It’s the definitive Spanish dish in a country where everything revolves around food. Although purists might disagree, it’s more representative of a fun and communal approach to food than it is to a specific recipe. Yet without a doubt, if there’s one concoction that you can’t visit Spain without tasting, it’s a hearty mix of rice, fish, and meat – paella.
If you already know Barcelona you’ll know that this city, at least culturally, isn’t really Spanish. Locals pride themselves on their Catalan identity built on linguistic, cultural and of course gastronomic distinctiveness from the rest of Spain. That said, as with so many other aspects of life in modern-day Barcelona, you’ll find explicitly Spanish dishes, alongside Catalan, Basque, Valencian, French and Italian culinary creations often blending together with interesting results.
The origins of the dish
Paella literally means ‘large frying pan’ in Catalan and Valencian, and basically it’s just a whole lot of ingredients chucked together and bound with Mediterranean staples – rice, olive oil and garlic. Nobody’s exactly sure where this style of cooking came from. Some cite the practice of Arab sailors who would habitually throw together a meal from a few days’ leftovers.
Modern-day paella emerged out of the region directly to the south of Catalonia called Valencia. In the 18th century locals here would gather in their orchards on special occasions, throwing in whatever meat they could afford (apparently water vole used to be a favourite!). By the middle of the 19th century living standards in Spain began to slowly improve and other meats such as rabbit, chicken, duck and snails became favoured. It was around this time that the word paella came to describe an actual meal rather than a frying pan.
There are quite a few regional variations on paella, depending on the cost and availability of ingredients. In coastal regions seafood, sometimes mixed with meat, is the dominant ingredient. If you’ve eaten paella outside of Spain this is probably the kind you know and love. However Valencians remain proudly prescriptive about what constitutes a true paella, and they may get touchy if you use the term of a dish containing seafood.
Like other aspects of Iberian cuisine, such as tapas, Catalonia has been happy to add paella to its menus and give it a local twist. Much of the rice that you’ll find in Barcelonan paella is grown not far from the city in the Delta de l’Ebre area of southern Catalonia.
The term ‘mar i muntanya’ (sea and mountain) has come to sum up Catalan cooking, mixing as it does the bounty of its Mediterranean coast with fresh produce from its fertile hinterland. Probably the best Catalan adaptions of paella are true exemplars of this concept. Look out for dishes such as ‘arrós a la cassola’ (sometimes ‘arrós a la catalana’) which is prepared in an earthenware pot with saffron. There’s also ‘arrós negre’ which gets its distinctive black hue from its key ingredient – squid ink.
There are countless restaurants in the city that serve the whole range of paella dishes, but here are six of our favourites spots to grab some of the best paella in Barcelona.
This small, intimate restaurant dates back to 1836 and has served a whole host of famous characters including Orson Welles, Federico García Lorca and even Picasso. With an ideal location in the district of Barceloneta, it offers a wide variety of rice-based dishes and a number of different types of paella on the menu. If you’re looking for a mixed paella with seafood or a traditional Valencian-style paella served with black rice you’ll be delighted by the talents of the chef.
Many consider this restaurant the true shrine for paella in Barcelona. Don’t let the dark uniforms of the waiters put you off – on first impressions they might seem formidable but the staff are excellent, as is the food.
The ‘Escriba’, or the ‘Chiringuito de Bogatell’, is a unique ‘beach bar’ that not only offers one of the best paellas in Barcelona but a whole selection of typical Catalan dishes prepared with fresh fish. Well-known and popular with locals, it’s an ideal spot to sit out on a summer evening. Book ahead though to make sure you’re not disappointed.
The chefs of Roig Robí have been satisfying the palates of Barcelona’s inhabitants for 25 years. This restaurant has gradually become one of the city’s most noteworthy locations, especially famous for its fresh sea food. A special talent for innovation and creativity has enabled the Roig Robí chefs to give traditional Catalan cuisine a completely new image. Their true speciality is the absolutely exquisite prawn paella.
It may not be a 4-star restaurant, but this place still serves up a great paella. You’ll be hard pushed to find somewhere in Barcelona that matches the price/quality balance that is offered at El Pollo Rico, at just 3.50 euros per dish. This is the ideal authentic eatery for those on a budget, plus it’s not far from Las Ramblas.
Can Majó is located on the sea front promenade at Barceloneta. Dating back 40 years, this restaurant has made a name for itself in the city with recipes that have been passed down from father to son, with its produce personally selected by the chef himself. It may well serve the best paella in Barcelona. It’s not the cheapest place to eat out, but if you want to treat yourself to a truly Iberian dining experience, this is the place to go.
Learn to cook paella in Barcelona
If you book accommodation with Oh-Barcelona.com you’ll get 10% off one of the best cookery classes in the city. Cook&Taste will teach you how to whip together a regional paella and a number of other typical Catalan specialties.
If you’re not currently in Barcelona but can’t wait for a taste here’s a classic paella recipe from our friends at Barcelona Metropolitan magazine.