Is Paella the Dish That Best Connects Spain?
My friend Harshad’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Rajadhyaksha, went to Spain on a holiday recently. They were keen to explore the country but were worried about the food there. So they went on a group tour which provided Indian meals through the trip. Packages like this are popular among folks who want to discover new places but prefer the familiarity of home food. While in Spain, Harshad’s parents wanted to try out at least one local meal. So the group went and spoke to the tour manager who agreed that their next meal would be Spanish.
Sure enough, the next day when they came down to dinner, they saw that the daily butter chicken, dum aloo, dal tadka , jeera rice, roti and gulab jamun weren’t there. Instead they were served a yellow coloured rice with prawns and chicken in it. “Just like a pulao ,” said Harshad’s mother, who cooks quite a lovely Malvani prawn masala herself to go with a Maharashtrian masala bhaat (a sort of spicy pulao).
I put this question to Carmen Pauline Rios Benton. Carmen and her father had taken me on a food trail in Barcelona earlier where we visited her father’s favourite haunts from his growing up years. Carmen told me that paella was originally a farmer’s dish so it was unlikely that it would have had seafood in it. She pointed out that it represents the paradigm of a Mediterranean diet: olive oil, cereal vegetables, pulses and a small amount of animal protein to ensure that it is a healthy and balanced dish.
Suprio Bose who works with the Catalan Government, and is a food blogger too, connected me with Ms. Marisol who is from a small town called Nules, 50 km from Valencia. She was extremely emphatic that a paella should NOT have seafood. She’s grown up having paella. Paella is made every Sunday at her house, through the year. ‘Sunday is family day,’ said Marisol. According to her, the key ingredients of a paella are chicken, rabbit, pork ribs, Jewish artichokes, red pepper, kidney beans, tomato, garlic, olive oil and salt.
So I turned to Shawn Hennessey who runs the Sevilla Tapas tours and had taken us on a fantastic tapas trail in Sevilla. She said that discussion on paella can turn pretty controversial in Valencia. There will be folks who will say that paella with any seafood or onions is not ‘authentic’. According to them, rabbit and/ or chicken, flatbeans, garlic, tomato and saffron are key. Yet, she once met a chef from Valencia who said that anything made in a paella pan can be called paella!
Though the majority agreed on the ‘original’ paella not being a seafood dish, my search for a definitive answer still remained inconclusive.
What they had been served infact, was a paella (pronounced: pa-ee-aa).
Paella to the Spanish, is what tandoori chicken is to India, sushi to Japan and pasta to Italy. The one dish that sums up a diverse national cuisine to the rest of the world. Of course, the Spanish will tell you that there is a lot more to Spanish cuisine (at times I prefer the gambas pil pil, croquettes and Jamon Iberico to the paella myself) than the paella. They will also tell you that paella is a dish that belongs to Valencia in Spain and is more regional than a ‘National’ Dish.
Passions evoked by paella in Spain can be compared with those generated by biryani in India. The Valencians believe that only their paella is genuine just as those in Hyderabad believe that only theirs is the ‘authentic’ biryani or just as Kunal Vijayakar often declares that only the Bombay biryani is the real biryani and just as I will tell you that the biryani only came into its own in Calcutta when potatoes were added to it. Just as there are debates on whether there should be potatoes in biryani or whether such a thing as chicken, let alone vegetarian, biryani exists, there are long debates in Spain on whether peas should feature in a paella or whether it should be a seafood only dish or a mixed (seafood and meat) dish or a meat dish with no seafood!
My first taste of a paella in Spain (I had had it in Mumbai’s Bandra before) was in the Mercado San Miguel food market in Madrid which would be the equivalent of going to Dilli Haat to try out Assamese food. My closest brush with a Valencian paella was when I was invited by the Spanish Government to Barcelona to give a talk on ‘promoting tourism through social media’ at the Casa Asia Conference. Guillermo Marinez, my contact point, from Casa Asia took me to a restaurant on the beach called L’Escamarla for paella post the conference. Guillermo is from Valencia and told me that the paella at the restaurant was the closest to what he enjoyed back home. The paella at L’escamarla had this incredible buttery feel in the mouth which came from the starchy rice and this, along with the flavour packed goodness of fresh seafood such as prawns, squids, and mussel, elevated the dish to an operatic experience. Served on the side, was some garlic pureed aioli to give a more rustic flavour. Guillermo, though from Valencia, didn’t seem to have a problem with the fact that the paella had seafood in it.