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More than just paella; choosing the best Spanish rice dishes

Question – what’s the most famous dish in Spain? Answer – paella! And our part of eastern Spain, the Comunidad Valenciana, is where you’ll find the real thing. Here’s my guide to the best paella in Spain.

The raw material comes from the rice fields around Valencia. And the fishing fleet in our town, Villajoyosa near Alicante, supplies another key ingredient for a great rice dish – wonderful fresh seafood. Jump down to the end of this post to find my restaurant recommendations.

You’ll often see paella called arroz (simply ‘rice’) on local menus. That’s because there’s actually a whole range of rice dishes to choose from, not just paella. Read on…

Paella de Mariscos, made with cigalas (langoustines/Dublin Bay Prawns) and gambas (prawns)

Arroz negro (black rice) is cooked in squid ink, which gives it the black colour and a distinctive taste

Rice dishes tick three boxes: they’re delicious, they’re very filling and also great value, especially if they come as part of a menu del dia (menu of the day), served every weekday in Spanish restaurants. 

The minimum order for any rice dish is usually two people, as the rice is prepared in a large round metal pan – a paellera – which ensures the rice is cooked evenly. Some restaurants will do portions for one person, but by no means all.

The different kinds of paella

A paella valenciana will contain chicken and rabbit. Paella aficionados from Valencia insist that this is the only true paella. For them, everything else is simply ‘arroz’ – a rice dish, unworthy of the great name paella!

paella marinera or paella de marisco will contain plenty of seafood.

A paella mixta (the clue is in the name) will have a mixture of fish, seafood, chicken and maybe peppers or beans. Definitely not chorizo (spicy sausage) though; Brit celebrity chef Jamie Oliver almost caused an international incident when his recipe included it. Proper paella fans were horrified!

A paella negra/arroz negro has black rice, coloured with squid ink. I’ve recently come across dishes made with arroz venere – a naturally black rice developed in China,  grown in Italy and supposed to be higher in fibre – though I’ve not tried it yet.

The traditional paella vilera (paella from here in Villajoyosa/La Vila Joiosa) features rabbit (conejo), chick peas (garbanzos) and may even include snails (caracoles). Slightly odd for a seaside town, but there you go!

Try arroz a banda, a typical rice dish of the area around Alicante. The rice is cooked using fish stock, with added pieces (tropezones) of squid (calamar), cuttlefish (sepia) and maybe tuna (atún). You sometimes see it called arroz del senyoret

Top quality rice (arroz abanda) in a traditional paellera, El Hogar del Pescador

You could really push the boat out and order a caldero de pescado. First you’ll be served your fish, and while you’re eating that, the stock from cooking your fish will be used to prepare arroz a banda.

Don’t plan on doing anything for the rest of the day! Caldero is a typical dish of Murcia and the island of Tabarca off the coast of Alicante.

Arroz al horno de leña

Travel a few kilometres inland from Villajoyosa to sample a different rice style arroz al horno de leña“. The rice is cooked in a wood-fired oven (el horno), rather than in a traditional metal paellera on a stove.

Often prepared in an earthenware bowl, it contains potatoes, morcilla (black pudding/blood sausage), a whole bulb of garlic, tomatoes, chicken, pork and chick peas and probably anything else that takes the cook’s fancy on the day.

It’s nothing like the arroz dishes you get on the coast – not a pescado nor a gamba in sight – but it’s still delicious and warming on a cold winter’s day. The arroz below came from Restaurante Xiri in Monóvar, half an hour’s drive inland from Alicante.

Rice cooked in a wood oven (arroz al horno de leña). Prepared in an earthenware bowl, it’s a typical country rice dish. No fish or seafood involved.

Try also fideuà, cooked the same way as paella, but with noodles instead of rice. A dish originally from Gandia up the coast towards Valencia.

Fideuà – a rice dish without the rice! Picture credit: Ferran Pestaña via Creative Commons

The veggie option!

Vegetarians can request an arroz/paella de verduras (vegetables) in most places, although be warned; the rice itself may have been cooked in fish stock (caldo de pescado). If in doubt, ask your waiter.

Different rice styles: seco, caldoso or meloso

So those are the main arroz dishes on offer – but there’s one further choice to make. In the better rice restaurants, you will be asked whether you want your arroz/paella prepared in seco, caldoso or meloso style.

Arroz seco (literally, “dry rice”) is the classic rice dish that most people go for – including me – so called because the rice has absorbed all the fish stock.

Then there’s arroz caldoso, best translated as rice served in a thick stock (the caldo). There’s also arroz meloso, which is creamier.

It’s paella, but not as you know it. Arroz meloso, a creamy rice dish, is well worth a try
An arroz caldoso, made with rape y sepia (monkfish and cuttlefish) and served in a thick stock. Restaurante Tres14 in La Vila Joiosa.

It’s all about the rice!

Valencian chefs use a short grain rice (usually bomba) which soaks up all the flavour from the fish stock, but doesn’t fall apart as it cooks. There’s nothing worse than mushy, overcooked rice in a paella dish.

Arroz aficionados might tell you that calasparra rice from Murcia, the next province along from Alicante, is the best. And the Ebro Delta in Catalonia produces plenty of fine rice too. But who’s arguing?  

To make it even tastier, your arroz is usually served with ali oli, a garlic mayonnaise, and wedges of lemon.

Saffron: the most expensive spice on earth

The traditional golden colour of a rice dish comes from saffron and most of the saffron comes from La Mancha in central Spain. Saffron threads are plucked laboriously by hand from the crocus flower.

It takes 150 flowers to produce a gram of saffron, which explains the price tag. Just half a gram of azafrán manchego can cost €5 – but for that money you get enough saffron threads for several arroz dishes.

Cheap tourist restaurants will try to save money by using turmeric food colouring instead. It’s a fraction of the price of saffron. Before you order, look at the rice other people are eating – if it’s too yellow, be very suspicious. 

Top paella tip!

In good rice restaurants, the hot paellera should be brought to the table so you can see the dish is freshly made.

Ask the waiter to leave the paellera in the middle of your table and dig in. That way, you get to pinch the socarrat; the crusty, slightly burned bit at the centre of the pan that you get when the rice is cooked just right. Delicious! And rice dishes are all about sharing with friends. So get stuck in!

Rubbish paella – and how to avoid it

How to find the best paella in Villajoyosa

Most restaurants in our town – Villajoyosa/La Vila Joiosa – feature rice dishes. But these are our favourites:

Out of town

Fascinating fact!

The Valencian regional government declared paella to be an ‘official cultural asset’  (known as a Bien de Interés Cultural or BIC in Spain) in autumn 2021, because paella ‘promotes unity and sharing’.

And who’s to argue – when everyone is sat around a table digging in to a delicious rice dish, you don’t get more unified or share-y than that!

© Guy Pelham 

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