Paella: The Popular Spanish Dish that Has Evolved for Centuries

by Kristine - 14 June 2015

A flavorful rice dish like no other that is known worldwide for its unique taste, Paella was first prepared by farmers in the Valencia region of Spain.

It is in Valencia where irrigation was first introduced by the Romans and where the rice brought by the Arabs was grown. It is for this reason that Valencia is particularly famous for these speciality rice dishes, which are considered as the most authentic and delicious in all of Spain.

A dish that has evolved for centuries, Paella started life as a perfect manifestation of two cultures: the Arabs (who brought rice) and the Romans (who brought the cooking pans).

paella panpaella

A modern version of the traditional cooking pan.

The name 'Paella' actually refers to the flat cooking pan of Roman origin used to prepare the dish. The pans can be purchased in many sizes, some big enough to feed a whole village!

Fifteenth Century

As the irrigation systems improved in Valencia during the fifteenth century, rice became more abundant in the region. Centuries later, the residents started to develop the habit of combining rice with onions and snails, while those residents who lived near the coastline would often add butter beans and eels to the mixture.

bomba ricerice

Bomba rice

Nineteenth Century

The living standards in Spain started to rise towards the end of the nineteenth century, which led to many outings and social gatherings among the more affluent people.

Paella became very popular among these social groups prompting a dramatic change in the ingredients of the dish known as ‘Paella Valenciana’. In addition to rice, olive oil and tomatoes, it became loaded with proteins such as duck, snails, rabbit and chicken.

Some recipes also included some beans such as runner beans (which were replaced by artichokes during the winter season), great northern beans and butter beans. Important spices such as salt, saffron, rosemary, sweet paprika and garlic were also added.

As well as the Valenciana variety, the Valencians also created another style known as ‘Paella De Marisco’. This seafood version originated in the coastline areas of Valencia when the residents mixed seafood with their rice instead of beans and meat. This authentic seafood recipe is the most popular version of the dish in the world. In this style of cooking, the shells of the seafood are also included in the mix.

Later, another variety of this dish was developed by the residents from other regions in Spain. The non-Valencian residents combined seafood ingredients with duck, chicken or rabbit meat to create the variety known as ‘Mixta'.

seafood paella

Twentieth Century

In the twentieth century, Paella became known outside of Spain and other cultures began making their own version of the dish. Thus, each culture utilized various ingredients that included many different types of seafood, sausage, meat, vegetables, seasonings and even chorizo.

Today, the dish is always present in any large gatherings in Valencia and beyond. As one of Spain’s most famous dishes, it can often be sampled at festivals, parties, political campaigns and family gatherings all across the country. It is also a popular choice on the menu of most Spanish restaurants and is also served in eateries across Latin America, North America and Western Europe.

In some Spanish regions outside of Valencia (particularly in rural areas of Andalucia), the dish is not referred to as Paella but is instead known as ‘Arroz’ which simply means ‘rice’.

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