The Ebro delta is actually just north of Valencia in Tarragona. But Valencia has become closely associated with rice dishes made from the short grain Arborio rice which grows there. The most famous being Paella (Pie-ay-ah).
“La Paella” is a cooking utensil, traditionally and preferably made of iron. The pan is circular and shallow with two round handles on opposite sides with a flat base of a good thickness. The word itself is old Valencian and probably has its roots in the Latin “patella” (A flat basket in Galicia). The Castillian “paila” and the French “paele” mean the same thing.
During the centuries following the establishment of rice in Spain, the peasants of Valencia would use the paella pan to cook rice with easily available ingredients from the countryside: tomatoes, onions and snails.
On special occasions rabbit or duck might be included, and the better-off could afford chicken. Little by little this “Valencian rice” became more widely known. By the end of the nineteenth century “paella valenciana” had established itself.
Spain's Famous Dish: Paella
Paella is a typical Spanish dish and is traditionally cooked in a "paellera" - a round flat pan with two handles - which is then put on the table. In many Spanish villages, especially in coastal areas, they use a giant paellera to cook a paella on festival days which is big enough to feed everybody. Ripe with history, paella is the signature dish of Spain. Its lasting success is due to the simplicity of its preparation, and the quality and variety of its ingredients.
It has become a customat mass gatherings in the Valencian region (festivals, political campaigns, protests, etc.) to prepare enormous paellas, sometimes to win mention in the Guinness Book of World Records. Chefs use gargantuan paelleras for these events. Each year chefs from the region of Galicia compete for the title of "Paella King". The competition is held in a different town each year in that region. Valencian restaurateur Juan Galbis and a team of helpers, made the world's largest paella in 2001 and then fed it to about 110,000 people according to Galbis's website.This paella was even larger than Galbis's earlier world-record paella made in March of 1992 which fed about 100,000 people. Galbis's record-breaking 1992 paella is listed in Guinness book of world records.
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The people of Al-Andalus often made casseroles of rice, fish and spices for family gatherings and religious feasts, thus establishing the custom of eating rice in Spain. This led to rice becoming a staple by the time the Catholics drove out the Muslims in the 15th century. Cooks combined rice with vegetables, beans and dry cod, providing an acceptable meal for Lent. Along the Spanish coast, fish always predominated with rice.
On special occasions, 18th century Valencians used paelleras to cook rice in the open air of their orchards with vegetables of the season along with chicken, rabbit, duck and snails. Later, social life became more active with the sociological changes of the 19th century in Spain, giving rise to reunions and outings in the countryside. This early rice dish evolved into Valencian paella where it was customary for men to do the cooking. In 1840, a local newspaper first used the phrase "Valencian paella" to refer to the recipe rather than the pan. The most widely used ingredient list of the 19th century version is as follows: short-grain white rice, lima beans, chicken, rabbit, snails, duck (optional), green beans, artichoke (a substitute for green beans in the winter), tomatoes, fresh rosemary, salt, paprika, saffron, olive oil and water. It's these ingredients that Valencians insist go into making Valencian paella. Today, in the Valencian region, paella is popular as a spring and summer picnic dish and during the Fall.
Eventually, Spaniards outside of the Valencian region saw the charm in this dish. Coastal residents began adding seafood to the traditional recipe and called it mixed paella. Mixed paella then became popular outside of Spain. As other cultures set out to make paella, the dish invariably acquired regional influences. Consequently, paella went from being a relatively simple dish of rice, beans, meat and green vegetables to including fresh seafood, meat, various types of sausage (the most popular being Spanish chorizo, a wide range of vegetables and many different seasonings. However, the most globally popular recipe is seafood paella. In Spain, mixed paella is very popular. Some restaurants that serve this mixed version refer to it as Valencian paella but Valencians insist only the original Valencian recipe can bear the name paella valenciana.