What is Paella?

Almost everyone has heard of paella. However, hearing the name in passing does not mean you also know precisely what paella is or why so many people all over the world have heard of paella. In this post, we will discuss some of the main characteristics and customs associated with paella.

What is paella Featured

How to pronounce ‘paella’?

Before delving into the subject of paella, I would like to focus on the word itself for a moment. In fact, how do you pronounce it?

Some say peal-la, others say pael-ya, and in Spain people say pae-ya. The Spanish are right, of course. The pronunciation is PAE-YA. “But what happened to the L’s?” you might wonder. Well, in Spanish two L’s combine to make a Y-sound.

Other words with a similar pronunciation are Lloret de Mar, Marbella and (for the soccer fans amongst us) Mestalla. These words are pronounced as Yoret de Mar, Marbe-ya and Mesta-ya. Replace the L’s with a Y.

What is paella, exactly?

In a nutshell, paella is a single-pan rice dish from the Valencia region in the east of Spain.

Leaving it at that, however, would do a great disservice to the rich tradition and history of paella, so let’s look at it in more detail.

Paella is more than a thousand years old

The first forms of paella are said to be more than a thousand years old.

During the tenth century, the Moors (North African Berbers and Arabs) controlled large parts of Spain. This was also the case in the region of Valencia. The Moors initiated rice cultivation in Spain.

Since the Romans had already developed irrigation in previous centuries, Valencia was an excellent location to grow rice with its large freshwater reservoir, known today as Albufera.

Rice for feasting and to prevent starving

As soon as rice was grown in the region, people began to eat more rice dishes. The Valencian elite enjoyed rice dishes at feasts and other special occasions. The laborers in the rice fields, on the other hand, ate them purely out of necessity, to keep from starving to death.

Ultimately, the laborers were instrumental in developing paella as we know it today. In the rice fields where they worked, they prepared meals from their own harvested rice. As rice alone was neither nutritious nor tasty enough, it was supplemented by literally anything they could find. Things like snails, muskrats, ducks, local vegetables, and herbs all went into the pan.

The flavors of these ingredients mingled with the rice, resulting in varied and nutritious meals.

Chicken and rabbit instead of rat

Over the years, the population prospered, and muskrat was replaced with chicken and rabbit. Snails never completely went out of style, and they are used regularly in several types of paella.

So you see, traditional paella does not contain fish and seafood, but rather chicken, rabbit, and beans.

This is still the case today, and in 2014 Paella Valenciana (recipe), as the dish is now known, was declared cultural heritage of the region of Valencia.

The taste of paella

Simply said, paella tastes like the ingredients from which it is made. Some people think paella has a distinctive flavor of its own, but this is not the case.

In fact, there is not one single kind of paella. Paella Valenciana is considered the godfather of paella, but it is far from the only one.

In addition to this traditional, protected variety, there are many other types of paella — each with their own ingredients and their own specific taste.

The most popular types of paella

There are similar mixtures of herbs in many types of paella, but the differences in ingredients give each paella its own specific taste.

Fish and paella

Many people from outside of Spain consider Seafood Paella and Mixed Paella to be the most popular paella types. Because of this, many believe that paella always contains fish.

Because of the fact that the traditional Paella Valenciana recipe contains no fish or shellfish, however, I can now disprove this myth for good. BUSTED!

So how do you discover which paellas you like and which ones you don’t? The easiest way is by tasting several different varieties.

At restaurants, you can often order paella for two or more people. When you are with friends or family, you can easily order several different varieties. Just tell the waiter in advance that it is ‘para compartir’ – to share – so he can take it into account when serving.

If not, you may get a plate full of one variety with hardly any space for sharing.

Choose the right restaurant

Make sure you choose a decent restaurant to eat paella. In tourist areas, in particular, the quality can leave something to be desired.

Ask the locals where you can find ‘la mejor paella’ (the best paella). It would be a shame if you got crap. In a good restaurant, you will most likely be able to buy an excellent paella for the same price, or even less than in an inferior restaurant.

Where does paella get its characteristic yellow color?

The characteristic yellow color of paella comes from the spices and dyes that are added to it. “Dyes?” Do you ask? Yes, dyes.

Saffron for taste

Saffron and paella are inextricably linked, and people often assume that the saffron added to paella is what gives it the characteristic yellow color. This is partly true since saffron has an intense yellow color.

However, the primary reason for adding saffron to paella is for the taste, not for the color. The amount of saffron added to paella is not enough to turn the entire paella yellow.

Yellow rice

The yellowish color of paella also leads people to believe that it is made with yellow rice. This is not the case either – paella rice is white.

Paella rice has a large capacity for absorption. Because of this, the rice can absorb up to three times its weight in moisture. When this moisture has a yellow color, you can imagine what it does to the color of the rice and the paella itself.

Natural and synthetic dye

So if it is not the saffron or the rice, then what gives paella its bright yellow color?

Most of the time it comes from dyes, known as “colorantes” in Spanish. Two major types of dyes are used in paella. Saffron extract serves as a natural dye, and tartrazine is a synthetic dye.

Saffron extract

Saffron extract is pollen harvested from the crocus. Just like the pollen from many other flowers, this pollen has a very intense yellow color. Perfect for coloring paella yellow!


Tartrazine, on the other hand, is produced synthetically and is a dye often used in yellow candy or desserts. It is not completely unheard of.

Unfortunately, this substance can trigger hypersensitivity or hyperactivity in some cases. For this reason, it is now banned in some countries.

When do people eat paella?

For many Spanish families in Valencia, paella is on the menu once a week – on Sunday afternoon.

Weekends in the countryside

Many families live in the busy city during the workweek and have a small country house (sometimes nothing more than a renovated barn) in the countryside, called ”el campo”.

On weekends, lots of people from the city travel to el campo to escape the heat and enjoy the outdoors and garden in their vegetable gardens.

Sunday is paella day

If paella is on the menu, the whole family gathers on Sunday morning. Delicious snacks and drinks are served while the paella is prepared.

After toiling over firewood, chicken, rice, and beans for a couple of hours, a generously filled paella appears on the large dining table around three in the afternoon.

Armed with a spoon, the family gathers around the pan and empties it until the last grain of rice.

Afterwards, tired and satisfied, the family starts the siesta.

Paella is a lunch dish

When you are in Spain on vacation, you can eat paella almost every day. Many restaurants are open at least six days a week.

Lunch is the most important meal in Spain, and paella is a typical lunch dish. Many restaurants serve it only during lunch.

If you are going to eat paella in a restaurant in Spain, make sure you arrive no later than 2:00 pm. At about 4:00 p.m. the restaurant will close again.

Are you going on the weekend? We recommend making a reservation in advance. Especially at the real arrocerias (rice restaurants), which can get crowded.

The reservation also allows you to indicate which paella you would like to eat, saving preparation time once you are in the restaurant.

How to serve paella

How do you serve paella? In the paella pan! The paella pan is an essential part of the paella – not only because it allows you to prepare the dish properly, but it is also a very big part of the presentation.

Serving paella in restaurants

Are you ordering paella in a restaurant? When the paella is ready, the waiter will bring the paella to your table in the pan and show it to you. At that time, you have the opportunity to give your compliments to the chef and see what is about to be served upon your plate.

After the waiter has shown the paella to your party, he usually places it on a separate side table and serves each person at the table a generous portion.

If the atmosphere in the restaurant is informal enough, you can ask for the paella to be placed in the middle of the table, so everyone can eat straight out of the pan. In higher-end restaurants, this is “not done,” however, and you’re best off eating from your plate.

The pieces of chicken or prawns are evenly divided, and each plate is served with some lemon.

After serving, the pan is mostly empty and will be taken away by the waiter. If the pan is not quite empty, it will be left on the table, so you can take a second helping.

How to eat paella

Once the paella has been served, you can sprinkle some lemon on it. This is customary, but a well-prepared paella actually doesn’t need it.

Grab a spoon

Next, grab a spoon, so you can eat. Spoon? Yes, spoon! Most Spanish people eat paella with a spoon.

Although eating a big chunk of chicken with a spoon is not very practical. For the rice, it comes in quite handy, on the other hand. Paella rice should be slightly dry and loose in structure. This is not an easy thing to eat with a fork.

Crunchy socarrat

When you eat straight out of the pan, the spoon is useful for scraping the crunchy ‘socarrat’ from the bottom of the pan.

Socarrat is a caked (not burned!) layer on the bottom of the pan that consists of crispy rice, fat, leftover bits from frying, and other flavors.

A good chef creates a nice thick layer of socarrat on purpose because it gives the paella much more flavor.

The cost of paella

The cost of paella is determined primarily by the ingredients used. A luxurious variety with lobster and fish is more expensive than a simpler version with vegetables and chicken.

Restaurant prices

If you are going to eat paella in a restaurant in Spain, you should expect to pay about $15 to $20 per serving. For the most luxurious varieties with lobster or expensive types of meat, the cost can reach $25 to $30 per serving.

In a good paella restaurant, the paella will be cooked to order, and you should be aware that you have to order paella for at least two people.

The cost of homemade paella

Are you going to cook your own paella? In that case, you’ll spend roughly $10 to $15 on ingredients for a two-person chicken paella. Are you making a seafood paella with shrimp and clams? If so, the price is more like $15 to $20.

Earlier, I mentioned that the paella pan is an essential part of the paella. If you are going to cook paella at home, you will want to use a decent paella pan, whether or not you cook over a paella burner.

This dish does not look beautiful in a frying pan, and often the layer of rice will be far too thick, leaving it soggy. And that’s a shame!

Feel like making your own paella?

Would you like to make your own delicious paella? Then take a look at the paella recipes page elsewhere on our site. There you will find the tastiest and most authentic paella recipes with meat, fish, shellfish, and crustaceans, or even completely vegetarian. Very tasty!

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