When you think of Spanish cuisine, what’s the first dish that pops up in your head? Unless you consider sangria a proper meal, chances are it’s paella. What you may not know about this famous rice dish, however, is that its origins proudly trace back to Valencia. Of course, paella has since spread all over Spain (and the world for that matter), with each region boasting their own dish with a twist. Foodies looking to uncover the true essence of this dish should have their eyes fixed on Valencia.
A Brief History
Sitting pretty along Spain’s eastern coast, the region surrounding Valencia harbors the perfect climate for growing rice. Moors had brought rice cultivation to the Iberian Peninsula in the 10th century and by the Reconquista, rice dishes were a staple in the Spanish diet. In Valencia, casseroles of rice, fish, and spices were common for religious feasts, celebrations, and family gatherings.
Before paella became a national dish, however, it was originally for farmers and laborers cooked over a wood fire. The workers would simply add whatever was available in the countryside at the time: tomatoes, onions, rabbit, snails, beans, duck, and any spices on hand. On special occasions, local farmers, fishermen, and peasants on the outskirts would gather to cook rice in calderos in the open by Lake Albufera.
From these humble origins, the dish evolved to become a mainstay in the culture of Valencia. The legacy of the dish was cemented in 1840 when a local newspaper referred to it as paella because of the specific pan it’s made in. Beyond its deliciousness, paella is a source of great pride and history among locals because it contains the essence of Spain and the two cultures that have influenced its development: the Romans, who brought utensils, and the Arabs, who brought the basic foods of humanity. It’s the perfect marriage between the two cultures that once ruled the region.
Paella is more commonly thought of as a concept rather than a recipe and it requires following a traditional technique. The original recipe to locals was simply “rice with something” but nowadays there are variations and specialties, such as seafood paella, meat paella, or mixed paella. The basic ingredients are rice, extra virgin olive oil, saffron, salt, water, tomato, lima beans, green runner beans, and chicken or rabbit. As the quality of life improved in Valencia, this grew to often include duck, garlic, snails, and rosemary. Traditional Valencians insist that only these ingredients should go into making paella, while the end result is all served in the same steaming pot.
The standard Valencian recipe is considered very traditional.
- Heat oil in a paella.
- Sauté meat after seasoning with salt.
- Add green vegetables and sauté until soft.
- Add garlic (optional), grated tomatoes, beans and sauté.
- Add paprika and sauté.
- Add water, saffron, snails (optional) and rosemary.
- Boil to make broth and allow it to reduce by half.
- Remove the rosemary once flavour has infused or it starts to fall apart.
- Add rice and simmer until rice is cooked.
- Garnish with more fresh rosemary.
Between the traditional family-run establishments that date back generations, contemporary hotspots that are redefining the dish, and charming beachside chiringuitos, no trip to Valencia is complete without a taste of authentic paella. Here are a few can’t-miss spots.
Casa Carmela is just about the closest you can get to tasting home-cooked family paella in a restaurant. This family-run establishment dates back nearly a century as a humble beach shack where swimmers could change their clothes and rest. Before long, they started serving paella to hungry beach-goers. Casa Carmela serves traditional paella cooked on a wood fire with a traditional Valencian atmosphere. Here you eat with your wooden spoon directly out of the steaming pot.
If you’re looking for a simple and cozy place to indulge in delicious paella, Restaurante Levante has you covered. Conveniently located in the neighborhood of Campanar, the star dish of this popular spot is none other than traditional Valencian-style paella prepared with rabbit, chicken, and local beans. There are more than 10,000 bottles of Spanish wine to choose from as the perfect complement to your meal. This is one of the most famous names in Valencia, especially if you’re looking for more of an elevated experience away from the masses.
Located in the lively and bohemian Ruzafa district, Casa Roberto is one of Valencia’s most beloved paella restaurants. It’s a popular place among locals for small celebrations, such as name days or birthdays, heightened by the old-school ambiance and authentic décor. The menu follows the classic Valencian recipe with a lot of snails and tons of vegetables.
Sitting pretty on the shores of Playa de la Malvarrosa, La Pepica brings about a highly desirable paella experience. This well-known restaurant is perfect for enjoying paella with friends and family while enjoying a view of the lively Mediterranean coastline, swaying palm trees, and Valencian sun. Unsurprisingly, many paella dishes at La Pepica feature delicious seafood. Dating back to 1898, it’s the quality that arises from the kitchen that has solidified its legacy in the world of the best paella specialists.
Situated in the heart of the Old City, La Riuà is the family-run establishment that dates back many generations. The old-school décor looks like it was taken straight out of the 19th century and it’s a popular place among locals, so be sure to make a reservation if you’re coming during peak hours. There are more than a dozen varieties of the famous rice dish to choose from, however, the house specialty, Paella Valenciana, has earned raves from visitors and locals alike.
Housed in a traditional Valencian country house just outside of the city, Casa Salvador is a family-run restaurant that has charmed visitors for more than six decades. The charming atmosphere begins with the peaceful freshwater lagoon and the dining balcony takes full advantage of this. There are 13 varieties of the rice-based dish on its menu alongside other typical specialties.