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Valencia’s Paella: May Just be the Most Spanish Dish in Existence

valencian paellaI cringe when I hear people pronounce the word paella with an ‘l’ sound, like this, and not with the ‘y’ sound that it carries in Spanish, like this. But it’s just not always appropriate to jump in with pedantic corrections, especially when the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers both as valid alternatives and does nothing to help my case. Then again, trying to be a purist when it comes to paella is close to impossible.

Here in my new home town of Valencia, you can’t get away with the first pronunciation (at least not around me), but you won’t find much consensus about paella in general. Too many experts and too many ‘authentic’ recipes make for some interesting debate and some truly excellent food. No matter how you say it.

From what I can tell, there are only two things that everyone can agree on when it comes to paella:

  1. Paella is cooked in a large, round, shallow pan called a paellera in Spanish and simply paella in Valencian. Here’s a picture.
  2. Essential ingredients include rice, some form of protein (seafood, chicken, rabbit, snails…), some kind of legumes and/or vegetables, olive oil (is there anything that isn’t made with olive oil in Spain?) and saffron.

The rest is up for debate, though there are several widely recognized variations of the dish that tend to adhere to some fairly consistent guidelines described in the following recipes: Paella Valenciana, Paella Marinera, Paella de Verduras, Arroz a Banda, Arroz Negro, Arroz al Horno and the pasta version, Fideua, with its own numerous variations.

I can still recall a time, not so long ago, when I knew nothing about paella, was unaware that rice was even cultivated in Spain, and was oblivious to the uses of the amazingly expensive saffron that I saw in specialty shops in Canada. (In fact, the only thing that I knew about saffron was from the Donovan song, Mellow Yellow – which still often comes to mind and still makes no sense to me…)

But paella has come to represent a large part of what I love about Spain and why I have chosen to make my home here. It is a dish that embodies the strange contrast of old and new that forms the powerful identity of this country. Its ingredients have been wholly incorporated into the Spanish cuisine and culture, and yet almost none of them are native to the Iberian Peninsula: rice and saffron were introduced by the Moors between the 8th and 11th centuries; the olive tree and its oil were brought by the Phoenicians roughly two millennia earlier; the indispensible pan that the dish is cooked in comes from the Latin word patella, brought by the Romans; even the Spanish wine (whichever of many you choose) that should always accompany your favourite paella has its origins elsewhere.

The scale of this history astounds me. And yet as I wander through the streets of Valencia or visit the towns and cities of other parts of Spain, it’s clear that this tradition of embracing the new and making it into something different, something distinctly Spanish, is a thriving counterpart to the age-old traditions that make Spain such a vibrant and beautiful place.

Saludos,

Ivan Larcombe

Ivan loves wine and food almost as much as he loves writing about them. Next on the list is hearing from interested readers: he welcomes comments and visitors to his blog, Ivan In Valencia.

  • http://ivaninvalencia.com Ivan Larcombe

    Carlos, As I am sure that you are aware, the English language does not use the lambda as a symbol of pronunciation – this link provides a list of the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbols that apply to English: http://cla.calpoly.edu/~jrubba/phon/learnipa.html. Rather than explore in detail the somewhat erudite (and for the layperson rather uninteresting) topic of phonetics, my goal was to provide an easily accessible approximation of the acceptable English pronunciations of the word ‘paella’: I certainly didn’t expect that I would cause any offense.

  • carlos

    Hehe!Funny to read a stupidity such as “But it?s just not always appropriate to jump in with pedantic corrections,…”Pedantic? You may mean “analphabetic”!The only correct pronounciation of “paella” (and of any word including an “ll”), uses neither your “l” nor your “y”, but the approximant lateral phoneme represented by a lambda.It is true that many illiterate spanish speakers, and also many immigrants coming from Latin America use “y” and “ll” irrespectively of their correct pronounciation.That's ok. All languages change with time and use. Probably it has to be accepted even if empoverishes the language.But…..pretending to be pedantic by claiming for PAEYA????Funny indeed!!! Besides, great and inspiring article on paeLLa. Made me feel hungry…..

  • http://www.ourwinestory.com Dylan

    Paella is one of those “last supper” foods at the top of my list. There's this quality saffron rice which, ever since my first tasting, has proven to be irresistible to my taste. I'll have to thank the Moors for this dish which has filled and crossed generations of empty stomachs.

  • wiljak

    Try living with a Valenciana! So far it has taught me too things – one, there is no such thing as paella outside of Valencia (the others are just “rice dishes”) and two, tio Enrique can put whatever the hell he wants in a paella and it will still be authentic!

  • http://www.pandltranslations.com Janine

    Oh, to be able to eat a paella whever you want…

  • ValenciaSon

    Why anglicize the pronunciation just because one is speaking in English? It sounds so off and tourist-tacky to hear paella pronounced paela.

  • http://ivaninvalencia.com Ivan Larcombe

    ValenciaSon – I agree that, at least in theory, there's no need to anglicize Spanish words, but it's not always easy for people to pronounce words from other languages. In English, for example, I still reel at the pronunciation of 'worchestire' and can't imagine how others cope. And of course there are so many names that take on different forms. I remember my first Spanish girlfriend getting quite miffed that the English had a name for the Río Tajo – Tagus River. And as much as I have embraced the Spanish version of my name – Iván – I never could call my friend, Ricardo, 'Richard'. Actually, I haven't met a Spaniard yet who can pronounce my name the way I do. Fair enough – I can't roll an 'r' after an 's' to save my life. Las risas siempre me siguen…