What is Paella?

Chicken Paella

Almost everyone will have heard about the name of the dish paella. The fact that you hear it passing by does not mean you also know precisely what it is and why so many people in the world know the word paella.

In this post, we will discuss some of the main aspects and customs of paella.

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Table of contents

How to pronounce paella?

Before we get deeper 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 they are being swallowed and pronounced as a Y.

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 for a Y.

What exactly is paella?

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

This ultra-short summary, however, would do a great disservice to the rich tradition and history. That is why I would like to 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 Valencian region. It was, therefore, the Moors who initiated the first rice cultivation in Spain.

Because the Romans had in the previous centuries already developed irrigation, Valencia had an excellent location to grow rice. This was a large freshwater reservoir, nowadays known as Albufera.

Rice for festivities and to prevent starving

As soon as rice was grown in the region, people started to eat more rice dishes. The Valencian elite enjoyed the rice dishes during festive and other special occasions. The laborers in the rice fields on the other hand, purely out of necessity in order not to starve to death.

In the end, it was the laborers who gave the dish a big push towards the paella as it is today.

Throughout the rice-fields where they worked, they prepared meals from their own harvested rice. As rice alone was not nutritious and tasty enough, it was supplemented by literally everything they could find. Products such as snails, muskrats, ducks, local vegetables and herbs all went into the pan.

These ingredients were mingled with the rice, and the result was some kind of varied and nutritious meal.

Chicken and rabbit instead of rat

Over the years, prosperity increased, and instead of using muskrat, people started to use chicken and rabbit meat. Snails have never completely disappeared and are regularly used in several types of paella.

As you see, traditional paella doesn’t contain fish and seafood, but chicken, rabbit, and beans.

Up until today this is still the case and even goes that far that Paella Valenciana, as the dish is called nowadays, in 2014 has been declared as 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 particular flavor of its own; however, this is not the case.

The fact is that there is not only one single kind of paella. Yes, there is Paella Valenciana which is seen as the godfather of paella, but that is it.

Apart from this traditional, protected variety, there are many other types of paella — each with their ingredients and their specific taste.

Some popular paella types

  • Paella de Marisco – Shellfish and seafood paella.
  • Paella de Verduras – Vegetable paella, often vegetarian and filled with fresh vegetables.
  • Paella Mixta – Mixed paella, with chicken, fish, shellfish, and seafood.
  • Paella de Pollo – Chicken paella, with chicken and vegetables.

There is a comparable mixture of herbs in a lot of paella types. However, the differences in ingredients show that each paella has its specific taste.

Fish and paella

For many people from outside of Spain, Paella de Marisco and Paella Mixta are the most popular paella types. Because of this, it is often thought that paella always contains fish.

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

So how to find out which paella you like and which you don’t? The easiest way is to taste several different varieties.

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

If not, you’ll get a plate full of one variety, and there’s hardly anything left to share.

Choose the right restaurant

Make sure you choose a decent restaurant to eat paella.

Particularly in tourist areas, the quality sometimes leaves something to be desired.

Check at the locals where you can find ‘la mejor paella’ (the best paella). It will be a shame if you get crap.

In a good restaurant, you probably buy an excellent paella for just as much, or even less, money.

Why does paella have such a specific yellow color?

The specific yellow color of paella is a result of the spices and dyes that are added to it. “Dyes? Will you think? Yes, dyes.

Saffron for the taste

Saffron and paella are inextricably linked, and it is often thought the saffron added to paella gives it its specific yellow color.This is partly true since saffron contains an intense yellow dye.

However, the main reason for adding saffron to paella is for its taste, not for its color.

The amount of saffron that is added to paella is not enough to turn the entire paella yellow.

Yellow rice

Due to the yellowish color of paella, it is often thought that yellow rice is used. This is not the case either; paella rice is white.

Paella rice has a large absorption capacity. 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 such a bright yellow color?

Most of the time this is due to dyes, called ”colorante” in Spanish. Two major types of dyes are used in paella. Saffron extract is natural and tartrazine is a synthetic dye.

Saffron extract

Saffron extract is the pollen of the crocus from which the saffron is harvested.

Just like the pollen of 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 that is often used in yellow candy or desserts. Not completely unknown.

The downside of this substance, is that it can trigger hypersensitivity or hyperactivity in some cases.

For this reason, it is now banned in some countries.

When is paella eaten?

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

To the countryside in the weekend

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

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

Sunday, paella day

If paella is on the menu, the whole family gathers during the Sunday morning.

Delicious snacks and drinks are served, and the paella is being prepared.

After slogging with firewood, chicken, rice, and beans for a couple of hours, there is a generously filled paella 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.

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

Paella is a lunchdish

When you are in Spain on holiday 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 lunchtime.

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

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

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

Serving Paella

How is paella being served? In the pan!

The paella pan is an essential part of the dish paella. Not only because it allows you to prepare the dish in the right way, but it is also very useful for the presentation.

Serving paella in restaurants

Are you ordering paella in a restaurant? When the paella is ready, the waiter will come to your table with the paella pan and shows the paella.

You then get the opportunity to give compliments to the chef and see what will soon be on your plate.

After the waiter has shown the paella to the company, he usually puts it on a separate side table and serves a generous portion to everyone.

If you think the atmosphere in the restaurant allows it, you can ask to put the paella in the middle of the table and eat straight out of the pan.

In the higher-end restaurants, this is actually “not done,” and you’d better eat from your plate.

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

After serving, the pan is mostly empty and will be taken away by the waiter. If the pan is not yet empty, it will be left in place so you can take a second portion.

How to eat paella?

When the paella has been served, you can sprinkle some lemon on it. However, a well-prepared paella doesn’t need this, although it’s often done from habit.

Grab a spoon

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

Although it is not very practical to eat a big chunk of chicken with a spoon.

For the rice, on the other hand, it is quite handy. Paella rice should be slightly dry and loose in structure. This is not easy to do with a fork.

Crunchy socarrat

When you eat straight out of the pan, a spoonful is a useful tool to scratch the crunchy ‘socarrat’ from the bottom of the pan.

Socarrat is a caked (not burned!) layer on the bottom of the pan consisting of crispy rice, fat, leftovers 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 costs of paella

Most of the costs of paella are determined by the ingredients used.

A luxurious variety with lobster and fish is more expensive than a more simple version with vegetables and chicken.

Restaurant prices

If you are going to eat paella in a restaurant in Spain, you should take into account an amount of about $15 to $20 per serving.

For the most luxurious varieties with lobster or expensive types of meat, the costs can go up to $25 to $30 per meal.

In a good paella restaurant, the paella will be cooked on the spot, and you should take into account that you have to order paella for at least two people.

The costs of homemade paella

Are you going to cook your paella at home? In that case, you’ll spend roughly $10 to $15 on ingredients for a two-person chicken paella.

Are you using seafood and clams? Then you will quickly get to $15 to $20.

Earlier I indicated that a paella pan is an essential part of the paella. If you are going to cook paella at home, it is also recommendable to use a decent paella pan, whether or not on a paella burner.

The dish does not look beautiful in a frying pan, and you will often get a far too thick layer of rice that will make it soggy. A shame!

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