Yes, I do think of paella from Spain as something of a problem dish. For starters, we've been hearing for years that just as Italy conquered America with pizza, and just as China conquered America with wonton soup, so Spain shall conquer America soon with its iconic dish. The wonderful food of this beautiful European country will finally grow popular in America, the reports perennially say, and paella shall lead the way.
Except that... it hasn't happened! For decades. And it ain't gonna happen anytime soon! Why?
The very definition of the dish is rather fuzzy. According to traditional chefs from Valencia, the city on Spain's northeast coast that is home to paella, only one permutation of this rice specialty should be given the name of paella: rice with snails, rabbit, and two kinds of beans.
Everything else, they say, was created for tourists, starting in the 1950s, who had it in their heads that paella should include both shellfish and chorizo, the smoky Spanish sausage. But traditional paella, created in the region by medieval Arabs, never had shellfish, never had pork, and certainly never had them in tandem! Sure, today, eager-for-business restaurateurs in Spain will call anything paella -- but the foundations of the dish are rocked by such flexibility.
And that vaguely defined "mixta" is what we see in "Spanish" restaurants in the U.S.
It is often cooked and served in a pot (which creates moisture), not a wide paella pan; the rice is usually colored yellow by turmeric; the focus is indubitably on the shellfish, almost always piled high and overcooked.
How could this dish not have a reputation-damaging identity crisis? The real thing in Valencia is cooked over a wood fire...
... which gives the finished product a brownish-look, not a yellow one. The flavors of smoke are present... and, in a perfectly cooked one, the rice has a crispy, browned character to it, with a deep flavor contributed by the cooking liquid.
And that's problem #2: Real paella is not easy to cook! Many chefs in Valencia restaurants have compromised on the traditional dish. How can we ever hold out paella as Spain's "great yellow hope" in America?
This is exactly where "the other paella" comes into play. As I was working my way through the Valencia region, I noticed that soupier versions of paella existed in abundance, never called "paella," and never requiring all that intricate wood smoke and browning.
They break into two main categories: meloso, which is a little creamy; and caldoso, which is downright soupy, like the asopao of the Caribbean, always cooked in pots.
In my tasting experience -- even in Valencia! -- the soupy ones were more satisfying than the dry paellas! Even Raquel Perez of Restaurante El Tossal in downtown Valencia, one of the greatest local restaurants, offers no dry rice dishes at all on her menu. "Melosos and caldosos have more flavor than paellas. Using the same juice and rice -- the wet ones are better!"
Among the greatest wet dishes of my recent journeys were:
So, I have a huge recommendation to make. Let's forget about "paella" leading the Spanish charge in America, and let's turn our attention to two other very Spanish dishes: the meloso, and the caldoso, both of them descended from rice heaven.
To get you going in your own kitchen, here's a great recipe for a soupy rice-and-crab dish:
CRAB MELOSO (Soupy Rice and Crab)
I have used east coast blue crabs here, but you could convert to Dungeness if you prefer. Also, when the dish is done, the cooked crabs will require some messy eating. If you don't like that idea, you can eliminate the crab "garnish" all together. Or, you could garnish the dish with just-cooked lobster or shrimp. Me, I like the messy purity of the crab-on-crab deal. But in this winner, the rice is indisputably the thing!
Serves 2 as a main course
Photographs courtesy of David Rosengarten and The Hispanic Food Network .
Follow David Rosengarten on Twitter: www.twitter.com/d_rosengarten