Sunday, June 30, 2013

Spain Has No Paella Problem

An article about "Spain's paella problem" was published last year, and it drew some attention in spite of being quite wrong-headed. It's not my job to police food writing, but I have a particular love for Spain in general and for paella in particular - plus an aversion to food writers who feign expertise while getting stuff completely wrong. So I posted a comment politely debunking the article. I see my comment's no longer present there, so I'll throw it up here.
“The fact that the Spaniards have a word that means “the crispy bits of rice that caramelize and cling to the bottom of the pan” is evidence of how seriously they take their rice.”

Puerto Ricans call it pegao. Ghanaians call it kanzo. Iraqis call it hkaka. Ecuadorians call it concolon. Filipinos call it tutong. Koreans call it Nurungji. Dominicans call it conc√≥n. Cubans call it La Raspa. Chinese call it guoba. I could go on. Most cultures that eat rice name this stuff. If you eat something, you’re serious about it, period. The Spaniards are no more serious about it than anyone else.

So you need to watch your generalizations. In fact, the basis for this article is an incorrect generalization. Paella isn’t going downhill in Spain.

First, it was ALWAYS lousy outside the Valencia area. It’s not really a Spanish dish. Sort of like jambalaya, which one might classify as American but is a bad order outside Louisiana.

Second, even in the Valencian area, paealla has NEVER been a restaurant dish. There’ve always been restaurants making it, but they’re touristic and inferior. Well, varyingly inferior. Sometimes you can find a place making a kinda decent version (Levante sounds pretty good), and they always talk a good game, and can win over tourists because even merely decent paella is pretty wonderful. That’s what you were lucky enough to stumble into in Barcelona and Alicante. Pretty wonderful paella, but not the real deal.

The real deal has always been made outdoors on weekends in the country cabins of urban Valencians, in the mountains or near the beach. Or it’s made, again outdoors, on-the-fly at picnics. That’s where paella’s always been best, and continues on magnificently preserved by hordes of proud traditionalists.

So there’s no “problem” with paella, at all. And until you’ve tried exactly that sort of paella, in that setting (it never translates completely to restaurants, regardless of your Levante guy’s marketing efforts), most Valencians I know would say you’ve never had real paella. I offer this not as a withering rebuke, but as an enticing invitation. Keep eating! I’d suggest you try to make friends with Valencians during the week. Just convey your love and fascination for paella, and there’s nothing you could do to AVOID an invitation for a country house paella that weekend. And you may be illuminated by what you taste!


jim said...

"I'll throw it up here?"

DValve said...

When I was staying with family in the Dominican Republic, they referred to the crispy rice at the bottom of the pan as "raspa." Not really a name, more of a description: "scrapings." Of course, that was, oh, about 35 years ago...

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