not.
Source of confusion 2: Outside the Valencian province, some other paellas have appeared which day-tripping tourists to Spain have understandably taken to be the auténtico thing, but which are also far from traditional Valencian dishes. For any fans of 'paella mixta' (Madrid's mixed seafood and chicken version of the paella dish), or to those of you from Castellón who want to put red pepper in your paella, fine! Do it! But paella Valenciana it is not. I'm a believer in culinary innovation (here I depart ways with many of my more hardcore Valencian readers), but these variations on Valencia's paellas would turn the nose of any Valencian.
But where things get ugly is the use of the term paella Valenciana to sell any and every kind of fried rice dish abroad. One point of confusion is that there is a paella caribeña recipe floating out there. I don't know where it was originally from, or how traditional it is, but it is often sold in the States with the title 'Spanish paella', which it is not. Why not?
Well, first and foremost because it uses regular white rice. And this leads to the other serious infraction in the States: the mistaken idea that making 'Spanish fried rice' or 'saffron rice' is all it takes to call something paella. No! You need to use the special Valencian round-grain rice to make it (i.e. arroz bomba, as in 'Arroz de Valencia' or even the Murcian Calasparra). (And, no, you can't just substitute the completely different Italian Arborio rice, used in risotto!) Perhaps you once had the excuse in the States that it was hard to find arroz bomba, but with LaTienda.com such is no longer the case.
|Socarrat's peculiar paella menu.
As I said at the start, in my online searches I ran across a lot of tragically hilarious faux pas paellas of fancy U.S. restaurants or catering services claiming to sell paella Valenciana and yet even the most cursory glance can tell you it was a serious screw up of the region's most famous dish. For example, the fancy New York City 'paella bar' (whatever that is) called Socarrat in Chelsea lists some bizarre paellas on its menu. Again, I have no complaints about mixing it up and innovating, so I was keeping an open-minded about them as I read their menu (though I've never heard of eggplant in a paella). Until I saw it, the 'Valenciana'... with pork ribs and asparagus. Yikes!
And I'm not sure what to say to well-meaning culinary bloggers who, in their misinformation and sloppiness, put up recipes for "paella Valencia" with chorizo in it, or ones that put up a correct meat recipe for paella Valenciana but for some reason post a picture of paella de marisco (?). It is thanks to these many bloggers and recipe posters that a google image search of paella Valenciana turns up a lot of false, baroque misrepresentations of Valencia's simple, humble dish.
But do you wanna get a Valencian _really_ mad? Point them to this American (San Diego based) catering website: Paella Valenciana, Paella Catering You Can Trust. Yes, folks! The company that has managed to corner the online domain name for 'paella Valenciana dot com' is selling the world's biggest fake for paella Valenciana!!! Here I quote for you the caption under their menu entry for the dish:
Where does one start when critiquing this? (Well, with the obvious, that the dish doesn't have sea-food in it.) How American of them is it to offer tailor-made paellas Valencianas. Don't consider this a gripe. I'm just howling with laughter at the utter disregard Americans can give to European traditions and importance placed on authenticity, even as they are capitalising off the mystique of European traditions and history.
So let's making this shaming process an official game. I hereby offer you the "Paella Hall of Shame". If you find a picture, recipe, restaurant, or website online that is perpetuating these preposterous paellas, make a comment here. In turn, if you are one of the shamed and have changed your evil ways, post here, and we promise to remove the link or mention of you.
The Paella Hall of Shame:
- How to cook paella – Gordon Ramsay Recipe
- Paella Valenciana, Paella Catering You Can Trust (San Diego, U.S.A.)
- Socarrat Paella Bar (NYC, U.S.A.)
- LaPaella.co.uk (Aberdeen, U.K.) – again, claims prime URL real estate but then confuse paella mixta with paella Valenciana... And _broccoli_ in the vegetable paella? I've never heard of that.
- Antonio Banderas's Paella – which in 2011 caused a scandal in Valencia for its use of chorizo, among other very unorthodox ingredients. (Here on Univisión he says the secret to paella is el sofrito, but then lists some bizarre ingredients. Though in fairness, he states here in a Brazilian show that, "Es la paella mía," and not the Valenciana'. Judging from his accounts, it's a paella mixta with substitutions that apparently Banderas finds in Chinatown markets.)
Originally from Austin, Texas, Zach Frohlich has been traveling between Spain and the U.S. for over a decade, and has been living in Valencia for the last few years. He is a historian by training and is married to a Spaniard. He shares cultural insights on Spain at Not Hemingway's Spain.
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