The secret to cooking good paella lies in a set of smooth Spanish incantation.
“Paella, paella... se bueno! Se bueno!” chef José Manuel Benito chanted over our large pan of Valencian paella. In English, that translates to: “Paella, paella... be good! Be good!”
“Think of it as a magical spell. Our paella will now be cooked to perfection, ” said the cheerful chef who’s affectionately known as Chef Beni.
I was at Escuela de Arroces y Paella Valenciana (School of Rice and Valencian Paella) a few years back for a masterclass on cooking the popular Spanish meal.
The rice dish is a staple in Valencia and eating (or in my case, cooking) it is a quintessential experience in Spain’s third-largest city (after Madrid and Barcelona).
Beni’s masterclass would usually require students to source for the paella ingredients at the market. Since special arrangements were made for our group of visiting journalists, the necessary ingredients had been prepared beforehand.
That didn’t stop us from starting our day at Mercado Central to check out fresh ingredients and produce. Mercado Central, or Valencia’s Central Market, is one of the oldest public markets that is still actively operating in Europe.
It’s easy to be lost among the numerous aisles where you would find various items and ingredients on sale. We were told that many of the stalls here have been passed down through many generations of families.
It was definitely a nice experience to see how Valencians start their day and also to do some shopping at the market.
At the school, we were taught the basics of cooking paella. Traditionally, it is cooked in a large flat pan over high heat. In fact, paella is actually named after the pan it’s cooked in.
The large flat shape ensures that all ingredients can be cooked simultaneously and then moved to the edges.
The origins of paella can be traced to Albufera, a town about 30 minutes from Valencia. And if anything, Valencians are very proud of their dish and take its cooking style seriously.
Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver was infamously lambasted when he suggested adding chorizo into paella.
“Great Spanish food doesn’t get much better than paella. My version combines chicken thighs and chorizo, ” he wrote on Twitter in 2016.
Paella traditionally includes meat, fish, shellfish and vegetables – but certainly not chorizo. Unsurprisingly, many Spaniards were outraged by Oliver’s version.
Beni, who is a strong advocate of traditional Valencian gastronomy, said the paella cooked in the city must include both chicken and rabbit meat, as they gave the Valencian paella its unique flavour.
Sometimes, snails are added for a more “herbal” taste (snails feed on wild rosemary and other herbs in the fields). During the class, Beni also let us in on the secret to making stock for seafood paella.
The other vital ingredients are saffron and paprika. If sourcing for the right spices seem daunting, there are many shops (even in Valencia) that sell packets of paella spice mixture.
However, we were warned that some of those mixtures contain mostly food colouring since good quality saffron is expensive.
After more than an hour of cooking and preparing the stock, it was now time for another vital ingredient – rice. We used a type of short grain rice that was native to Valencia.
I was amused when Beni mentioned that there’s no exact measurements for the rice. He said a chef needs only rely on his eye. This is very much like the “agak-agak” cooking technique preferred by most Malaysians.
The proof of a good paella is defined by the toasted crispy rice found at the bottom of the pan. Fortunately, the one I prepared with three other journalists had just the right crisp.
Looks like the incantation worked after all!
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