The Origins

Paella is one of the world’s most famous rice dishes.

It’s safe to say that the majority of the western world has heard about it and millions have savored its flavor at least once in their lives.

What many people are unfamiliar with are the ancient origins of this dish; where and why it happened that ordinary people began combining these simple healthy ingredients to cook up this delectable combination.

Well, this appetizing creation began, like most traditional dishes, out of the need to utilize local ingredients in an easy and delicious way.

Rice was first introduced to Europe from Asia during the 1st millennium B.C. In 330 B.C. Alexander the Great arrived in India and opened the doors to the world on the existence and versatility of rice.

It was imported into the Mediterranean coastal areas and the locals began to grow this new and aromatic grain, since the climate there provided ideal growing conditions: large amounts of sweet fresh water were available, mild temperatures (ranging from 15-35oC / 60-95oF) and fertile soils.

Where exactly was this temperate and fertile place? It was in Valencia, Spain and its surroundings.

10Km south of Valencia lies a sweet-water lake, close to the sea, called Albufera. On the banks of this lake, locals started growing rice centuries ago and this grain became an important and fundamental staple of the daily diet of this region.

Because of the extraordinarily favorable climatic and fertile agricultural conditions, apart from rice, this area produces a rich variety of vegetables. Hence, the local population started mixing and combining their most common ingredients together.

With the arrival of the Arabs in Spain in the 8th century, the irrigation systems in regional Valencia were dramatically improved and so in turn the production of rice increased manifold.

It is still possible in Spain to find 13th century references to rice cultivation in the Valencia area, where the authorities were limiting the rice crops to the lake shores, taking them away from the city to prevent diseases spreading across the land and infecting the rice fields.

Although rice was used by these Mediterranean cultures for centuries, the first documented recipe with the name “paella” is found in a book from the 18th century, laying out the ingredients and cooking method as it’s used today.

Therefore, the paella was born in a very humble environment; peasants working in the fields incorporated these readily available ingredients into their dishes, becoming staple parts of their daily diets.

Basic ingredients for the paella, apart from rice, were: available vegetables (tomatoes, green beans, white beans), available meat (chicken, rabbit, duck), olive oil and spices (saffron, paprika, salt).

Several other “available” ingredients were occasionally used, like artichokes or snails (yes! very popular in this area).

There are some other varieties that we will discuss separately, but those mentioned above are considered the basic ingredients for the authentic “Valencian” paella.

Maria Brull

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