Seafood Rice Across Two Continents
Comparing and Contrasting Arroz con Mariscos and Paella
In this post, I take a slight detour from Peruvian cuisine and dive into paella, a classic Spanish dish that we recently tried for what felt like the first time. At the end of the post, I’ll loop back and make the connection to Peruvian food.
We’ve been traveling around Italy and Spain for the last two and a half months. It’s been interesting for us to dive deeply into other cuisines. There have been a lot of new experiences for us, but a surprising number of dishes remind us of some of our Peruvian favorites.
The parallels between Spanish and Peruvian cuisine make sense. Spanish food had a big influence on Peruvian cuisine. Many Peruvian dishes like cecina, butifarra, and ceviche share their name with Spanish dishes even when they are quite different in their present forms. Along with imperialism, the Spainards brought many ingredients including pigs, grapes, rice, wheat, and red onions—which now are the signature ingredient in Peruvian ceviche.
Last week, I wrote about the best dish I’ve ever eaten—Arroz con Mariscos. Consider this like a part two in which I examine the similarities and differences between Peruvian Arroz con Mariscos and Paella.
If you want to understand the connection between this post and Peruvian food, I suggest you read that post first.
If you just want to read about tasty food, you can read the articles in either order. I’ll come back to Arroz con Mariscos later in the article, but there’s a lot to cover first!
Going to the Source: Paella in Valencia
In today’s globalized world, you can get pizza, ramen, burger, and more recently, bubble tea almost anywhere in the world. However, I still like to go to the source when possible—enjoy tonkotsu ramen in Fukuoka, ragù in Bologna, and of course, ceviche in Lima. Now, we can add Paella in Valencia to that list.
Paella always seemed like exactly the kind of dish that I wanted to experience in the place where it originated. For that reason, Valencia was at the top of my list of places to visit in Spain1.
However, the last time I was in Spain, I only had time for one week in Barcelona and I learned the hard way that very few restaurants serve paella for one. This time, when Mariela and I were planning a trip from Barcelona to Madrid, I saw the perfect opportunity to spend a few days in Valencia and try traditional paella.
I always knew that the paella that I’d been eating was not really paella. In the past, I’ve ordered paella primarily for the seafood, but after having paella in Valencia, I now know that rice is the main star. (One could also argue that the wide and shallow pan for which paella is named is the star, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves).
One of the things that placed paella high on my list of dishes to try at the source was reading the Valencia chapter in Matt Goulding’s Grape, Olive, Pig. It opens with this bold quote:
“If you look closely enough, you will find the entire history of Spain within the perimeter of a paella pan … the bed of grains, is the story of a hungry ancient Rome, expanding its empire across Iberia, one olive tree at a time. Tomato, the heart of the sofito that lends color and a savory-sweet baseline to a proper paella, is the story of Spain’s own vision of empire and conquest, and the unexpected treasure it pillaged from the New World.”
Matt Goulding is one of my absolute favorite food writers. It was hard to resist quoting the whole opening paragraph. The chapter on Valencia focuses on paella. It tells how the story of paella is rooted in Valencia and describes the author's own quest for authentic paella. Goulding’s quest takes you from his own history with bad paella and then onto the good stuff at a rustic restaurant, into the home of an everyday cook who makes paella weekly, through lofty internet discussions on what constitutes a proper paella, and finally into a tense paella competition where people narrate paella-making as if it were football.
My paella quest is much shorter and not nearly as well-informed, but his journey reminds me of some of my own journeys to understand some of Peru’s classic dishes.
I usually like trying a dish at least two different ways. From my experience, I’ve found that dishes, like paella, that stick in the collective imagination are so multi-faceted that you have to try them multiple times to even start capturing the essence of the dish. I have friends who will even try a dish in their place of origin four or five times in one day! For us, that’s a little bit too much. We prefer staying at places for a while and spacing epic meals as much as possible.
Since we had enough time to try two different paellas on two different days, it meant that we didn’t have to choose between the two major types of paella in Valencia—Paella Valenciana, the most traditional paella containing chicken, rabbit, and snails cooked over a fire, and Paella de Mariscos featuring seafood. It would’ve been hard to choose only one!
One of the ground rules of traditional paella is that paella is made with seafood or meat but never both.
Paella de Mariscos
The first paella we tried was at Casa Roberto. The seating area of the restaurant had a very refined elegance to it. However, as you walk to the dining area, you can peek into the kitchen and see where the magic happens.
When you make a reservation at Casa Roberto, you tell them whether you want to order the Paella Valenciana or Paella de Mariscos. Time is an essential ingredient in a traditional paella. Asking for your order ahead of time allows the kitchen to start preparing your paella before you even arrive.
Wanting to try the local seafood, we ordered the Paella de Mariscos. While we waited for the final touches on our paella, the waiter served us a deliciously crusty bread accompanied with some of the butter I’ve ever had. The delivery of the paella was great. We absolutely love the waiter’s jovial mood!
The paella was served in the wide and shallow signature pan. The pan looked huge, but it was actually the perfect amount of food. The rice was a thin layer across the pan versus the heap of fluffy rice that is generally served as “paella” outside of Valencia. The rule of thumb is that the rice should be only be a finger’s width deep.
Locals will tell you that the difference between “rice and seafood” and paella is that authentic paella has soccarat, a beautiful layer of crispy, carmelized rice. There’s nothing wrong with seafood and rice, but you don’t need to travel all of the way to Valencia just to have seafood and rice.
The way to achieve soccarat, this much sought-after effect of perfectly carmelized rice, is to first use the right type of pan, the kind that maximizes surface area which allows a lot of rice to cook evenly. Secondly, you must not overcrowd the pan. Equally important is the type of rice used. The bomba rice, a short-grain rice from the Valencia region of Spain (surprise surprise) is super absorbent and starchy, making it perfect for absorbing broth and achieving soccarat.
The paella at Casa Roberto’s had a deep and smoky flavor. At first glance, I was surprised and how dark the rice was. It was a dark, almost copper color.
In contrast, most of the “paella” I’ve had in the United States generally features a bright yellow color and over-emphasizes saffron above everything else, to the point that it’s cloying. A restaurant that has thirty-some-odd dishes simply cannot devote the attention required to perfect the soccarat which is right at the balance between crispy and burnt nor the time to get the smoky deep flavor of the paella at Casa Roberto’s. Roberto’s menu offers other classic dishes, but when we looked around we saw that every single table ordered paella.
The rice separates paella from ordinary seafood rice, but what distinguishes Paella de Mariscos from Paella Valenciana is the protein. Paella de Mariscos in Valencia is a great dish that showcases the exemplary seafood that you can find along the Mediterranean coast.
The Paella de Mariscos at Roberto’s features succulent pieces of squid, mussels and clams, and two types of shrimp cooked with the shell-on. I think just about all great seafood dishes serve the seafood with the shell on. The only exception that comes to mind is if the seafood is stuffed inside something or between bread.
The next day, we tried another type of classic paella, Paella Valenciana, at a restaurant that felt completely different. Barraca Toni Montoliu is located in a suburb about 40 minutes from Valencia via the tram, but it feels like it’s much further. It was here that we got a closer look into how paella is made.
Barraca Toni Montoli feels like a farm turned into a restaurant. The fact that two buildings plus outdoor seating were completely packed is a testament to the draw of their paella. The crowd is largely local but visitors come from all over the world to try the paella in this rustic setting. Toni himself dropped by our table to welcome us and to see if he could add new countries to the list of places where his have traveled from.
The paella was served as a part of a set menu. Each and every course was delicious because of the quality of the ingredients—the bread, olives, tomatoes, and olive oil all came from the surrounding land.
Rather than serve paella in the pan, three huge pans of paella were prepared in a separate kitchen outdoors and then divided up into portions as the main course. Of course, immediately after the waiter took our drink orders, I got up to find the kitchen to see what was happening there.
The paella at Barraca Toni Montoli features the classic combination of chicken, rabbit, and snails. For travelers like ourselves, the list of ingredients that go into an authentic version of a traditional dish can sometimes feel like a checklist. Chicken, rabbit, snails … check. Sometimes, we don’t pause to think about why tradition came to be. The traditional ingredient list in Paella Valenciana is the story of the land and how people adapted to the land.
Paella is a dish that was invented by the people working the fields. As Goulding puts it, paella is the “slow evolution of necessity and adaption, a convergence of land and history and circumstance.” He goes on to eloquently describe how the “dimensions of the dish are rooted in the ground itself.” It was fitting to experience Paella Valenciana where we could see the fields that inspired the dish’s origin.
Admittedly, it took longer than it should’ve for it to click why traditional paella recipes call for orange wood specifically. We were in Valencia after the orange season, and I simply didn’t think about what other food Valencia was famous for. Similarly, I didn’t understand why snails. I thought it was just a way to make the dish more luxurious. I didn’t think about how everpresent snails were during other times of the year. I didn’t think about how they clung to the herb bushes after rain, simply because we were in Valencia for only a handful of days and luckily hadn’t seen the wet season.
Traditional paella is cooked over a fire and in one session. The purist idea that paella should be done in one take is an interesting one that cuts against modern times in which everything is multi-tasked across applications.
Saying that the paella at Toni Montili’s is made over fire seemed like an understatement. There were several steps that involved a blowtorch and large flames. They say that intense heat towards the end of the cooking process helps achieve soccarat. In response to that, I’d say, “Mission Accomplished.”
I was surprised to learn that the paella only takes two hours to develop its rich, smoky flavor. I guess with a giant blowtorch, anything is possible.
Paella vs Arroz Con Mariscos
Many cookbooks and blog posts describe Arroz con Mariscos as “Peruvian Paella.” Honestly, I don’t love this comparison because it’s simplistic and overlooks the special qualities that make each dish special in its own right. Both dishes have the obvious similarity that they both contain rice and seafood, but in actuality, they are completely different dishes.
In my opinion, Arroz con Mariscos is best ordered as a complement to ceviche. In contrast, paella is easily a centerpiece dish. I like it when the rice Arroz con Mariscos is moist and the grains start clumping together. With paella, the ideal rice is at that perfect boundary between crispy and burnt.
If you want crispy rice in a Peruvian dish, look no further than Arroz con Pato. As the name implies, Peruvian Arroz con Mariscos is similar to Paella de Mariscos while Peru’s Arroz con Pato has similarities to Paella Valencia. In both Peruvian and Spanish cuisine, there’s a rice dish that emphasizes seafood and another that emphasizes the tierra (the land).
Arroz con mariscos features long-grain rice while paella revolves around short-grain rice. Arroz con mariscos features ají, Peruvian pepper, for flavor while paella features saffron and rosemary. Paella is cooked over a fire for hours while Arroz con Mariscos is traditionally made to order in clay pots.
Paella is best served the moment it’s ready. Arroz con Mariscos has a slightly longer shelf life; this does not mean that you can wait a day or two but rather that it’s still just about as good an hour after it’s prepared. The difference largely has to do with the soccarat in paella. Rice doesn’t stay at the perfect state between crispiness and burnt for long.
I prefer Arroz con Mariscos for its casualness. For the best results, you need to prepare ahead of time to have paella. You have to make reservations and order your paella for a set number of people ahead of time. With Arroz con Mariscos, it’s often a game-time decision for us. It’s often a tossup between pairing our ceviche with arroz con mariscos or chicharrón de pescado.
We thoroughly enjoyed trying paella, but after a while, it would be a hassle to set up an appointment every time you’d like to enjoy seafood and rice. Perhaps, the Spaniards are starting to feel the same way. We noticed that there were a few restaurants popping up in Madrid that specialize in weekday lunches where they make large batches of paella and serve it until they run out. I also heard about street food versions of paella; that would be right up our alley.
Ultimately though, the differences between Arroz con Mariscos and Paella are a bit moot. I’ll enjoy Arroz con Mariscos when in Lima and paella in Valencia2.
We went to Valencia for the Paella, but it turned out to be a great all-around destination. Valencia was very modern and had one of the best transit systems I’ve seen. The beach had a very relaxed atmosphere and the aquarium was a great post-paella attraction.
I think at this point in paella’s evolution, you can have great paella outside of Valencia in places like Barcelona and Madrid, but I wouldn’t stray too far from the source.