• Here's the lowdown on this iconic dish. (Chris Chen)Source: Chris Chen
Why paella is Spain’s most misunderstood dish.
Robert Kidd

11 Oct 2018 - 11:43 AM  UPDATED 11 Oct 2018 - 12:17 PM

Rice was first introduced to Spain by the Moors more than 1200 years ago and, ever since, the grains have been ingrained in Spain’s culinary identity.

Most of us have tried paella – or at least what many think is paella. But the question is: what makes a truly authentic version and what is actually a paella pretender?

Rice with pink, plump prawns isn’t paella. Adding mussels is a sin and don’t even think about chorizo unless you want to incur the wrath of the Spanish nation (just ask Jamie Oliver).

Paella pride is particularly prominent in Valencia, the city on Spain’s Mediterranean east coast that is the dish’s undisputed birthplace. There, the authentic recipe for paella Valenciana (Valencian paella), focuses on ingredients that were readily available to farmers taking lunch breaks in the rice fields surrounding the city – including rabbit, chicken, snails, rosemary and garrofon beans. Socarrat, or “Valencian caviar”, the crunchy grains at the bottom of the pan, is considered the tastiest bite.

Anything else – from seafood and lamb to peas and sausage – is “rice with …” whatever. It isn’t paella.

Tourists are outed by eating plates of soggy rice for dinner, when every Valencian knows it’s a shared lunchtime dish best eaten with a wooden spoon straight from the pan (or paella, as the pan is somewhat confusingly called).

Rice with pink, plump prawns isn’t paella. Adding mussels is a sin and don’t even think about chorizo unless you want to incur the wrath of the Spanish nation (just ask Jamie Oliver).

Ask any Valencian whose paella is best and their answer is likely to be mum, or dad – like the Aussie barbecue, the family patriarch often takes charge of the Sunday paella.

After a more official result? Since 1961, Valencia has held the annual Concurso Internacional de Paella (International Paella Contest) to decide who makes the world’s best version. Three Australian finalists joined chefs from Japan, the United States and Costa Rica this year in daring to take on Spain’s most iconic dish. 

The 40 competitors, the majority of them from Spain, must cook with the same ingredients in the traditional way over a wood fire. Earlier this month, Melbourne-based restaurant and caterer Simply Spanish took out the award for “best paella outside Spain” for the second time.

“The flavour and socarrat are the most important elements. It is all about the way you cook the rice,” says Simply Spanish’s Leno Lattarulo. He competed with son Jake in the contest.

Lattarulo, whose family came to Australia from Venezuela when he was a child, was inspired by a trip to Europe to bring truly authentic Spanish dishes to Australian diners.

He has been making different types of “paella” for 20 years but had “a bit of a battle” convincing customers paella should be dry, not wet “like a risotto”.

The Simply Spanish team cooks at South Melbourne and Queen Victoria markets and Lattarulo remembers weekly complaints from the same customer about “burnt” grains at the base of the pan.

“Then there was a TV program where a celebrity chef explained a paella should have socarrat. The next week, [the customer] came past and told me I didn’t have enough socarrat,” he says.

Now Lattarulo caters for events where 1500 plates of paella are snapped up in a few hours. Though Simply Spanish has Valencian paella on its menu, its “adapted” versions featuring seafood or chorizo are more popular.

“I don’t think I need to shove it in everyone’s face what a real paella is, but it is important to realise not every rice dish you eat is paella,” Lattarulo says.

“It’s about the integrity of the dish. It is showing people ‘this is the Valencian paella’.”

“I don’t think I need to shove it in everyone’s face what a real paella is, but it is important to realise not every rice dish you eat is paella.”

To celebrate its world-famous dish, Valencia declared 20 September as World Paella Day. Coinciding with the traditional month of the rice harvest, it was an opportunity to emphasise the rules for making perfect paella.

In a sign Valencians may be softening their stance (if not their rice), a promotional video encouraged international cooks to share their own versions of “paella”.

“For one day, rice with extras is also paella. For one day only, we will look at peas as though they were socarrat. This day we put our differences aside, instead of rejecting the chorizo,” Valencians say in the video.

“But just for one day, OK?”

Love the story? Follow the author on Twitter @Rob_Kidd1 and Instagram @twokiddstravelling.

Have we got your attention and your tastebuds? The Chefs’ Line airs every weeknight at 6pm on SBS followed by an encore screening at 9.30pm on SBS Food Network. Episodes will be available after broadcast via SBS On Demand. Join the conversation #TheChefsLine on Instagram @sbsfood, Facebook @SBSFood and Twitter @SBS_Food. Check out sbs.com.au/thechefsline for episode guides, cuisine lowdowns, recipes and more!

P is for Paella
$12 paella nights are just one reason to try La Bodega de Andres
Another is their sangria, made with a secret, extra-stiff kick.
Paella with chorizo, peas and fennel

This is my interpretation of the iconic Spanish dish, paella. The oil from the chorizo imparts a delicious flavour.

The dos and don’ts for real-deal paella
A crispy rice crust is a must and stay clear of the chorizo, says Movida’s Frank Camorra, “it freaks the Spaniards out”.
Paella mixta

Paella is the ultimate dish to feed a crowd. This mixta version combines seafood with pork, chicken and chorizo, so the dish explodes with flavour.

Paella Valenciana

Paella is a one-pan wonder. Its trademark soccarat - that crunchy layer of rice at the base of the pan - infuses the saffron rice with a caramelised flavour.

This paella competition is stirring stuff
Australia’s best paella masters will put their socarrat skills to the test.
What makes the perfect paella?
Today, paella comes in many forms. Often considered a seafood specialty, the rice dish may be embellished with prawns, mussels, clams and squid. Chicken and chorizo are often added, along with peas, parsley and the all-important sofrito base. Also known as refogado, sofrito is a saucy mix of garlic, onion, capsicum, paprika and tomatoes commonly used in Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American cooking.

There are as many versions of the original Valencian paella as there are cooks, and the defining element of modern-day interpretations is the pan. If you don’t have a paella pan, use a wide heavy-based frying pan. Unlike risotto, stirring is forbidden because the socarrat – the caramelised crust that forms on the bottom of the pan – helps give paella its authenticity. This dish is perfect for enjoying communally.