How to Get Good Paella In Spain

  • 01 of 14

    What You Need to Know About Europe's Most Famous Rice Dish

    Paella Valenciana. Yes, those are snails.
    ••• Paella Valenciana. Yes, those are snails. Kent Wang/Creative Commons

    Paella is probably the dish people most seek out when they come to Spain. 

    As you imagine your first trip to Spain, you probably see yourself sitting out on a terraza, drinking sangria and serving yourself seafood paella as you watch the sun go down on the beach.

    But, I've got a couple of bombshells for you. You shouldn't drink sangria in Spain, and paella is not (usually) a seafood dish.

    Surprised? 

    See also: Guide to Eating and Drinking in Spain

    Paella originated in Valencia, on the east coast of Spain, but there are varieties available all over the country using all sorts of local ingredients. There are also other, similar rice dishes, as well as similar dishes that don't use rice at all!

    Over the next few pages you'll learn about the different types of paella and other rice dishes available and how to spot a bad paella, as well as some of my picks for the best rice restaurants in Spain and where you can learn to make paella yourself.

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  • 02 of 14

    Not all that is yellow is paella: types of rice dishes in Spain

    Arroz con Bogavante
    ••• This is not paella. This is Arroz con Bogavante. _iBaNe_/Creative Commons

    Think Spanish cuisine and you'll think seafood and paella. You'll probably also think seafood paella. The picture of a dish of yellow rice with prawns and mussels in most people's idea of what paella is about. Most shun the cheaper meat paella in favor of the seafood version even if they aren't overly keen on shellfish because they see it as 'more traditional'.

    But they'd be wrong.

    What is the Classic Paella?

    The original paella, paella valenciana is a rice and meat dish, made in the fields around Valencia, usually containing chicken and rabbit and sometimes snails (today it's likely to only have chicken in most places). The vegetables will most traditionally be green beans and butter beans.

    That's right - no seafood!

    Other Popular Types of Paella

    Other common paella varieties include paella de marisco, which is seafood paella (usually mussels and prawns and often garnished with red peppers), paella de verduras (vegetarian paella) and paella mixta (a...MORE combination of any or all of the above).

    I've Got a Bone to Pick With Traditional Paella

    Usually, the bones and shells of the meat and seafood are included in the dish, which means lots of digging into your rice with your fingers to separate edible from inedible. 

    The exceptions are with arroz a banda, arroz senyoret and arroz con magro, which have their seafood or meat shell-free and boneless.

    Beyond Paella: Dry, Sticky, Creamy or Soupy?

    If going beyond standard paella these are the descriptions you'll need to learn in order to understand the other types of rice dishes in Spain.

    Classic paellas are described as seco, or 'dry'.  At the other end of the scale you have caldoso, which means 'brothy' or 'soupy'. In between you have meloso (sticky) and cremoso (creamy), both approximately the consistency of risotto. The dish in the picture, arroz con bogavante (rice with lobster) is one of these 'caldoso' dishes.

    These will be the headings you'll see on a paella menu; the exact dishes under them will vary depending on the inventiveness of the chef. I've had a fantastic spicy octopus sticky rice at El Llagut in Tarragona and an Asturian cheese and mushrooms dish at La Genuina in Oviedo.

    Be adventurous. Go for the classic Valencian dish for a taste of tradition but explore the whole gamut of Spanish paella dishes for the full experience.

    But I Don't Like Rice!

    And you've read this far?! Then check out fideua, a paella-like dish made with vermicelli pasta!

    Paella is featured in my list of the Best Spanish Dishes.

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  • 03 of 14

    How to Spot a Bad Paella

    good-and-bad-paella-in-paella.jpg

    Serve someone a plate of yellow rice, perhaps with a mussel or two, and many will think that they've just been served a paella. But they haven't.

    Check out these two pictures: I took them half an hour apart, after I walked of the restaurant that served the paella on the left to go in to the place on the right.

    They were served in the same pan, both with yellow rice and a similar number of vegetables. But look at the difference!

    The key ingredient to good paella is the rice and how the rice is cooked. The dish on the left has used standard long-grain rice with a little food colouring. The dish on the right has genuine paella rice. You can tell by the way the rice in the dish on the right sticks to the bottom of the dish that it was cooked in this pan (in fact, I could see them making it). The dish on the left was simply scooped into the dish just prior to serving.

    You might not be so brave as to walk out of a restaurant that serves paella like on the left. So how can you spot a good...MORE paella before it reaches your table?

    • Look for a restaurant that specialises in rice. Most big cities will have some good places to have paella. An ‘arroceria’ is a type of restaurant specializing in rice dishes, so paella will always feature highly there.
    • Avoid Paellador! There are restaurants all over Spain that have signs outside offering paella from one of the big paella makers – ‘Paellador’ is one such maker. Avoid these places like the plague. These paellas are bought frozen and are as good as you could buy from the frozen department of your local grocery store. The restaurant itself might not be a chain restaurant but the paellas are mass produced and not your authentic dish.
    • Go for places that insist on a minimum of two people.  Paella dishes are usually quite big - individual paella dishes exist but they are not the idea size to make a paella. The smallest practical dish is for two people. Restaurants that specify a minimum number of people therefore almost certainly make their paella fresh. They bring the entire dish to your table for you to help yourself. There are restaurants that will serve individuals, but at least when they specify a minimum, you know that the paella will be fresh.
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  • 04 of 14

    Watch Paella Being Made (or Learn to Make it Yourself)

    Making paella in a restaurant in Malaga
    ••• Making paella in a restaurant in Malaga. (c) Damian Corrigan

    Making paella is a skill, but it's a skill that's easily learnt.  

    There are places all over Spain where you can either take part in a paella class, or at least watch someone else make paella.

    Paella Cookery Classes in Spain

    Get hands on experience of preparing a paella in Madrid, Barcelona or Valencia. In each case you will be taught how to make the base sauce, how to use a paella dish and when to know a paella is ready (probably the hardest part to learn from a recipe). 

    Watch a Chef Make a Paella in Malaga

    One of the best paella restaurants in Spain is in Malaga. Bodega El Patio has an extensive a la carte paella (and other rice dishes) menu, but the big attraction for me is their daily paella demonstrations.

    Every weekday you can watch their chef make a large paella in the eating area. You can then order a portion of the paella at an unbeatable price.

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  • 05 of 14

    Best Paella and Other Rice Restaurants in Spain

    Two types of paella at Arrozal
    ••• Two types of paella at Arrozal. (c) Damian Corrigan

    Where I've had excellent paella and other rice dishes in Spain.

    See also:

    Valencia

    Around the central market there are lots of restaurants that sell paella. This is what they do, all day, every day, using ingredients bought straight from the market. You can't go wrong with any of these.

    Hotel Hospes Palau de la Mar came second in the Concurso Internacional de Paella competition, so their dish is worth checking out too.

    But really, pretty much anywhere in Valencia will make a good paella.

    Hotel Hospes Palau de la Mar Address: Avinguda de Navarro Reverter, 14, 46004, Valencia, Spain

    Tarragona

    There are a couple of rice restaurants in Tarragona, just outside Barcelona, but my favorite is El Llagut. They don't actually make paella - their dishes tend to be the caldoso or meloso styles. Their spicy octopus rice dish is fantastic.

    El Llagut Address: Carrer de Natzaret, 10, 43003 Tarragona, Spain

    Madrid

    El Arrozal in...MORE La Latina is my favorite paella restaurant in Madrid.

    El Arrozal Address: Calle de Segovia, 13, Madrid, Spain

    Malaga 

    Bodega El Patio is the restaurant mentioned earlier in this article where you can watch a paella being made right in the restaurant.

    Bodega El Patio Address: Calle Granada, 39, 29015 Málaga, Spain

    Oviedo

    Most people visiting Asturias wouldn't think to go for paella, but La Genuina does some interesting things with local ingredients, plus they're happy to make individual paellas, which is great. I had a paella with mushrooms and Asturian cheese which was nice, though a bit heavy for one. Share this one and another with a dining partner. 

    La Genuina Address: Calle Cimadevilla, 2, 33003 Oviedo, Asturias, Spain

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  • 06 of 14

    Paella in Barcelona

    Paella and seafood in Barcelona
    ••• Paella and seafood in Barcelona. Jeremy Keith/Creative Commons

    Thanks to Paul Cannon for contributing the restaurants on this page.

    See also: How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Barcelona

    Paella on Joan de Borbó
    Barceloneta's main throughfare is lined with busy restaurants offering paella at middling prices. Many have paella included in their set menu, usually somewhere between ten and twenty euros. Two stalwarts along this avenue are the boisterous, eye-catching El Rey de la Gamba, and Arròs, which has a brilliant value-for-money range of traditional rice dishes.

    El Rey de la Gamba Address: Passeig Joan Borbó, 53

    Arròs Address: Passeig de Joan de Borbó, 12


    Paella on Barceloneta Beachfront
    The beachfront has a number of top-end restaurants. Sal Cafe, with a terrace overlooking the sea, is the place to order a paella negra - black paella - which is tinted with squid ink. Can Majó on Carrer L'Almirall Aixada is a legendary paella restaurant. But it's also a bit more costly, with prices starting at around 30€.

    Can Majó Address: Almirante Aixada, 23

    Pae...MORElla at Port Olimpic
    Restaurants here overlook the olympic harbour in one direction and Nova Icaria beach on the other side. It's a wonderful breezy setting and each restaurant has extensive alfresco seating. Two of the finest are La Fonda and El Tunel del Port, both situated on Moll de Gregal.

    El Tunel del Port Address: Moll de Gregal, 11

    La Fonda Address: Calle Moll de Gregal, 7-10

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  • 07 of 14

    Paella Cooking Demonstration in Malaga

    All the paella ingredients laid out and ready to go
    ••• All the paella ingredients laid out and ready to go. (c) Damian Corrigan

    Over the next few pages, see how a chef makes a paella in the dining room of a restaurant.

    Though the sofrito and broth are made in advance, the rest is freshly prepared in front of the diners. I was surprised how quickly the whole meal came together: it took less than half an hour. 

    Arrive at 2pm at Bodega El Patio in Malaga from Monday to Friday to see a paella being made: they make a different one every day.

    First off, the raw ingredients are brought out and the vegetables are fried off in a little oil... 

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  • 08 of 14

    Paella Cooking Demonstration in Malaga

    The meat joins the vegetables in the paella pan
    ••• The meat joins the vegetables in the paella pan. (c) Damian Corrigan

     ...then the meat is added....

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  • 09 of 14

    Paella Cooking Demonstration in Malaga

    Stirring the sofrito into the paella
    ••• Stirring the sofrito into the paella. (c) Damian Corrigan

    The sofrito - a pre-cooked mixture of tomatoes, peppers, garlic and other ingredients - is mixed with the rice, meat and vegetables...

     

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  • 10 of 14

    Paella Cooking Demonstration in Malaga

    Pouring the broth into the paella
    ••• Pouring the broth into the paella. (c) Damian Corrigan

    Then the broth is added... 

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  • 11 of 14

    Paella Cooking Demonstration in Malaga

    The paella bubbles away
    ••• The paella bubbles away. (c) Damian Corrigan

     The broth is allowed to reduce. This will take around 15 minutes, depending on the size of the paella.

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  • 12 of 14

    Paella Cooking Demonstration in Malaga

    The paella looks ready!
    ••• The paella looks ready!. (c) Damian Corrigan

     The paella looks done!

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  • 13 of 14

    Paella Cooking Demonstration in Malaga

    Dishing out the paella
    ••• Dishing out the paella. (c) Damian Corrigan

     Time to serve out the paella.

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  • 14 of 14

    Paella Cooking Demonstration in Malaga

    The finished paella
    ••• The finished paella. (c) Damian Corrigan

     And here's the finished dish!