Paella, the origin, and development

Paella has developed in de region of Valencia in Spain

Although many people think that paella is eaten all over Spain, it has its origins in Valencia.

Even today, Valencia is the city in which people are very proud of their paella. You’ll find it everywhere on the menu. Only with authentic ingredients, of course!


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The origin of the word ‘paella.’

There is an old story about the creation of the dish itself. This is based on an 8th-century habit.

Moorish kings, in those days in control of large parts of Spain, regularly left behind some leftovers of chicken, rice or vegetables after their meal.

Their servants took these leftovers back home and used them to cook a meal. So the story goes that the word ‘paella’ comes from the Arabic word ‘baqiyah’: remains.

Another theory is that the word paella comes from the name of the pan in which it is prepared. This is the Latin term ‘patella,’ a flat plate on which sacrifices were made to the gods.

The latest theory is the most romantic version. It indicates that the word ‘paella’ is a corruption of the words ‘para Ella’. For her, in Spanish and suggesting that men often prepare the dish for their wives.

A nice thought!

Snails and rabbit

Although the theory of the Moorish servants who used the remains of the royal buffets is a nice one, we are quite sure that the modern paella originated mid-nineteenth century. The present-day paella originated in the area around the freshwater lake of Albufera, near the city of Valencia.

At lunchtime, the workers in the rice fields prepared the rice dish in a flat pan over a wood fire. The paella rice was mixed with everything they could find, such as snails and local vegetables.

On special occasions, more expensive ingredients such as rabbit and later also chicken were added. This created the authentic paella.

Combined heritage of Romans and Moors

The Romans first introduced irrigation in Valencia. After that, it was the Arab Moors who imported rice and started cultivating it.

This was done around the large freshwater lake of Albufera, just south of the city of Valencia.

Up until today, the best and most authentic paella is still produced in the Valencia region.

The Moors started cultivating rice in Spain around the 10th century. From that time on the Valencians made dishes from rice, fish, and spices more often. Mostly for family festivities and religious celebrations.

In this way, the use of rice became an integral part of Spanish cuisine at an early age.

From the fifteenth century, it became more common for chefs to combine rice with vegetables, beans and dried cod (bacalao).

On the east coast of Spain, rice was mainly eaten in combination with fish.

Water mouse meat and butter beans

In the 18th century, the Valencians used large pans to cook rice. This often happened on special occasions, in the open air, and between the orange trees.

Meat from the so-called water mouse (muskrat) was a common ingredient of the early paella. It was often combined with eel and butter beans (garrofons). Fortunately, nowadays there is no more water mouse meat in paella!

In the late 19th century the quality of life in Spain increased. Due to this development, more people were able to make trips to ‘el campo.’ The countryside! This development also led to a change in the ingredients of paella.

Instead of water mouse, rabbit, chicken, duck and sometimes snails were being used more frequently. This dish became that popular that in 1840 a local Spanish newspaper first used the word ‘paella’ to refer to the recipe instead of the pan.

The Authentic and Original Ingredients of Paella Valenciana

The most common, and a complete list of ingredients from the end of the 19th century was:

  • Paella rice
  • Chicken
  • Rabbit
  • Garrofons (local white beans)
  • Ferraura (local green beans)
  • Tomatoes
  • Saffron
  • Salt
  • Olive oil
  • Water

Up until today, these are the ten essential ingredients for an authentic paella!

The recipe itself has become a protected status. This means a paella may only be given the title Paella Valenciana if all the mentioned ingredients are used.

Several chefs from well-known paella restaurants from the Valencia region have founded a foundation named Wikipaella. This foundation wants to clear up misunderstandings and make sure the correct information about paella is shared.

This to protect the cultural heritage of the Valencia region. To put it another way: don’t mess with paella!

The spread of Paella to other regions

On the Mediterranean coast, seafood and fish were frequently used instead of meat and beans.

These ingredients are also considered authentic, but the dish may no longer be called Paella Valenciana.

When the seafood is used in the scale or shell, you can often see this dish on the menu called Paella de Marisco. Once the shells have been removed, the name Arroz Senyoret is usually used.

During the 20th century, paella became more and more popular and spread further through Spain, and eventually also beyond its borders.

This development led to a massive increase in varieties and often people do not know what a real paella is anymore. In many places, the dish has changed from a simple, but oh so delicious, country dish to a culinary delight. It is often decorated with exotic ingredients like a wide range of seafood, different meats or sausages and lots of different herbs.

Partly because of this, the dish is known by many people only as a dish with clams, prawns, and squid.

However, for the best authentic paella, you still end up in Valencia. Most of the time the traditional variant with a fixed list of ingredients is prepared there.

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