There isn’t an exact consensus as to what makes for a truly authentic dish of paella, but there is certainly no shortage of strong opinions. Ask a Spaniard from Valencia—the purported birthplace of paella—and you might get a completely different answer than someone from Catalonia. Trace the history and you’ll find that this Spanish medley with crunchy rice has included everything from eels and snails to rabbits and rodents (specifically, water vole meat).
Now that the dish has gone global, it’s not at all unusual to find spicy chorizo sausage in the mix, something that rigid hardliners find exceedingly irritating. And while some things are open to interpretation, the basic tenets of paella are not.
“I am not a purist of the paella, for I believe that it is fine to have some flexibility in the components, so long as you’re in keeping with some basic rules” says Javier Estades. At work he is CEO of Tabacalaera USA, but Estades doubles as a competitive paella maestro who has been perfecting the dish for most of his life.
To keep it real, you’ll need a paella pan. That’s not negotiable. This might be the most important part, as the word paella derives from the Latin for pan. If you don’t have a gas stovetop large enough to support the pan, Estades recommends a self-contained burner and tripod kit from Garcima made especially for paella. This allows even heat coverage with better temperature control.
Secondly, you’ll need to use Bomba or Senia rice. Also, cook in patient, flavorful layers. Don’t make a lazy-man’s paella by cutting corners. The secret, Estades says, is “adding and removing ingredients in the right sequence and then mixing them all at the end before you add the rice and broth.”
For a meat-centric Valencia-style paella, most of the steps are fairly straightforward. First, heat your paella pan with olive oil. Then brown your pieces of chicken (and rabbit if you have it). Remove the meat to make way for garlic and seasonal vegetables. Runner beans are often used, artichokes too. Sauté until soft.
After that, add tomato puree and cook a bit before adding smoked paprika, saffron and then water. Cook it down in order to reduce your liquid. Then salt to taste. This is what turns the sum of your ingredients into a cohesive broth. That’s when you add the rice. Simmer until cooked. The final, magical step is caramelizing the bottom layer. You’re essentially burning the bottom of the rice to form what’s called the soccarat. What’s left should be a masterful mosaic of rice and proteins.
Seafood versions are also acceptable, but don’t get too creative. Estades warns against blasphemous additions like tofu or corn on the cob: “If you try that in Spain and call it paella, you are sent to jail.”