Paella has been described as nourishing, vibrant, and served without pretension, as befits its origins as a rural, mountain dish. It has held a place of honor and practicality in Spanish homes for many hundreds of years.
As prominent a space that paella occupies in Spanish culture, it's also proven fairly capable of stirring up controversy.
Ask a Spaniard what paella is. If they're of the opinion that there is no right or wrong recipe, only the recipe that pleases you, you might get a shrug of the shoulders -
Se habla de la paella como un dogma, pero la realidad es que paella es el recipiente donde se hace el arroz. Solo eso!
People speak of paella as a dogma - but the reality is that paella is the container where rice is made; only that!
It's true that the dish was named after the Paellera - the shallow pan, with handles on both sides, in which the dish is cooked.
But there may be something about southern European cultures that makes their peoples particularly prone to dogma.
Like Seinfeld restauranteur Poppie's opinions on what a pizza is and isn't - "You cannot put cucumbers on a pizza" - many will have strong feelings on paella.
Saveur suggests that the "sunny, fluffy yellow rice dish" which you might order at a Spanish restaurant, "topped with red peppers and loaded with everything from shrimp to chorizo to lobster, is not the real thing."
Valencians, in particular, abhor mixing meat with fish, fish with certain types of shellfish, or meat with certain other meats. They'll be adamant that onion should never be used, and that if it uses long-grain rice, it is not a paella. There's even a website - Wikipaella.org - launched to conduct a poll among Valencian housewives and restaurants on what ingredients should be used in authentic paella.
Valencians may be most likely to assert their right to determine the "correct" paella recipe. After all, Valencia is where paella began, in Albufera, on the Levante coast.
Until the arrival of the Arabs, who introduced the cultivation of rice to the Spanish Mediterranean coast, the Spanish had previously used rice only as semolina and flour.
With the coast's abundant swampy areas and marshes, you'd think that cultivating rice would take hold quickly. But the Spanish weren't entirely convinced by this new development. There was a pervasive local belief that wet-rice cultivation contributed to plagues and contagious illnesses.
Rice eventually replaced wheat as it was more productive and cheaper. That was important to Valencian villagers. They'd go to the fields in the morning, returning late with perhaps a rabbit or some mountain snails. The original paella valenciana incorporated those ingredients mixed with aromatic plants they might have gathered - rosemary, thyme, and vegetables from their own gardens.
Thus does Saveur note that "real Spanish paella, which is to say Valencia-style paella, is an altogether darker, richer, smokier creation: denser than a pilaf, drier than, and arguably more satisfying than either."
Paella would be cooked, traditionally by men, over an open wood fire. Interestingly, in provincial Spain today, women who cook paella tend to make it indoors. Men charged with making the dish have remained true to the original recipe, maintaining that only paella cooked outdoors can retain the flavor of the wilderness: the aromas of pure nature, fire, and smoke.
Over time, farmhouses on the outskirts of the capital improved the recipe, adding chicken, saffron, and different types of rice.
Paella valenciana today consists of saffron-scented rice cooked with rabbit, chicken, local snails called vaquetes, and three types of beans: ferraura (a broad string bean), garrofo (a lima-like dried bean), and tavella (a white bean which is hard to find outside of Spain).
Weeding through the arguments of what true paella is and is not, one finds that it has proven remarkably adaptable. The Spanish might generally agree that the only permanent, essential ingredients are olive oil, rice, and saffron; and that the meat and seafood should be cooked before being placed atop the paella, when the rice is well advanced.
The rest is open to interpretation. Concludes Saveur, "Many restaurants serve a long list of paellas, including ones stocked with seafood and others made with seasonal vegetables and meats.
"Most of them are delicious, a few are sublime.
"Tinkering, it seems, is inherent to the culture of paella."