Of Rice and Frying Pans


Of rice and frying pans

by Oscar Lippe


It is widely agreed that domestication and cultivation of rice originated in the upper Yangtze river basin around 13,500 years ago, and that by 4000 BC it was being spread north as far as the Himalayas and south as far as Guam in Oceania. India was instrumental in disseminating rice cultivation westward, and eventually the practice of rice farming reached Africa.

The first accounts we have of rice in the western world dates to classical Greece in the writings of the Greek tragedian Sophocles (495-406 BC) who mentioned with the name Orinda a cereal cultivated by a people who lived along the lower reaches of the Indus. It is believed that other sources of rice into the western world came from Egypt, from Phoenician trade and from roman soldiers returning from Alexander the Great's military expedition to Asia.

By the 10th Century AD, the Moors in northern Africa under the Umayyad caliphate invaded the Iberian peninsula as part of its efforts to conquer Constantinople and retained it for the next three hundred years bringing with them cultural and scientific assets such as architecture, music and food that permeate the culture of the land to this day, among those were rice cultivation and irrigation technologies which they called “Oruz” or “Arouz” where the modern word for rice in Spanish and Portuguese “Arroz” derives from.

As a legacy of the conquest by Rome, of the regions of Galia and Hispania the use of a flat frying pan called “Patela” in Latin, originally used as a campfire tool by roman soldiers became widespread in what are today France, Italy and Spain. The linguistic adaptation of the original name was Patella in Italian, Padelle in French and Paella in Catalan. 

The swampy area of Albufera, in Valencia, Spain, that had benefited from Umayyad rice cultivating technologies, used the legacy of the roman pan to create a unique way of cooking that would become synonym of Spanish gastronomy. The paella.

Curiously the name of the dish is the same as the pan. Originally said to contain rice and game from the marshes, around rice patties, including rabbits and snails, and some shallow water eels, became popular when it hit coastal towns and was adopted by fishing villages. It was enhanced by seafood and made into a culinary affair. The popularity of the dish spread throughout Spain, gaining regional varieties with local ingredients, but always using the same method of cooking rice in the shallow pan.

Paella eventually left the borders of Spain to the conquered new world and can be traced to Cuba and Peru during the 16th Century, spreading rapidly through Spanish conquered territories. Today virtually every country in Latin America has a version of paella to call their own. As the dish lends itself to the use of regional and local ingredients, new and exciting flavors can be found, although purists in Spain insist that it can only be called paella if prepared a certain way, it flourishes anew with exciting combinations in the new world.