While these versions are undoubtedly delicious, they descend from recipes that reconstruct the original. Paella was born as a peasant’s dish, so the true Valencian variety includes snail, chicken, rabbit, tomato, green and white beans. The starring role – rice – is played by a local grain called bomba. Saffron is added for its vibrant colour and taste.
This provincial specialty is celebrated by some of the world's top chefs annually at the International Paella Championships. Now in its 54th year, the event takes place on Sunday, September 14. It’s the first time in the competition’s history that entrants will have heralded from semi-finals held outside of Spain. The 2014 opening round took place along Sydney’s scenic Manly Corso in May, and featured 30 chefs from around Australia. Additional semi-finals were later held in Shanghai, Tokyo and Miami.
Known as one of if not the oldest cooking competition, Sueca’s paella-making party is a celebration of the area’s most famous dish. Located in Spain’s South-East, Valencia is a fertile rice-growing region and the birthplace of paella. The dish takes its name from the pot in which it’s cooked – the paellera – a large, flat-bottomed pan ideal for crisping up rice.
So what makes a standout dish? For Sydney-based Spanish chef and director of catering company Flavours of Spain Miguel Cuevas, who organised and judged the competition’s Australian round, it’s all about the socarrat. “I remember the winning dish at Manly (cooked by Out of Africa chef, Hassan M’Souli) was a very good paella. The socarrat, which is the crusty bit at the bottom, was sensational – caramelised, but not too burnt.” Considered the most prized part of paella, socarrat is traditionally reserved for the important guests at Spanish feasts. The trick to attaining this crispy crust, and the subtle smokiness that comes with it, is not to stir the rice once it’s been added.
Symmetry, proportion and colour are also important factors in achieving paella success. “You don’t want paella to be yellow, that’s a misconception. You want it to be golden,” Cuevas says. Stock is the right-hand man to rice, and should imbue the grains with a rich, full-bodied flavour.
It is custom to cook paella over a wood fire. At the Valencian grand finale, entrants are expected to build their own blaze before cooking. Due to this, the championship takes 4-5 hours, instead of the 2.5 hours granted to competitors in the Australian heat. Alcohol is another bonus saved for the showdown. Cuevas says despite the high stakes, the chefs in the final are still keen for a good time. “At the contest in Spain, entrants have a few beers. It’s not a competitive environment at all, it’s very relaxed,” he says, before adding: “Obviously, in the last hour before the paella is ready, they get a little more tense. Not because they’re competitive, but they want to do their best.”
Moroccan-born, Sydney-based chef Hassan M’Souli won the title for best paella in Australia, with Melbourne’s Failino Lattarulo (Simply Spanish Restaurant) and Alex Fry from Sah Modern Mediterranean in Adelaide taking out second and third place, respectively. The Australian trio will compete in Sunday's finals, joining 27 other contestants from around the world.