As It Happens

Do you put seafood in your paella? You're doing it wrong, researchers say

You can put all the seafood you want in your rice, says Pablo Vidal. Just don’t call it paella.

A survey of local cooks showed that fish and shellfish have no place in this Mediterranean dish

Paella like this one, loaded up with shrimp, is no paella at all, say researchers from Spain's Valencia region, where the dish has its origins. (Thibaud Moritz/AFP/Getty Images)

Story Transcript

You can put all the seafood you want in your rice, says Pablo Vidal. Just don't call it paella.

Vidal, an anthropologist from the Catholic University of Valencia in Spain, is the lead author of new research that identifies the 10 "essential" ingredients of the world famous Mediterranean dish, as defined by Valencians over 50.

They are: rice, water, olive oil, salt, saffron, tomato, flat green beans, lima beans, chicken and rabbit. Fish and shellfish — which often appear in paella served in the rest of Spain and around the world — are not welcome.

"Our point is that you may use to mix with rice whatever you would like, but please do not call it paella Valenciana. Call it rice with something," Vidal told As It Happens guest host Gillian Findlay.

The findings were published this month in the International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science.

'Seafood is more for tourists'

Paella is known around the world as a key element of Spanish cuisine, but in reality, it's not a national dish so much as a Valencian one.

In an effort to define traditional Valencian paella, Vidal and his colleagues interviewed more than 400 amateur cooks over the age of 50 from 266 villages in the Valencia region of Spain. 

The idea, he said, was to get the authentic "grandmother" recipe.

Pedro Sanchez, the prime minister of Spain, and Valencian regional president Ximo Puig, left, try paella during the Fallas festival in Valencia on March 18, 2016. (Jose Jordan/AFP/Getty Images)

The survey found that more than 90 per cent of those questioned identified nine of the 10 ingredients listed above as essential. The last one, rabbit, was favoured by 89.9 per cent of participants. 

"So 90 per cent of the people is really a lot. So it is a clear consensus on that," he said.

While it's true that Valencia is on the water, he says seafood remains a luxury, whereas paella has working-class roots, and is often cooked for large feasts and celebrations, such as weddings, using locally source meat.

So if seafood doesn't belong in paella, how did it end up in so many recipes and menus — even in Spain?

"The seafood is more for tourists. And it has been implemented here when the tourist boom arrived in Spain in the '70s," Vidal said. "But in the traditional, no seafood at all."

Pablo Vidal is a professor of anthology at the Catholic University of Valencia in Spain. (Submitted by Pablo Vidal)

The researchers also looked at examples of paella around the world, Vidal said, and found that people are taking all sorts of liberties with the Valencian dish.

"We found a paella sandwiches in England. We found a paella pizza in Poland," he said. "We found it everywhere, in every corner."

He sees the phenomenon as one of local traditions facing up against globalization. 

And while he's not against globalization — or seafood mixed with rice, for that matter — he says protecting the authentic recipe matters. 

"This is important because we consider paella as a heritage, as a tradition, [a way to] remember our roots. It's a feast. This is a celebration," he said.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. 

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