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Origin and Recipe of Traditional Valencian Paella with Saffron

Updated on March 30, 2012

Origin: The Birth of the Classic Dish

The first time I had paella was in an overpriced café in Madrid. I was jetlagged and too green to realize that I paid a laughable fee for low-quality mush. Fortunately, my second attempt more than made up for the first, thanks to some Spanish friends. In the old part of Valencia, on the second floor of a narrow building amidst tightly huddled groups of chain-smokers, my jaw dropped at the paellera, a shallow, steel pan as big as a tire, which appeared on our paper-clothed table with a silent air of ceremony. My table-mates nodded for me to take the first bite of paella Valenciana, which many argue is the only true paella. Almost too delectable to eat, the steaming gold-hued rice (thanks to the saffron), tender pieces of chicken, chunks of rabbit, beans, peeled tomatoes, paprika, and olive oil filled my mouth. Each scoop was heavenly, and when the last bits of socarrat had been scraped away, it was a bittersweet end.

Saffron from Murcia, Spain
Saffron from Murcia, Spain | Source

The Best Paella in the World?

Of all the Spaniards I have spoken (and argued) with, the birth of paella is agreed to have occurred in Valencia (specifically, in Albufera). Originally, it was a hearty dish of chicken, duck or rabbit, garrafón (large, white lima) beans, flat green beans, water, seasoning (saffron, paprika, salt) and rice (medium-grain). For those without the means, mountain snails were substituted in place of meat or poultry. During the 18th century, Valencianos (mostly peasants), would cook large batches in their paelleras (also referred to as paellas) over an open fire, ensuring that every ingredient was evenly heated. They made huge amounts and spooned the fruits of their labor directly from pan to mouth. An additional taste and aroma was brought out by burning orange tree branches which gave the paella a bit of zest, apart from being a particularly good wood for constant fire.

Authentic, Beautiful Paelleras!
Authentic, Beautiful Paelleras! | Source

Modern Day Craze

Nowadays, no matter what city you go to in Spain, you are sure to find paella on the menu. In the United States as well, in almost any Spanish restaurant, it is sacrilege not to serve it. The question is, of course: Are you getting the real deal? Like any good thing, once it arrives, people will alter it and make it their own. As a writer, I’m hardly one to deny the power of inspiration, alteration and improvisation. Art, food, life--none of it is meant to stay the same forever. If you have never made paella, a great place to start is with the original paella valenciana. Once you get the hang of it, you can try adding red meat, seafood, even (gasp) tofu. The important thing is to have fun experimenting, and, of course, share!

***Paella Valenciana for Four:

500 grams (2 cups) rice

800 grams (1-1.5 pounds) cut chicken

600 grams (1 pound) rabbit

250 grams (1-1.25 cups) flat green beans

200 grams (1 cup) “garrofo”

100 grams (1/2 cup) peeled, chopped tomatoes (can be bought canned)

150 cc (a little over ½ cup) extra virgin olive oil

1 pinch saffron

1 Tbsp. powdered paprika

salt to taste

fresh rosemary sprigs (optional, more for ornamentation)

4 cups water (two times the amount of rice)

If you can, cook a paella outdoors! Que rico!
If you can, cook a paella outdoors! Que rico! | Source


1. Heat oil in the paellera on medium-high heat. Make sure oil is spread evenly over the entire surface.

2. When the oil is nice and hot, add chicken.

3. Once chicken is a nice golden color (not burned!) move it to the edges/exterior of the pan, where heat is less intense.

4. Add rabbit; repeat the same as with the chicken.

5. Add flat green beans.

6. Again, once the beans are cooked, move to the edges, then add tomatoes.

7. Once tomatoes are cooked, mix all ingredients together so that they are uniformly spread over the pan.

8. Add paprika. Move it around quickly so that it doesn’t stick/burn.

9. Add water.

10. Add saffron and garrafón (or similar white beans).

11. Add salt if needed.

12. Once liquid reaches boiling point, let it remain boiling for about 5 minutes, then turn heat to low and let paella cook 30-45 minutes on low heat.

13. After 30-45 minutes, turn the heat up and add the rice evenly over the entire surface.

14. Cook on high for 5 minutes, then medium for 5 minutes, then low for 7-10 minutes. DO NOT cook rice more than 20 minutes, as you run the risk of getting mushy rice that falls apart.

15. If you want to try to get that famous socarrat, for the last minute cook the paella on an intense, high heat.

16. ¡Que aproveche! Bon appétit!

*** “Receta Tradicional de la Paella Valenciana.”, n.p. Web. 14 Jan. 2012.

Additional Tips

1. Use “Spanish Rice”: This is medium-grain rice and includes the varieties “bomba,” and “senia.” These absorb more liquid and do not stick together. DO NOT choose long-grain rice, which takes longer to cook and will not soak up the yummy stock flavor, or short-grain rice, which is sticky.

2. Paella is a dish that needs time and attention. Don’t rush anything and enjoy the process with friends and family.

3. Save a tree—don’t bother with plates. Eat the paella directly from the paellera with a wooden spoon.


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    • profile image


      18 months ago

      Regarding risotto rice (arborio) - it's excellent for paella. Since paella is never stirred after the addition of rice it will not become creamy - as long as an appropriate amount of water is used. That said, you could use bomba or other paella rice to create a creamy dish if desired - it's simply a matter of how it is prepared; stirring, butter, cream, etc.

    • Danareva profile imageAUTHOR

      Dana De Greff 

      6 years ago from Miami

      Eddy--thanks so much! Do let me know how your paella turns out! que aproveche!

    • Eiddwen profile image


      6 years ago from Wales

      This indeed is very interesting and well presented.

      I have to vote up and bookmark in with my 'favourite recipes'and look forward to following you on here.

      Take care and enjoy your day.


    • Danareva profile imageAUTHOR

      Dana De Greff 

      6 years ago from Miami

      Make sure you store that saffron well!

      Honestly, my fav paella does not need rabbit. Chicken is good enough for me!

      Thanks for reading, Anna!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      This is a recipe I need to try (with that leftover saffron in the back of my cupboard). But the rabbit might be a challenge. I'll let you know know tofu is an adequate substitute ;)

    • Danareva profile imageAUTHOR

      Dana De Greff 

      6 years ago from Miami


      This is a valid concern. Obviously, the rice mentioned in the hub is the best choice. You can also try pearl rice. Thanks for reading!

    • profile image

      6 years ago

      Great article!! But won’t risotto rice become creamy as the paella cook? The risotto rice does seem like a great idea because of its size but there is the fear of having creamy paella

    • Danareva profile imageAUTHOR

      Dana De Greff 

      6 years ago from Miami


      If you cook today, let me know how it comes out! Happy eating and thanks for reading!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      ok, now for some paella...

    • Danareva profile imageAUTHOR

      Dana De Greff 

      6 years ago from Miami


      That is a fantastic idea for leftover paella! Thanks for reading and sharing!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Very informative! A comment about leftover paella....scramble some eggs and add the paella to it, it's a great brunch dish! That tip came from a chef in Walla Walla WA, on a night when the vino overtook the food.

    • Danareva profile imageAUTHOR

      Dana De Greff 

      6 years ago from Miami

      I'm sure someone who cares about you will cook it soon... Happy tasting!

    • Danareva profile imageAUTHOR

      Dana De Greff 

      6 years ago from Miami


      I know how you feel! I would suggest just ordering it and saving the rest for the next day! Or just fast all day and go wild at dinner! I've done that a few times...thanks for the comment!

    • Bill Yovino profile image

      Bill Yovino 

      6 years ago

      Sounds great! My uncle was a restaurant cook. When I was about eight, he visited us from out of state and made paella. I loved it! When I travel on business, it always seems to be available only as a dinner for two, so I'm always disappointed. One of these days I'm going to order it anyway.

    • profile image

      Sheryl DeGreff 

      6 years ago

      Thanks for the paella education! I prefer to leave the cooking to someone else and be a taster ! It's got something for everyone in it! Love the history....

    • Danareva profile imageAUTHOR

      Dana De Greff 

      6 years ago from Miami


      How interesting! I have not heard that before- from my understanding, the moors brought rice to Spain and popularized various rice dishes before and after the Spanish took back control in the late 1490's. Poorer Valencians made their paella out of necessity as well as the ability to cook a lot of good food on the cheap!

    • Attikos profile image


      6 years ago from East Cackalacky

      I always heard that paella began among the Celtic warriors fighting against the Romans. They would invert a metal shield, put whatever they had into the bowl its backside formed, and use it to cook the communal dish over the campfire. Any truth to that?


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