January 20, 2012

Paella Valenciana: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

I love this mural by Valencian street-artist Escif,
featuring paella valenciana's two main meats,
chicken and rabbit.
As I've mentioned in a previous blog entry, I've grown to acquire the Valencians' sense of pride as well as profound irritation with all the misunderstanding out there surrounding this region's signature rice dishes, and above all, paella valenciana. I recently contributed a series of entries on my mother-in-law's classic paella valenciana recipe to The Spain Scoop, and in the process discovered some egregious examples of "paella valenciana" (in scare quotes) floating around out there in the blogosphere and worldwide web.

Consider this post my effort to clear up the record and call out some erroneous ideas out there about paella, what's in it, and where it's from...

• The Good:

It's my blog, so you'll have to forgive my pretension for listing  my mother-in-law's version here among the good versions of paella valenciana, but her recipe really is great, and follows the guidelines of the recent informal denominación de origen conferred on paella valenciana. If you haven't already, I encourage you to take a moment and review those three entries at The Spain Scoop:

My mother-in-law makes paella valenciana like a pro.

1) "How To Make My Mother-in-law's Valencian Paella – Part 1": In part 1, I outline the basic components of the dish, listing the ingredients you will need while sketching out some of the common misconceptions about the dish and what is used to prepare it.

To quote one newspaper, "El ADN del plato autóctono" [The DNA of the native plate (paella valenciana)] is: Aceite [Vegetable oil], Pollo [Chicken], Conejo [Rabbit], "Ferraura" (bajoqueta) [a local green bean], "Garrafó" [a local white bean], Tomate, Agua [Water], Sal [Salt], Azafrán [Safron], Arroz [the local Valencian rice]"

2) "How To Make My Mother-in-law's Valencian Paella – Part 2": This second entry is probably the most useful of the three – where I layout instructions on how to prepare and cook all the ingredients, to actually make a paella valenciana.

3) "How To Make My Mother-in-law's Paella Valenciana – Part 3": And here I wrap it up by describing how it is served, and how Valencian's love the crusted burnt layer of rice at the bottom of the paella pan, known as "socarrat".

Mmmmmm... socarrat!

I've seen a few expats and Americans who have managed to accurately recreate this dish, so you don't have to be a card-carrying Valencian to do so. Fellow Valencia expat blogger, Leftbanker, posted a picture of what is undeniably authentic paella valenciana on his blog not long ago. (He particularly won me over with this hilarious rant about the English-speaker's tendency to mispronounce "paella".) My Kitchen in Spain, Janet Mendel's fun culinary blog, creatively plays around with the paella recipe on her blog, though she's careful never to mislabel it "paella valenciana", so I don't hold it against her. And Mendel says that you can find the authentic recipe for paella valenciana in her book, My Kitchen in Spain (2002). (I'll have to trust her, since I don't own it. Hint, hint, Janet. Gift idea?)

However, it is very hard to make the _real_ paella valenciana well if you live outside of Spain, since the fresh staples that form the base of this dish aren't grown outside the Valencian province.

Judging by appearances, Leftbanker's paella looked pretty "auténtica" to me.

The real secret to making an excellent paella valenciana is visiting or living in
Valencia where you have access to all the fresh regional ingredients,
at places like this, Valencia's fantastic Mercat Central.

I'm not lying when I say that I don't mind people having a little fun with paella-making.
One of my longtime favorite Valencia bloggers, Paella de Kimchi, made this Valencia-Korea
fusion paella de kimchi
. Experimental fun aside, you can tell from this recipe that these
bloggers really know their stuff when it comes to preparing a paella, traditional or not.

• The Bad:

But in preparing blog entries on paella and Valencian rice dishes I have begun to uncover what I believe are the two main sources of many of the erroneous "paellas valencianas" circulating online and especially among the foreign expats and tourists.

Source of confusion 1: An easy tip off as to whether they've messed up the paella recipe. There is no traditional paella (valenciana or otherwise) which has any of the ingredients found in that other classic Valencian rice dish, arroz al horno, such as: costillas de cerdo (pork ribs... or really any kind of pork), morcilla, potato, garlic, chickpeas. If you find any of these ingredients call the local officials immediately you know that the chef is dazed and confused about the traditions of paella-making.
Lesson: Just because it's paella, it's traditional, and it's traditionally from Valencia, doesn't mean it's traditional "paella valenciana". I think a lot of people are confusing the ingredients which appear in other traditional Valencian rice dishes with fair-game paella ingredients, and are maybe also thinking that paella de marisco, a very traditional Valencian paella, is _the_ "paella valenciana"... which it is not.

Never confuse arroz al horno with paella, much less paella valenciana. This _other_ typical Valencian
rice dish is made with a "cazuela" clay pot, and _does_ have pork ribs and chickpeas in it. Paella does not.

"La corrucion, como la paella en ningun sitio, se hace como en Valencia." Translated,
ignoring spelling errors: "Corruption, like paella, in no place do they make it like in Valencia."

Source of confusion 2: Outside the Valencian province, some other paellas have appeared which day-tripping tourists to Spain have understandably taken to be the "auténtico" thing, but which are also far from traditional Valencian dishes. For any fans of "paella mixta" (Madrid's mixed meat, both seafood and chicken, version of the paella dish), or to those of you from Castellón who want to put red pepper in your paella, fine! Do it! Just don't call it "paella valenciana," which it is not. I'm a believer in culinary innovation (here I depart ways with many of my more hardcore Valencian readers), but these bastardizations variations on Valencia's paellas would turn the nose of any Valencian.
LessonPaella, and particularly paella valenciana, is from the Valencian Province, not Catalonia, not Castellón or Alicante, in a way, not even "from Spain". And it is a simple dish, without bells and whistles. If you eat or make any other kind, be polite to Valencian pride and heritage and call it something else.

"Paella mixta," the scourge of Valencia pride. This blogger, Chow Times, faced two common pitfalls of
eating paella outside of Valencia (in this case in Barcelona)
: 1) encountering this untraditional
"mixed" paella, which blends chicken meat with shellfish, bizarre!, a combination that would offend
any Valencian, and 2) soggy rice. (Noooooooo!) Reading this entry broke my heart,
when they wrote, "all Chinese don’t like soggy rice". Well, when it's paella, neither do Valencians!

This paella, with red peppers, presents a more delicate political problem. This is a
traditional paella recipe in Castellón. It is not "paella valenciana", but since Castellón
is in the Comunidad Valenciana, many from this region were upset when the official
paella valenciana recipe excluded red peppers
. All I can say to them is, again,
there is a difference between the recipe paella valenciana and paella "from Valencia"!

I'm a bit mystified by this "Paella catalana". For starters, there is no traditional dish in Spain
called "paella catalana". Second, judging from the recipes listed at the link where I found this
photo, these are variations on paella de marisco (one of many Valencian paellas). Third,
this kind of lobster (bogavante) is not traditionally put in paella, but rather arroz meloso or arroz caldoso.

• The Ugly:

But where things get ugly is the use of the term "paella valenciana" to sell any and every kind of fried rice dish abroad. One point of confusion is that there is a "paella caribeña" recipe floating out there. I don't know where it was originally from, or how traditional it is, but it is often sold in the States with the title "Spanish paella", which it is not. Why? Well, first and foremost because it uses regular white rice. And this leads to the other serious infraction in the States: the mistaken idea that making "Spanish fried rice" or "saffron rice" is all it takes to call something "paella". No! You need to use the special Valencian round-grain rice to make it (i.e. arroz bomba, as in 'Arroz de Valencia' or even the Murcian Calasparra). (And, no, you can't just substitute the completely different Italian Arborio rice, used in risotto!) Perhaps you once had the excuse in the States that it was hard to find "arroz bomba", but with LaTienda.com such is no longer the case.

From what I've seen in the States and online, paella caribeña appears to be
a seafood-style fried rice dish with peas. But the two things which mark it as
_very_ un-Valencian: 1) it is usually loaded with ingredients, drowning out the rice
and simplicity, and 2) it uses long-grain rice instead of the special round Spanish variety.

Socarrat's peculiar paella menu.
As I said at the start, in my online searches I ran across a lot of tragically hilarious faux pas paellas of fancy U.S. restaurants or catering services claiming to sell "paella valenciana" and yet even the most cursory glance can tell you it was a serious screw up of the region's most famous dish. For example, the fancy New York City "paella bar" (whatever that is) called Socarrat in Chelsea lists some bizarre paellas on its menu. Again, I have no complaints about mixing it up and innovating, so I was keeping an open-minded about them as I read their menu (though I've never heard of eggplant in a paella). Until I saw it, the "Valenciana"... with pork ribs and asparagus. Yikes!

And I'm not sure what to say to well-meaning culinary bloggers who, in their misinformation and sloppiness, put up recipes for "Paella Valencia" with chorizo in it, or ones that put up a correct meat recipe for "Paella Valenciana" but for some reason post a picture of paella de marisco (?). It is thanks to these many bloggers and recipe posters that a google image search of "paella valenciana" turns up a lot of junk false, baroque misrepresentations of Valencia's simple, humble dish.
Lesson: In Valencia, where people eat paella all the time, there is a kind of unspoken law of minimalism, put the minimal amount of ingredients to give it a flavor, but don't cover the pan edge to edge with ingredients. The idea is not to crowd out the rice when you're adding ingredients, because the rice is the protagonist.
But do you wanna get a Valencian _really_ mad? Point them to this American (San Diego based) catering website: Paella Valenciana, Paella Catering You Can Trust. Yes, folks! The company that has managed to corner the online domain name for "paella valenciana dot com" is selling the world's biggest fake for paella valenciana!!! Here I quote for you the caption under their menu entry for the dish:
Paella Valenciana is a very popular succulent mix of paella with fresh chicken, sea-food and vegetables. You can customize your paella choice with your choice of shrimp, calamari, mussels, clams, scallops, crab claws, fish and lobster. 
Where does one start when tearing apart critiquing this? (Well, with the obvious, that the dish doesn't have sea-food in it.) But I'm confused by what they mean when they say paella valenciana is a mix of paella _with_ those ingredients. Paella _is_ those ingredients, plus rice and some other things. And how American of them is it to offer tailor-made paellas valencianas. Don't consider this a gripe. I'm just howling with laughter at the utter disregard Americans can give to European traditions and importance placed on authenticity, even as they are capitalizing off the mystique of European traditions and history.

You guys call this "Paella Valenciana"!!! Are you kidding me?
How did you get the license for this domain name?

So let's making this shaming process an official game. I hereby offer you the "Paella Hall of Shame". If you find a picture, recipe, restaurant, or website online that is perpetuating these preposterous paellas, make a comment here with a linkback to it. In turn, if you are one of the shamed and have changed your evil ways, post here, and I promise I will remove the link or mention of you.

***UPDATE: I've discovered a whole community of people living in Madrid who are annoyed with all these poser paellas out there... and they've started a web project calling them out! Check out La Comunidad de la Paella if you're looking for a good place to have paella in Spain's capital, because there aren't as many as you would think!***

The Paella Hall of Shame:
How to cook Paella - Gordon Ramsay Recipe [finder credits to Leftbanker]
• Paella Valenciana, Paella Catering You Can Trust (San Diego, U.S.A.)
• Socarrat Paella Bar (NYC, U.S.A.)
LaPaella.co.uk (Aberdeen, U.K.) [Again, claims prime URL real estate but then confuse paella mixta with "paella valenciana"... And _broccoli_ in the vegetable paella? I've never heard of that. Unwitting finder credits to GoSpain.About.Com on its "History of Paella" entry]
Antonio Banderas's Paella [which in 2011 caused a scandal in Valencia for its use of chorizo, among other very unorthodox ingredients] (Here on Univisión he says the secret to paella is "el sofrito", but then lists some bizarre ingredients ... Though in fairness, he states here in a Brazilian show that "Es la paella mía" and not the "valenciana" ... judging from his accounts, it's a paella mixta with substitutions that apparently Banderas finds in Chinatown markets.)
• Awesome 1960s German TV program sings how to make "Paella de Valencia" a.k.a. "paella valenciana"... I can't even count the number of mistakes in their recipe. But who cares? The song is priceless!!!


leftbanker said...

I have the #1 on your Hall of Shame list.

An Expat in Spain said...

Woah! My mind is blown by the perfect awfulness of it. "Stir well!" "Add some white wine?" Crushed garlic? It's now up at the top of the list. Thank you... keep them coming!

Kaley [Y Mucho Más] said...

I always find British people to pronounce it like pa-ell-uh. They also have a funny way of saying tacos.

I've never been to Valencia (but don't shoot me -- it's on my list!), so I'll wait to have paella when you invite me over for the real deal. ;) No restaurants for me.

It's trendy now to have tapas places in the US. The thing I hate about it is that they generally require a minimum purchase and they're so expensive! The point of tapeando is not spending that much money! (Or at least to me it is. Maybe not if you're looking for pinchos in San Sebastian.)

I hope you don't find any reason to rant about this comment. Hahaha! I'm just kidding with you.

An Expat in Spain said...

Yeah, I was doing my best to restrain my impulse to Brit-bash, but I, too, have noticed that the "pie-ell-a" mispronouncing seems to fall more heavily among the British contingent than Americans. Maybe we should blame Gordon Ramsay for putting "pie-ell-a" on the map there.

No rant from me on the tapa front. I'm in sync with you there. Perhaps we should be thankful that tapas bars in the U.S. haven't taken to pronouncing "patatas bravas" in French: "Would you like to try 'les pommes de terre vaillantes'?" (If you laugh, ask an American to pronounce Freixenet.) It is a real disconnect the sticker shock from what are essentially Spanish homefries being sold as if they were an exotic delicacy. 'Brave land apples' indeed! Uh-oh. I feel another rant coming on... ;-)

Nieves said...

What a great post you have made about paellas, and even more when you are not a Valenciano! I am amazed with your article, congratulations! By the way, I liked the graffity about paellas and corruption, very good hahaha!

Tumbit - Mr Grumpy said...

I have long since ceased in my attempts attempts to cook an 'authentic' Valenican Paella. After 7 years 'perfecting' my Paella I was a little put out for my Valencian friends to declare that it was 'Rice & Chicken' rather than Paella for no other reason than I had stirred it whilst cooking. Would the same be said if I served thenm a cup of coffee and stirred it ? My Paellas have now become somewhat of a joke in the local community and whenever I invite an inbred local for lunch I deliberatley morph the Paella into a Biryrani just for comic effect

An Expat in Spain said...

Thanks Nieves! The graffiti image was a real find. I'm afraid to say that these days it is oh so very true.

Mr. Grumpy, I've actually never tried making a paella myself, having a wife and mother-in-law that are both so darn good at it. So I admire your efforts even if they fall short of those snobbish Valencian standards. Besides, I'd have a go at a decent Biryani.

That said, there's something to be said for playing with the titles of "autentico" dishes to sidestep Spanish scorn. A long time ago my wife made tortilla de patatas, except some incident happened which messed them up with no time to fix it before guests appeared. Solution: we called it "huevos rancheros" (which is actually an existing, totally unrelated Mexican dish, but no Spaniard has probably ever tried it). Her friends loved it, thought it was great. It certainly sounded a lot better than (mis)tossed tortilla.

Oh, and never, ever stir the pot on paella!

An Expat in Spain said...

Oh, Mr. Grumpy, I just realized, were you volunteering your paella for my "Hall of Shame"? ;-)

Tumbit - Mr Grumpy said...

Sadly not. I was being serious.
And as a Brit I reserve the right to call it a 'Pie-el-a'. After living in the people's republic of Valencia for 7 years I'm quite proud of the fact that the locals have still been unable to beat that annoying characteristic out of me.

An Expat in Spain said...

Mr. Grumpy, as it literally hurts my ears to hear Brits mispronounce paella, I was humming loudly to myself when reading your last comment, so as to not hear what you just said.

Mr Grumpy said...

As I type this I am watching UK celeb chef Jamie Oliver in Andalucia (the Home of Payelluh, apparently) cooking the dish for 500 locals at midnight. Apart from the obvious ones, I lost count of the numerous cardinal sins he committed.
Your Mrs would find it hilarious.

An Expat in Spain said...

Mr. Grumpy, excellent! I'll have to find a video of it somewhere to kill myself with laughter. He must be right about Andalucia, though, because Antonio Banderas has become paella's official ambassador abroad, chorizo and all.

Blogger said...

eToro is the ultimate forex broker for rookie and full-time traders.

You might also like:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...