Paella is mainly consumed as a main dish but you can also have a tapa or a ración. It is another of Spain’s most popular and mispronounced exports. The double ‘l’ in paella (or ll – elle, as it was called when it enjoyed the privilege of being a letter on its own) has a sound similar to “y” in English, like in the first consonant in “yesterday”.
Traditional paella consists mainly of rice, vegetables and meat and takes its name from the large, typical pan in which it is made: la paella. The paella valenciana or arroz valenciano (Valencian rice) has given rise to many variations is other Spanish regions and households, not to mention the number of unpalatable versions you can find abroad. Some of the variations have become official and are expected from dishes consumed in some Valencian towns. For example, in Benicarló, they will add artichokes, while in L’Albufera, instead of chicken or rabbit, they will use duck.
A paella valenciana can only carry that name if it has the ten ingredients which give it its Protected Geographical Status (its Denominación de Origen) which it has enjoyed since 2011, although it can still claim its name if the variations are along the lines of those mentioned above.
So, how do you know if you are eating the “real thing”? A paella valenciana will have rice, oil, chicken, rabbit, tomato, water, salt, saffron, ferraura (a type of green bean) and garrofó, a type of white kidney bean. However, the Spanish are far from purist in this respect and the paella mixta (“mixed” paella, with both meat and fish) or the paella de mariscos (with seafood) are also popular.
If you are more of a fish person or are not too keen on rice, you might want to try the fideuá, which is a fishy version of the paella-style rice, arroz abanda, but with pasta (chifferini) as its base. This dish originated in the city of Gandía, where I spent many a happy childhood moment as it is my father’s hometown. It has fish such as monkfish (rape), various mollusks such as cuttlefish (sepia) and shellfish such as prawns (langostinos).
The urban myth extended in the internet about the origin of the fideúa (possible thanks to Wikipedia) is that it was invented by a ship’s cook in the 1930s, who usually cooked arroz abanda for the crew. As the Captain was a greedy man who often ate much more than the rest of his men, the cook decided to change the main ingredient of the dish to pasta, hoping the Captain would eat less and leave more food for the rest of the men. Unfortunately, the Captain liked this new version just as much as the old one as it was so delicious that it was soon adopted throughout the port.
Though this is an unverified tale, it is a much more romantic than the one I’d always heard: that the fideuá was invented by someone who had no rice in stock but plenty of fideos (chifferini pasta). In any case, the best experience for eating either paella or fideuá, is to sit around the paella with your fork and eat directly from the pan – but first use a wooden spoon to scrape the grains of rice that have become crispy and stuck to the pan. They are my favourite bits: the agarraet. (Which comes from agarrado, that which has stuck.)
(This is an extract of the chapter ‘T is for Tapas’ from The A to Z of Spanish Culture.)