I have never been to Spain and I do not know the language but some hungry, Horcrux-y part of me must me embedded in Español soil because – Paella!
My encounters with this glorious Spanish dish have mostly been happy accidents amongst London’s popular food markets in Borough and Camden. There’s something about paella that makes my heart soar. Picture this – wide expanses of saffron coloured rice glowing with juicy seafood and succulent chicken in an obscenely viscous simmer. How can one pass this by without coming undone?
If truth be told, it’s my Muggle vulnerability more than my Magical invincibility that makes me lust after paella. Paella reminds me of the ultimate Bengali comfort food in rainy afternoons – the cheap and cheerful khichuri. The turmeric kissed khichuri and paprika/saffron infused paella are like non-identical twins born in different geographical locations. Moreover, watching golden mounds of Paella simmering in huge pans brings back memories of home. It reminds me of the ginormous cauldrons or deskis used by baburchis in Bangladeshi dawaats, a deeply satisfying visual treat of watching quality food being cooked out in ample quantity.
Growing up in a huge family, I have always adored dishes made for a crowd, revelling in the joy of eating in unison. I had the fortune of savouring the best paella in London in a similar vein while sharing food with a bunch of friends in the streetsy Sunday market at Brick Lane. Aimlessly hopping along the hipster alleyways, we stumbled upon some tastebud-explosive seafood paella. A craving like I had never known grew inside me that day, lingering in my memory cells long after I had washed that flavourful taste off my tongue. I tried to satisfy this need in every opportunity that presented itself with the saffron stained Spanish sublimity but it was never the same. The mad longing made me wonder – dare I try to recreate that elusive taste on my own?
Before we take this any further, let me clarify that I am NOT a cooking wizard. I am not blessed with a magical elderwand that can whip up international cuisines with a swish and/or flick. If anything, I hail from that special group of hopeless adults who ventured forth into the kitchen only when every other source of food dried up (including three years of staying at a catered dorm eating bland meals and freezing mom’s food flown in from Bangladesh). I tried fending off cooking long enough to make myself look exceptionally inept for a woman in her mid 20s. Family and friends laughed at me but I strategically avoided the kitchen for as long as I could. Eventually my body started protesting against all the frozen and processed meals and I was forced to don the radhuni hat.
My first few months owning the kitchen were adventurous at best, disastrous at worst. I repeatedly forgot to season my food. I couldn’t get the kosha process right. I burnt the spices in my curries, obliviously so. Marriage escalated the scene. While single life had allowed me to cook on the go, married life demanded the absurdity of meal planning. As well as the provision of bigger pots and pans. In the inevitable chaos that brewed and over the countless dinners I ended up preparing, cooking started growing on me. If nothing else, it started getting me excited. Excitement happens to be my strongest suit as a cook. Coming home after mind-numbing hours of work sandwiched between three hours of commute, it’s excitement that steers me towards the kitchen and away from the bedroom when all I want from life is to be buried in a downy duvet, preferably alone.
I am an erratic cook. Instead of focusing on mastering a selection of basic dishes, I get tempted to hop from one experiment to the next. I have tried dozens of recipes just one time, never to cook them again. I buy recipe books that I earmark religiously only to leave them collecting dust in the bookshelf. The abundance of ideas and possibilities that swirl in the wake of that ‘what’s for dinner’ thought is mindboggling, especially when there’s YouTube and food blogs so readily at my fingertips. Often the excitement can turn into anxiety when recipes demand expertise or tools I simply do not possess. That’s what happened the first time I sat down with a recipe for paella. The grocery list made me sweat. Paella pan (wide with thin base) and paella rice (short grain variety that absorbs water without drying out) aren’t the most common pantry staples in an Asian kitchen. I gulped at the total bill that came out at the end. Some other time, I vowed.
Then there was the challenge of doing justice to the dish, even if it was a first attempt. The more I browsed on YouTube, the more scared I got to touch a recipe that seemed so sacred to so many. Valencians consider paella their birth right. My Madrileño colleague seemed a tad less possessive but going by the way she dissed the beautifully made paella we ordered on a team day out, she was every bit as passionate about her paella as her Valencian compatriots. Her accusatory eyes drilled holes in my conscience every time my mind lingered towards her favourite dish. I concluded I wasn’t ready for this level of pressure in my life.
Then one fine Sunday night I discovered some shrimps and chicken breasts staring beseechingly at me from the fridge. I couldn’t help but wonder – was this the perfect opportunity to set my paella-lusting heart at rest? I went to bed torn over that thought. The idea of committing to this long-avoided ordeal was scary.
Next morning I woke up with a remarkably steely resolve for a Monday. I obsessively searched ‘authentic paella recipes’ from work. I am very anal with recipe requirements and it seemed even more pertinent when borrowing from other nations, particularly those that are guarded with fierce pride. My shopping list was elaborate and rigid. The rice had to be the exact brand of special short-grain variety that paella demanded, special enough for me to keep forgetting the name even though I have googled it a thousand times. I found a small sack that fit the bill in M&S (my local Tesco only had Arborio rice, perfect for risotto but disallowed for paella by many of my YouTube teachers). I also splurged on an 18cm paella pan fit for 6-8 people when I usually only cook for 2. (I was already dreaming of achieving cult paella status some day.)
I laid out my goods in the dinner table as soon as I got home. I was as excited about my newly acquired ingredients as a toddler with brand new Christmas presents.
The rice sack in particular looked uber cute amongst the assorted spread.
Calasparra is a Spanish town where different varieties of paella rice such as senia, bomba, bahfa, and thaibonnet are cultivated (thank you for the umpteenth time, Google! :))
I took inspiration from various videos and tailored my cooking to suit what was available in the kitchen, employing techniques I felt confident in. Although authentic paella calls for chicken and rabbit, I was content with the boneless, skinless chicken breast thawing in my fridge. I also used Madagascar prawns from M&S. Seafood in paella is apparently a total no-no for Valencians but I had already committed the unforgivable offence of linking paella to khichuri. I was officially blacklisted in the Big Fat Book of Paella Violators and seafood seemed a good enough reason to stay put in that list.
Saffron and Spanish paprika are the stellar ingredients in a paella, the must haves that everyone seems to agree upon. To my disappointment, I had very little saffron left in my pantry but the excitement at that point was too damn high to be diffused by such minor setbacks. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire cooking process, Snapchatting it religiously, even forcing the Husband to take part in my idiosyncrasies.
The final result made me proud if I must say so myself. I even managed to achieve the socorrat – a crispy layer that forms on the bottom of a well-cooked paella, considered to be a highly prized delicacy. As eager as ever about the future, I quickly scribbled out the recipe I had followed then sat back and deliberated whether it was worthy of being a part of this post. I feared that no amount of Horcruxes would save my soul if I, the novice Bengali cook, attempted to write a recipe for the Sacred Spanish Paella. I decided to test the waters at work.
Next morning I went up to my Spanish colleague and confessed about what I had done. I even went as far as showing her a photo, bracing myself for the angry clicking of handcuffs on my guilty wrists. Instead, the Madrileño smiled. She ACTUALLY smiled. Even remarked on how ‘good’ the paella looked in the photo I had carefully chosen to show her. It might just have been sheer politeness but that was more than the encouragement I was hoping for!
So here goes, peeps! An ardent Bangu’s novice guide to making Spanish Paella. 🙂 BUEN PROVECHO!
- Dice up two boneless, skinless chicken breasts.
- Heat oil in a paella pan and cook the chicken on high heat. Make sure to season! 😉
- Meanwhile heat up some chicken stock – I used Knorr chicken cubes. Home made stock is beyond my expertise!
- When the chicken is half cooked, shove them to the sides of the pan, add a bit more oil then cook some diced bell peppers and some onion. Saute them for a while.
- Lower the heat. Add four cloves of diced garlic and stir for 30 seconds.
- Add two grated tomatoes and cook for two minutes. I think this completes the base for a type of Spanish base called sofrito.
- Add half a tablespoon of smoked/spanish paprika.
- Add generous amount of saffron.
- Add 1 and a half pint of chicken stock and bring to boil. (Luckily my rice cooked out fine with the amount of stock I added but you might need to add more later).
- Add 1 cup paella rice. Spread it around lightly. Do not stir the dish any further after this point because it will become creamy otherwise, much like a risotto. Total no no.
- Add the shrimp. Cook on high heat for ten minutes then remove them. Lower the heat and cook for a further 6 minutes. Towards the end add a few sprigs of rosemary and peas.
- When its all cooked, put the shrimps back on top of the rice.
- Serve with wedges of lemons (it looks and tastes so epic! too bad I did not have enough for decoration).