Not Hemingway's Spain: Paella Valenciana - the good, the bad, and the ugly

Not Hemingway's Spain: Paella Valenciana – the good, bad, and ugly

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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.

The Good

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:

Not Hemingway's Spain: Paella Valenciana - the good, the bad, and the ugly
My mother-in-law makes paella Valenciana like a pro.

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.

Not Hemingway's Spain: Paella Valenciana - the good, the bad, and the ugly
 To quote one newspaper, "El ADN del plato autóctono (The DNA of the native plate) is: aceite (vegetable oil), pollo (chicken), conejo (rabbit), ferraura/bajoqueta (a local green bean), garrafó (a local white bean), tomate, agua (water), sal (salt), azafrán (safron), arroz (the local Valencian rice)."

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.

Not Hemingway's Spain: Paella Valenciana - the good, the bad, and the ugly
Mmmmmm... 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.

Not Hemingway's Spain: Paella Valenciana - the good, the bad, and the ugly
Judging by appearances, Leftbanker's paella looked pretty auténtica to me.
Not Hemingway's Spain: Paella Valenciana - the good, the bad, and the ugly
The real secret to making an excellent paella Valenciana is visiting or living in Valencia where you have access to all the fresh regional ingredients, at places like this, Valencia's fantastic Mercat Central.
Not Hemingway's Spain: Paella Valenciana - the good, the bad, and the ugly
I'm not lying when I say that I don't mind people having a little fun with paella-making. One of my longtime favorite Valencia bloggers, Paella de Kimchi, made this Valencia-Korea fusion paella de kimchi. Experimental fun aside, you can tell from this recipe that these bloggers really know their stuff when it comes to preparing a paella, traditional or not.


The Bad

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.

 Not Hemingway's Spain: Paella Valenciana - the good, the bad, and the ugly
Never confuse arroz al horno with paella, much less paella Valenciana. This _other_ typical Valencian rice dish is made with a cazuela clay pot, and _does_ have pork ribs and chickpeas in it. Paella does not.
 Not Hemingway's Spain: Paella Valenciana - the good, the bad, and the ugly
"La corrucion, como la paella en ningun sitio, se hace como en Valencia." Translated, ignoring spelling errors: "Corruption, like paella, in no place do they make it like in Valencia."

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.

Tip: Paella, and particularly paella Valenciana, is from the Valencian Province, not Catalonia, not Castellón or Alicante, in a way, not even 'from Spain'. It is a simple dish, without bells and whistles. If you eat or make any other kind, be polite to Valencian pride and heritage and call it something else.
 Not Hemingway's Spain: Paella Valenciana - the good, the bad, and the ugly
Paella mixta, the scourge of Valencia pride. This blogger, Chow Times, faced two common pitfalls of eating paella outside of Valencia (in this case in Barcelona): 1) encountering this untraditional 'mixed' paella, which blends chicken meat with shellfish (bizarre), a combination that would offend any Valencian, and 2) soggy rice (Noooooooo!). Reading this entry broke my heart, when they wrote, "All Chinese don’t like soggy rice". Well, when it's paella, neither do Valencians!
 Not Hemingway's Spain: Paella Valenciana - the good, the bad, and the ugly
This paella, with red peppers, presents a more delicate political problem. This is a traditional paella recipe in Castellón. It is not paella Valenciana, but since Castellón is in the Comunidad Valenciana, many from this region were upset when the official paella Valenciana recipe excluded red peppers. All I can say to them is, again, there is a difference between the recipe paella Valenciana and paella 'from Valencia'!
 Not Hemingway's Spain: Paella Valenciana - the good, the bad, and the ugly
I'm a bit mystified by this 'paella catalana'. For starters, there is no traditional dish in Spain called paella catalana. Second, judging from the recipes listed at the link where I found this photo, these are variations on paella de marisco (one of many Valencian paellas). Third, this kind of lobster (bogavante) is not traditionally put in paella, but rather arroz meloso or arroz caldoso.

The Ugly

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 such is no longer the case.

Not Hemingway's Spain: Paella Valenciana - the good, the bad, and the ugly
From what I've seen in the States and online, paella caribeña appears to be a seafood-style fried rice dish with peas. But the two things which mark it as_very_ un-Valencian: 1) it is usually loaded with ingredients, drowning out the rice and simplicity, and 2) it uses long-grain rice instead of the special round Spanish variety.


Not Hemingway's Spain: Paella Valenciana - the good, the bad, and the ugly
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:

    "Paella Valenciana is a very popular succulent mix of paella with fresh chicken, sea-food and vegetables. You can customise your paella choice with your choice of shrimp, calamari, mussels, clams, scallops, crab claws, fish and lobster."

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.

Not Hemingway's Spain: Paella Valenciana - the good, the bad, and the ugly
You guys call this paella Valenciana? Are you kidding me? How did you get the licence for this domain name?

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:

Reprinted with permission of Not Hemingway's Spain.

Zach FrohlichOriginally 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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