What is an authentic Spanish paella?

Paella ambassador, Miguel Cuevas and organiser of the First International Paella Championships

paellaWhy do we need a paella competition?
If you see the quality of paella in markets or restaurants in Sydney, you’ll see we’ve gotten to a point where anything bright and yellow is called paella. I realised people don’t know the basic rules of how to cook paella.

Which are?
You have to cook it in a round paella pan that has a flat bottom. And you never stir the rice. As it cooks it sinks to the bottom, mixes with the oil from the meat and creates a beautiful crust. It’s not burnt, it’s meant to be there and it’s the most valuable part of the paella.

Why is the crust important?
If you stir it and there’s no crust, it’s not paella – it’s risotto. The caramelized crust is what gives the dish its flavour.

What about the ingredients?
There are 10 essentials, Valencian salt, Bomba or Calasparra rice, ripe tomatoes, green beans, lima beans, saffron, rabbit, chicken, sweet paprika and olive oil. And Serrano snails, but if you can’t find these, boil a sprig of rosemary with the rice for a few minutes as a substitute.

No seafood?
No, it’s a humble dish that comes from the countryside in Spain, so it doesn’t traditionally include seafood. As you get to the coast, you’ll find that people replace rabbit with calamari and mussels that grew on the rocks.

But it’s still considered paella?
You can add what you like as long as you respect the basics; saffron, rice, green beans, salt and a crust.

So who will be cooking?
There’ll be 30 local and international chefs competing, including chefs from Movida Sydney, Verandah in the Hunter Valley, The Balcony in Byron Bay, Signor Paella in Queensland and Smalt in Tasmania.

Are they cooking for bragging rights?
Yes and we’ll also send the top three chefs to compete in the Sueca Paella Festival in Valencia, Spain, for the title of the world’s best paella chef. It’s been running for 54 years and this is the first time it’s been organised outside of Spain. We’ll pay for the winner’s flight and the others get entry to the contest. I’ll also be participating in that competition.

But not this one?
No, I’m one of the judges along with Jesus Melero, the main behind Sueca’s Paella Festival and Edrick Corban-Banks from New Zealand, the fourth best paella chef in the world.

So can we try the paella after the winner is crowned?
The crowd will be able to taste the big paella that Jesus Melero will cook for the public and also another huge paella cooked by Edrick Corban-Banks. After the winner is announced, some of the other paellas will be auctioned for the public. There will also be a live flamenco band playing during the Festival.

This was first published in The Daily Telegraph’s Best Weekend magazine on May 24, 2014

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