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The Paella Paradox

Of course you know Paella: the Valencian –then Spanish, now universal– meal that, as many other regional meals all over Spain and the World, coined its name from the pan in which is cooked, properly called paella, and its basic receipt from ingredients at hand –rice, some local vegetables and snails, as well as some meat.

The Professional Side of Paradox

What you probably don’t know if you have never been in Valencia is that, despite the apparent simplicity of its pan and recipe, it’s pretty hard to enjoy some paella over here that lives up to its worldly fame, until the point that there is the old telling “There is no worst paella than paella in Valencia” that one critic reminded recently.

That’s crazy, of course, but there is a grain of truth on it, as you can check for yourself if you come into most restaurants and bars over here and order paella: you may end up enjoying some fine rice meal that resembles paella in pan, ingredients and look, but shows no trace at all of the sublime choral flavour and the delicate cooking point that truly deserves praises all around the world.

There may be reasons for such a paradoxical fact, no doubt: the simple receipt seems akin to be adapted even perverted by every cook in the city and beyond, the quality of ingredients is obviously essential, and there are also some subtle details, as the kind of fire you use. However, and even if all that seems crucial, it’s not the key at all, as many professional cooks stick to the receipt and take care of every ingredient and detail but actually fail to excel.

The Popular Side of Paradox

The paradox increases if you take into account the other side of the coin: if you come here and, instead of tasting paella at a restaurant or bar, you are lucky enough to be invited to enjoy it at a local family or friendly home, then you’ll hardly fail to enjoy the sublime Real Thing. What is more: you’ll be pretty astonished in watching how the family cook, usually mommy or daddy, cooks paella without taking apparently too much care about it, and once and again the final paella excels!

How can this be possible at all? Why, despite the apparent simplicity of paella, professional cooks hardly succeed while popular cooks hardly fail?

The Expressive Side of Paradox

If you ask me, as a non-valencian paella lover, I’d dare to say that this paradox says something important about the peculiar nature of paella and other popular meals: they are not the kind of thing that one can learn by following some receipt or watching some media tutorial, but the kind of thing that one must learn by something like immersion in its very own native culture, quite in the same way as natural languages must be properly learned.

I guess something like this was pretty obvious at the Paella Tribute recently held in Valencia (see post) in which all and everyone of the nine Big International chefs avoided to cook the Real Thing, cooking instead Their Thing with paella’s ingredients or onto a paella pan (see picture above for something like Russian paella with vodka and wine), while at the same time more than three hundred humble popular cooks celebrated the Real Thing indeed while congratulating table companions and having a beer.

I really think that professional chefs took a very wise decision indeed, as they probably know that, even if both sides are not exclusive at all, paella belongs by nature and nurture to the popular not to the professional side of cooking, and that, despite their huge and deep knowledge of cooking, they probably lack the kind of practical knowledge that is needed for cooking paella, one that just can be learned by watching how it is done in situ straight from the hands of experienced popular cooks, as the lovely lady below.

Then, if you come to Valencia and really want to enjoy paella and understand why it is rightly praised all around the world, please follow my advice: try to avoid restaurants and bars and don’t look down any chance of enjoying it at the home of your local fellows or friends, on a sunny Sunday morning if possible. While you watch them cook it and talk with them in a relaxed way, you’ll learn that most things in popular culture doesn’t fit into receipts or pans.


Pictures | Daniel García Peris, sbegueria @ flickr