• How to reach ultimate paella glory. (Sarah Hankinson/The llustration Room)Source: Sarah Hankinson/The llustration Room
A crispy rice crust is a must and stay clear of the chorizo, says Movida’s Frank Camorra, “it freaks the Spaniards out”.
Siobhan Hegarty

8 Jun 2017 - 10:24 AM  UPDATED 15 Jun 2021 - 11:51 AM

Sitting alongside tapas, flamenco and Pablo Picasso, paella (pronounced pay-eh-ya) is one of Spain’s most famous exports. Named after the flat, shallow pan in which it’s cooked (a ‘paella’), the dish is essentially composed of short-grain rice, ‘sofrito’ (an aromatic base), seafood or meat stock which is often imbued with toasted saffron, and any number of vegetables or proteins.

But before we delve into the socarrat – that crispy, caramelised rice crust – or discover the secrets to sofrito, let us first dispel three paella porky pies that are often mistaken as truths.

There's something about socarrat
We all love the crispy rice at the bottom of the pan
From a Spanish paella to Korean dolsot bibimbap, the highlight of many rice dishes is actually that golden crisp crust.


Myth #1: Paella is entirely Spanish

Okay, okay, paella was created in Spain! Etymologists agree the dish originated in the rice-growing region south of Valencia, but there were other factors at play. First and most notably, it was the Arabs who introduced rice – and many other ingredients, including saffron – to this region. The Muslim empire, then known as Al-Andalus, occupied southern Spain and parts of Portugal between the years 711 to 1492, so understandably a fusion of flavours and techniques transpired.

It’s also believed that the Romans played a hand in the creation of paella, as they are credited for inventing the flat pan. With its shallow sides and slight indentations, the pan is designed to conduct high levels of heat for a relatively short amount of time - an hour to an hour and a half - rather than slow-cooking its contents at a gentle heat. This design decision was likely based on wood availability. “They might have used orange or olive wood, and added dried vine clippings underneath,” explains Frank Camorra, owner and executive chef of Movida and an all-round paella-lover. “Because [the wood] is so dry it burns quickly get a strong flame which enables the boiling point to be reached quickly.” 

Myth #2: Chorizo is totally part of paella

There might be dozens, if not hundreds, of variations on paella, but there’s one ingredient whose inclusion causes controversy in Spain. We’re talking about chorizo.

“One thing that the Spanish never do is put chorizo in paella,” Frank tells us. “It freaks Spaniards out!”

“It actually tastes good. I don’t have a problem with it flavour-wise but I think what the Spanish don’t like is it overpowers everything else. Cooking is all about balance.”

Myth #3: Seafood paella is the original paella

Valencia sits on Spain’s eastern coast and so various types of seafood - prawns, fish, mussels and calamari, included - made their way into early incarnations of the dish. Interestingly though, the very first paella carried a decidedly different feel.

“Traditionally it’s made with rabbit and snails and there’s a particular type of white bean from the region,” says Frank. “Like all the great dishes of Europe, paella comes from poverty. It eventuated out of necessity.”

Paella Valenciana

Get this Bar Lourinhã recipe for paella Valenciana here.


Learn the lingo, ace the dish

The sofrito, which literally translates to sauté or stir-fry, is an aromatic base of onions, garlic, pimentón (Spanish smoked paprika), and peppers – Bull Horns are preferred over regular capsicums for their thinner skin.

Bomba rice is the most commonly used varietal when it comes to making paella “It’s the most forgiving rice,” Frank Camorra says. “The Spanish rice for paella have different tendencies; they soak up a lot more liquid – three times volume of liquid. They are also low starch. You don’t want [paella] to be creamy, like risotto, you want [the grains] to be separate like a pilaf.”

Get your game on by making a traditional rabbit paella. In Spanish week on The Chefs’ Line, Bar Lourinhã’s head chef and owner Matt McConnell offers his tips: “Rabbit’s quite a sweet meat so it actually lends itself to match with seafood as well, which can be a little bit salty”. While Matt prefers the flavours of the leg meat, if you have the whole rabbit, he recommends adding the livers and kidneys to your paella as well. 

‘Paella’ the pan equals ‘paella’ the dish, so when the recipe is prepared in a frying pan, for instance, instead of the traditional utensil, it is no longer *technically* paella. “I wouldn’t recommend it,” advises Matt McConnell. “But it is possible.”  Frank Camorra concurs: “It would still work - you’d just need a flat wide pan of any description”.

Meloso and caldoso are two Spanish words used to described textural and flavourful variations on paella. Meloso, for instance, is a creamier rice dish, similar to risotto. Arroz en caldosa, on the other hand, is rice in a broth or soup. Frank Camorra says these versions can be easier to make and equally tasty. 

“At home, if I’m cooking a paella for Sunday lunch, I’d do a version which is called arroz en caldoso. It’s a wetter version of paella, with similar flavours. It still has a sofrito and you layer those flavours until it’s a really intense, reduced jam consistency. To that, you add the stock bring it to the boil, add the rice and simmer that with whatever you like. If it’s seafood - prawns, fish and mussel - or [if meat] chicken or ribs that have been cooked off.”

“One thing that the Spanish never do is put chorizo in paella,” Frank tells us. “It freaks Spaniards out!”

How to reach ultimate paella glory.

Frank Camorra’s tips to paella perfection:

When it comes to making an authentic paella, Frank says there are three key elements to keep in mind:

1. Watch the rice

The rice needs to be alpunto, meaning ‘to the point’. Like Italy’s ‘al dente', this Spanish term is used to describe rice that’s slightly firm – to the tooth – but cooked. Frank recommends opting for the Spanish grain bomba, as it’s more forgiving than other lesser-known paella rice varieties.

2. Up the flavour stakes

From the sofrito to the stock, remember to build your flavour base, as this is what your rice absorbs. Saffron is an important

3. Seek socarrat

According to Frank, that delightfully crispy crust on the bottom of the pan which is what a good paella’s known for. Aim to caramelise your rice, but ensure it doesn’t burn as this will ruin the flavours of the dish. Cooked correctly, and your paella will be imbued with a smoky essence.

For paella recipes idea, check out our collection here.

Illustrations by Sarah Hankinson with animation by Bill Northcott both from The Illustration Room.

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