Paella is the best known of all the Spanish rice dishes and in order for it to be properly called a paella rather than a risotto or a pilaf it should be made with the correct rice. Some supermarkets package rice and describe it as “paella rice” but paella derives its name from the dish it is cooked in and not from a kind of rice.
Two kinds of roundish, short grain rice are recommended for paella. They are Bomba and Sollana (also called Calasparra rice). It’s interesting to note that while nearly all rice production in Spain is centered on the Valencia region (the region from which paella originates), Calasparra rice is grown in the neighboring province of Murcia. In spite – or perhaps because of – the fact that it is so highly regarded, Calasparra makes up only 1 per cent of all the rice grown in Spain.
Both types of rice are grown in the traditional way in paddy fields that are irrigated by means of an ancient system introduced to Spain centuries ago by the Moors. In Calasparra the water travels down a mountain side, being diverted into each family plot and carrying on down the mountain in specially constructed channels. Now here’s the scientific bit: the constant flow of cold mountain water causes the rice to mature more slowly than the rice that is grown in the Valencia region because those paddies are on flat land by the sea where it is much warmer. The end result is a harder grain of rice that contains less moisture and therefore when cooked is able to absorb on average at least a third more cooking liquid that other kinds of rice but still remains in tact rather than breaking down like a pudding rice might, for example.
Bomba and Calasparra are regarded as the best for paella because they are able to absorb so much liquid and yet keep their form, the grains remaining separate when cooked. If you can’t get either of these types of rice then use a standard medium grain rice. For making paella don’t be tempted to use Arborio rice: many think that this is a good alternative because it has a similar shape to Bomba and Capasparra but Arborio rice is too creamy and better for risottos which demand such a consistency. Similarly “sushi rice” should not be used in place of Bomba or Calasparra because it’s too sticky and a good paella needs the grains to stay separate.
You’ll spot Bomba and Sollana rice because they are almost exclusively packed in cloth bags; this work is done by hand to continue the high level of work that has already gone into the cultivation and picking of this quality product.
Of course, paella is not the only rice dish; there are many different rice based dishes and rice is also used as an accompaniment to stews instead of potatoes. In fact, rice has been a staple food in Spanish cooking since it was introduced to the Iberian peninsula by the moors in the eight century.
However paella is the only dish where cooks are very precise about what is required. As an accompaniment or the basis of a pilaf style dish, long grain rice is absolutely fine. For the traditional Spanish dessert of “arroz con leche” a kind of rice pudding, then short grain rice is the order of the day.
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