Guide to Finding Authentic Paella in Spain

My travels are often based on food – what can I say, this girl likes to eat. A lot.  I often remember my travels by the local dishes I eat and a country’s culinary art. It’s easy to get turned off by the fake stuff and the last thing you want is to walk away with a bad food experience. Spanish paella is a hard one to spot.

Spain is inundated with tons of places that serve up their signature rice dish in restaurants, tapas bars, and street-side stands. But just because a guy holding a menu on the sidewalk says he can make you one for 10€, doesn’t mean you should eat it! Truth is, some paella is not real and sometimes finding the kind that is real is not as easy as you think. Even if you are in Spain. So I learned how to recognize real paella and what to keep in mind when you’re looking for the most authentic kind.

Golden rule #1: Real paella is made with medium grain rice, not long grain. Medium grain absorbs water the best and it’s what helps give real paella that soft and smooth consistency.

Golden rule #2: Real paella is served in a paella pan sometimes called a paellera, (depending on where you live) a traditional, flat, steel pan the paella was cooked in. It comes to you piping hot from an open-fire or burner and it’s meant to be eaten directly from the pan.

Paella Marciso

Paella Marciso


Golden rule #3: Real paella is made with a pricey ingredient called saffron. Actually, it’s the world’s most expensive spice!

Golden rule #4: Real paella is Paella de Marisco, made with fresh shrimp, clams, calamari, and live mussels but the most traditional kind of is Valenciana with rabbit, chicken, snails and garrafóa dry bean soaked for 8 hours.



Golden rule #5: Real paella is found in the North. In fact, the Spanish don’t see paella as a national dish but a regional one, originating near a lagoon in Valencia.

Golden rule #6: Real paella is not from restaurant chains and if you see a paellador sign, run. Their paella is mass-produced and far from authentic, usually flash frozen and not fresh.

Paellador sign


Golden rule #7: Real paella is always made-to-order and never for less than two people. Because it takes a long time to cook up, you could be waiting at least 40 minutes – a true sign of delicious paella! If the menu has a serving for one, chances are it comes from a batch of paella made earlier in the day that has been reheated.

Golden rule #8: Real paella is not on a “menu del dia” blackboard. Avoid these signs like the plague and if you see a waiter outside holding a menu, don’t make eye contact. They often lure in foreigners with the “menu of the day” looking for a bargain but this is usually left over items chefs want to get rid of.

Menu del dia


Golden rule #9: Real paella is not on La Rambla. While I do love this pedestrian street, it’s less ideal for home-made Spanish cuisine than it is for quick take-away when you’re on the go.

La Rambla

La Rambla


Golden rule #10: Real paella is pronounced pie-eh-ya, not pah-ella!


So there you have it! Now you know how to avoid the crappy kind and save yourself from having a bad food experience in Spain.