Paella to Make a Valencian Weep

Dear Up in Smoke Subscriber:

Quick—name the most famous grilled dish in Spain: Chuleta (Spain’s famous salt grilled rib steak)? Rodobalo (garlic grilled turbot from the Basque country)? Both are popular, but Spain’s most famous grilled masterpiece is…paella.

That’s right, paella (pronounced pah-YAY-a), for the true, the traditional, the authentic way to cook paella is outdoors over a campfire. Alas, mediocre versions of this glorious rice dish—cooked in a wide, flat-bottom pan also known as a paella—abound, and even in its native Valencia, the wood-grilled version is hard to find.

First, some background.

Authentic Spanish paella, which was first seen during the 18th century near the coastal city of Valencia, has much in common with American barbecue. It was poor peoples’ food, cooked over open fires (usually fueled by orangewood or vine clippings or even pine cones) for the midday meal by laborers for laborers, and nearly always by men. Cooks developed their own “secret” recipes, and jealously guarded them. Competitions sprang up. Today, a “Paella King” is crowned each year in the northwest region of Galicia.

Originally, the key ingredients for a traditional paella Valenciana were scavenged close by—the most important being the unique strains of short-grain rice known as arroz bomba or Calaspara that grew (and still grow) in the lagoon-like marshes on Spain’s eastern seaboard. Local produce, like bell peppers and runner beans, added color, while saffron and pimentón (smoked Spanish paprika) ramped up the flavor. Protein came in whatever form people could scrounge it: vegetables, garden snails, rabbit, or the occasional duck—shrimp, clams, etc., if they lived by the sea.

So what constitutes an authentic paella today? It depends on where you are and the occasion. Even in Valencia, paella has multiple personalities: “Paella de mariscos” comes crammed with shellfish or other seafood; “paella mixta” would include seafood and meat such as chicken, pork, chorizo, sausage, or all of the above. There’s even a green paella from Alicante flavored with rabbit, snails and green herbs that mimics the first paellas.

But before you get started, there are a few things you should know about a dish that should be in every grillmaster’s repertory:

1. A paella pan is the preferred equipment for cooking this classic dish. It not only looks cool, but it encourages the rice to caramelize into a golden brown layer (called soccorat) on the bottom of the pan—the best part, some people say, of a well-made paella. You can find one at Spanish grocery stores or cookware shops. We recently added a stainless steel paella pan to the Best of Barbecue line. In a pinch, you can substitute a large frying pan with a heatproof handle.

2. If possible, do cook the paella the traditional way—over a wood campfire. If you go this route (and I encourage you to), a Tuscan grill will help you position the pan securely and stably over the fire. Cooking paella over a campfire can get mighty hot: you might also wish to invest in a grill hoe. The long handle makes it ideal for stirring the paella.

3. Like risotto or pilaf, a good paella lives or dies by the rice. The traditional bomba or Calaspara rice are available at Spanish markets or from Internet purveyors such as or Italian Arborio rice can also be used, although you may need to use slightly more liquid to keep the rice from drying out.

4. Chorizo is a Spanish sausage made with large chunks of cured pork. (It differs from Mexican or Spanish Caribbean chorizo, although the latter can be used in a pinch.) Piquillo peppers are small, bright red peppers with a sweet aromatic flavor—they’re almost always sold bottled or canned. Pimentón is a Spanish smoked paprika. Again, these are available at Spanish grocery stores, or via or Red bell peppers and regular paprika make credible substitutes.

5. Paella is a festive and abundant dish that is meant to be shared communally. Give each diner a wooden spoon for scooping out a portion. Accompany the paella with grilled garlic bread (How to Grill, page 418) for sopping up the juices, a green salad, and either White Sangria (see Ribs, page 268) or a crisp, dry Spanish wine such as an Albariño or Txakoli.

Click here for a traditional recipe for Paella on the Grill, from Planet Barbecue.

For a vegetarian adaptation of Paella on the Grill, click here.

Yours in righteous grilling,
Steven Raichlen, Grill Master and Editor-in-Chief
Nancy Loseke, Features Editor