Eight teams had assembled on the lawns of the Constantia residence of the Spanish Consul General, Ignacio Garcia-Valdecasas, for South Africa’s first paella competition. They had brought their gas burners and cooler boxes of ingredients. Several of the paelleros (the paella cooks) were wearing frilly polka dot aprons. It was a warm day and the sangria was flowing within minutes.
Paella is one of Spain’s great gifts to world cuisine. It is considered a national dish globally, but it is thought of as a regional dish in Spain. Its origins are Islamic; the Moors of Andalusia brought rice to Spain in the 9th Century, but rice only started to be widely cultivated around the 15th Century in the region of Valencia, the home of paella. What we call paella today emerged in the 19th century.
Paella is at once a great comfort food – there is something peasanty about dishes where everything is cooked in one pot – and yet it has the opulence of saffron and can be brim-full of such extravagant ingredients as lobster tails and tiger prawns.
If you’re lucky you’ll find paella cooked in pans on open fires on the backstreet pavements of Valencia. The pan is called a paellera. It is shallow and may be a metre across, though most people use pans half that diameter. Paella is popular for celebrations and get-togethers. Traditionally men cook, much like our braai tradition. You eat straight from the pan, which becomes the table.
If cooking paella at home there are recipes for hot plates and ovens, but these end up as a sort of casserole. You need a gas burner; and many of our stoves don’t have wide enough burners to spread the heat under large pans so it’s worth using a Cadac burner. Gas allows you to speed or slow the cooking which is the essential paella skill.
Only use olive oil. Real paella is all about the rice and first prize is Bomba, but it isn’t readily available here. Arborio works perfectly well. The key is rice that it be super absorbent.
Unlike risotto you do not braise the rice first. You never stir it either, but pat it. And unlike risotto you don’t slowly ladle in the liquid. The biggest test, and this is where experience shows, is getting the right ratio of liquid to rice. The liquid should be the finest stock you can make. If you’re making a marine paella use seafood stock.
The other vital ingredients are the sofrito of tomato (some say never use onions), rosemary, and of course Spanish saffron (never turmeric!).
I enjoy a paella that celebrates the omnivore in us, but opinions about what is and what is not appropriate to go in paella can be tetchy. As the dish has spread across the regions of Spain and indeed the world, it has obviously attracted as many different ingredients and combination of ingredients.
Valenica’s purists abjure seafood and use meat, but never Chorizo or sausage. Green peas are considered traditional. Original versions of course included whatever came to hand, such as frogs. Many purists still insist on snails and rabbit.
Paella marinera (seafood) is possibly the first thing most South Africans associate with paella.
I simply look for a balance of ingredients and I am not too fussed if I find poultry, seafood and meat all in one. The end result should also not be greasy, which is the fate of most paellas.
The real hallmark of great paella is the socarrat, the caramelized portion underneath or on the sides of the pan where the flames have licked the rice, while the top remains fluffy. Paella should stand for a few minutes and is best served tepid, not piping hot.
The teams had to be ready to cast their rice by 2pm (paella is traditionally eaten only during the day), when we judges would make the rounds, armed with plastic forks and paper plates, not the traditional boxwood spoons.
Third prize went to a vivacious group of ladies which included team members from Spain, Argentina and Chile; second prize to Miguel Calvo for his rabbit paella; first prize to the golden grains of Pedro Sanchez.
In our local restaurants however risotto remains king.
If you’re in search of paella your best bet is La Bruxia (341 Main Road, Sea Point; Tel: 021 434 8797).
Liam Tomlin’s Spanish cooking class includes paella at the Chef’s Warehouse and Cookery School (50 New Church Street, Cape Town; Tel: 021 422 0128), where you can also obtain real Bomba rice.
This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 8 June 2012.