Rice with what? – On the route of Spanish rice dishes

Let’s start with a basic fact. I’m originally coming from a country (Hungary), where people don’t really eat rice. Especially me.

Yes, we can find rice there too, usually as a cheap side dish, but just imagine the most boring plain white rice, lacking any culinary fantasy or spices, mainly only salted, or sometimes combined with peas and corn (so-called rizi-bizi). We can also see some sweet rice puddings as a dessert on the menu in most of the Hungarian restaurants, but frankly speaking, I have no clue who is really ordering that. There are so many much-much better super tasty Hungarian desserts to choose out from. And there are some weird combinations of mixing plain white rice with meat pieces, but it’s usually served only for lunch in the school canteen made out of extremely cheap ingredients, and it’s definitely better avoiding it.

So that was my long-term story with the rice. Basically, as a kid I have never chosen it, I never wanted to cook it at home, never desired it. The Hungarian kitchen is so rich in extremely outstanding, tasty recipes, super spicy food, mouthwatering soups, out of other more traditional and fresh ingredients, that you don’t really miss eating rice.

Then I remember the first family trip going to Spain, and the first time tasting Paella. All my family, including me, loved it. It was such a new discovery for us, that a rice dish could be so tasty and nicely prepared, we couldn’t stop ordering it and trying the different varieties. But when the holidays were over and we went back home, soon the related ingredients, the golden saffron, the proper rice that my parents brought to recreate Paella at home, were gone, and we stopped cooking rice dishes.

Later on, once the Asian kitchen appeared on the horizon of the Hungarian restaurants, suddenly I realized that the rice could be prepared on even more interesting ways, there are several types and kinds of rice, amazing sauces, Thai recipes, spicy curries, sushi, etc., and suddenly a new world opened for me. I started to love it. But it was still that kind of habit, that when I went out to eat, then I chose these places and enjoyed the rice there. But at home, still, I have never had it.

And yes, we could mention here the different, super tasty nice Italian risotto recipes as well, but this article is not about that.


IT’S ABOUT PAELLA and all the ARROZ dishes that you can enjoy in Spain.

This story begins when I moved to Barcelona. Suddenly wherever I went on the streets, almost at every corner you see the daily Paella offers, better or worse ones. On all the daily menus at least on Thursdays the dish appears. There are dedicated places (Arrocería) to eat only rice dishes. And at home, I was so lucky, that Dani from time to time prepared some super tasty rice dishes for us, that I really enjoyed. So finally I was like, hmm, I really need to understand this food culture better because clearly I’m missing out on something very important. And just because I’m not originally a rice lover, I should really give it a try.

Well most likely everyone knows, that Paella is a traditional Spanish dish from Valencia region. It is a rice dish that can have meat, fish, seafood, and vegetables and is characterized by its use of saffron to give it a yellow color and unique flavor.  So let’s put my favorite ones in order (please note that I don’t eat meat, so those variants won’t be included in my list of preferences) and I give you the tip where to taste them exactly. You might need to travel a bit around, but believe me, it would worth all the kilometers.

Less than 400 km on the amazing Spanish Mediterranean coast

I. Seafood Paella – Paella de Marisco

El Palmar

It’s made out of round rice, fresh seafood, and seasoning. The best I have ever tried was in the village of El Palmar in Albufera National Park. There are plenty of great restaurants next to each other there, all of them specialized in rice dishes, and basically, you cannot make a bad choice. We have tried the so-called La Albufera restaurant and since then I’m dreaming about those flavors.

Paella in Albufera
Seafood Paella in Albufera, El Palmar, La Albufera 

Albufera or L’Albufera de València meaning “lagoon” in Valencian, is a freshwater lagoon on the Gulf of Valencia coast. The natural biodiversity of the nature reserve allows a great variety of flora and fauna to thrive and be observed year-round. Though once a saltwater lagoon, dilution due to irrigation and canals draining into the estuary and the sand bars increasing in size had converted it to freshwater by the seventeenth century. Nowadays, the Albufera lagoon (the largest in all Spain) has shrunk to a little under 3000 hectares, with practically all of its original surface area of over 14.000 hectares since transformed into paddy fields.
Traditional rice farming covers a whole year and involves painstaking work by the farmers, which is carried out in for stages: preparation of the land, sowing, hoeing, and harvesting. The fields are prepared with fertilizer in February and then flooded in April, after which the rice seedlings are set uniformly throughout the field, planted in straight lines with the workers moving backward so as to avoid stepping on the newly planted seedlings. During the summer months the fields are hoed and then, in September, when the plants have grown, the rice is harvested.

Valencia

And the second-best Paella de Marisco we have eaten on the main beach of Valencia: Playa de la Malva-Rosa, at the Restaurante la Muñeca. We spent a couple of lovely days in the city of Valencia and one morning we decided to rent bikes to get to the closest urban beach. It doesn’t take more than 30 minutes of biking from the city center to get there, it’s a lovely route, and especially when you finally arrive to this wide, open beach that is 1.8 km long with its fine sand. Malva-rosa has plenty of services such as restaurants and cafés that have helped to make it the best spot in the city for gazing out at the Mediterranean and practicing the very Valencian habit of lunching in the sunshine.

Paella de Marisco in Valencia, at Restaurante la Muñeca

II. Arroz Caldoso 

Vilanova i la Geltrú

“Arroz Caldoso” literally means “Brothy rice” and consists of broth and rice with diverse flavorings and extra ingredients. The recipe is quite varied depending on which region of the Iberian peninsula it is prepared in. My favorite, of course, is prepared with fresh seafood, this version calls for the addition of smoked paprika and one’s choice of seafood (usually mussels, shrimps or clams) and extra water, which leaves it in a semi-liquid state. When served, the seafood is presented on top of the rice.

The first time, and still the most memorable occasion when I tried an Arroz Caldoso was in Vilanova i la Geltrú at the Restaurante Peixos Victoria. It was a crazy warm day, we were extremely hungry and exhausted and arrived to the village during the peak lunch hours, there were no free tables anywhere. We ended up accidentally at this place since at least they had some free tables in the shadow, and their food selection looked very promising. I’m not sure if I have ever waited for that long for any dish in my life. I’m either not sure how it was even possible that after a while we didn’t just stand up and leave the place. If you think about a slow food restaurant, that was way beyond. The waiters were running like headless chickens, orders were mistaken, changed, people were complaining all around. But for some reason, we were in that mood that we could just laugh about it. And how great that we didn’t give it up and waited until our Arroz Caldoso arrived. It was worth every minute of waiting, even more, if I knew what we would get in the end, I could have waited for it even longer. Amazing food. Just dedicate enough time, don’t get upset, enjoy the beautiful views, order a couple of glasses of cold white wine, and wait for it. You won’t regret it.

Arroz Caldoso de Marisco at Restaurante Peixos Victoria

Peñíscola

“Arroz caldoso con bogavante” is the next dish that I would recommend by heart. It is basically “Brothy / liquidy rice with lobster”. This one I had the opportunity to try as a daily offer in the super beautiful and picturesque town of Peñíscola. It is another piece of advice worth taking. Always check what they have on the daily offer or on the menu. Usually, this is something that it’s really fresh, prepared in small portions, and if you are lucky enough you can still order it. This is exactly what we have done at the El Anfora Restaurant, and I think the below picture is talking for itself, why I’m recommending this place, and their “Arroz caldoso con bogavante”.

Arroz caldoso con bogavante at the El Anfora Restaurant in Peñíscola

III. Arroz a banda

Els Muntells

“Arroz a banda” means “Rice on the side” because the paella-cooked rice is cooked in a fish broth, without ingredients (sometimes some small cuttlefishes) and it accompanies a fish dish with potatoes and onions.
This dish is usually served with aioli because the fishes have lost their taste in the broth used to cook the rice. The rice is eaten apart from fish, hence the name. It is an authentic fishermen’s recipe, who managed n this way to get two dishes from a single preparation. The aioli or garlic-oil is a fundamental accompaniment in these dishes, and it provided the humble people of the sea with calories that they could not obtain otherwise. 

I have tried my first “Arroz a banda” on Delta del Ebro in the village of Els Muntells at the Restaurante Ida Can Machino. The village is tiny, and as a usual tourist, you might just drive trough without stopping there, to reach the coast and look for a fish or rice restaurant there. But I was told by Dani, who obviously knows the territory much better than I ever will, that the best homemade rice dishes that actually you can eat there are in these kinds of villages, and maybe you don’t have the view of the sea, maybe you are in a basic terrace of a simple restaurant, but the food that you will get, is really priceless. And actually it’s much cheaper vs. in the overpriced beach restaurants.

Ida Restaurant Can Machino, Els Muntells

My favorite story, that shows the difference between cultures and food habits also belongs here. When I was already more advance in terms of my knowledge about different kind of rice dishes, and my Mum called me out of sudden to ask how I was and what we ate for lunch, and answered to her – of course in Hungarian, where such an expression “rice dish” doesn’t even exist – that we had a nice “rice dish” for lunch. And she immediately asked back: “rice with what? And of course, I immediately started to laugh. As it was exactly the question I would have asked several years before: “rice dish? rice? rice with what? and basically, why would you choose this at all?” But if we understand the differences between kitchens and habits, we realize that it’s such a relevant (and funny, especially in Spain) question.

And here I am now. IN LOVE WITH THE SPANISH AND CATALAN RICE DISHES. I cannot wait to go to an Arrocería, I have my favorite places and I can name my favorite Paella versions there. I cannot wait to have it prepared at home, and frankly speaking, if I want to eat something that is really comforting, filling, and tasty, my first choice now is to eat a great rice dish. Habits are changing, tastes can differ, but just because we used to think about something that it is not really our kind of food, ingredient, or taste, sometimes it’s really worth to give it a second chance. But I’m warning you, it’s risky, you might end up like me: a rice lover.

¡Buen provecho! 😋

 

 

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