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My Spanish Grandma's Paella Is Everything and Anything

One writer's mission to document her grandmother's perfectly imperfect paella.

Published Aug. 18, 2021.

My camera roll is a collection of blurred selfies, crooked skylines, and 40 pictures in a row of my friend with her hair a certain way. I generally breeze through this whole array blindly, too lazy to pare it down.

But one stretch from September 2019 is brightly colored, long, and useful. It’s from when I visited my grandmother in Madrid. As she does every time I see her, she made paella. I meticulously documented her process in photos and videos so that I could repeat it at home.

First, the stock: a cloudy, salty pot of leek, onion, celery, and fish bones. Next, the shrimp, seared in olive oil in the paella pan and set aside for the garnish. Then come the chicken wings. Diced peppers and garlic are next, then squid, tomatoes, clams, artichokes, and rice, all blending into a mess of colored squares that would have taken up my entire phone memory five years ago.

Then the finale: mussels, strips of roasted red peppers, and shrimp arranged in concentric circles on top of yellowed rice. It is the national mosaic of Spain.

That’s the other reason to take lots of photos of paella: It’s just pretty. The presentation is unmistakable enough to have earned its own emoji (in the top row, by the falafel).

But those aren’t always the steps to make paella. Those aren’t even always her steps to make paella. There’s an irony in how thoroughly I catalogued this exact recipe from this exact trip, because paella is malleable by definition. It is perhaps the quintessential Spanish dish, but it varies with local tradition and what’s available and fresh at the market that day. The point of paella is that there are infinite ways to make it. You can add in rabbit and beans like Valencians do, subtitute pork for chicken, or throw in all those things together. As long as you end up with socarrat—the crispy browned rice that lines the bottom of the paella pan, worth its weight in gold—it counts.

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Grilling paella lends the dish subtle smoke and a particularly caramelized crust and makes it a great dish for summer entertaining. Learn how to make this recipe, one of our all-time reader favorites.  

Still, I documented this one paella pan fanatically because I see this side of my family only once every few years. And when I do, we have paella. It’s as much a standard feature of the trip as switching into Spanish or kissing a bunch of strangers on the cheek. So the details of this specific September 2019 paella matter to me, even though paella is a flexible notion, even though my grandmother has made a hundred other versions and this is just the one she happened to land on the day I pointed my phone camera in her direction. I may as well have taken photos of that day’s newspaper. But if I can’t be a part of my family’s daily life, I want to try my best for a fixed record. I’ll take a snapshot where I can get it.

I took my first stab at the paella a few months after I got back. I followed the steps as closely as I could, fighting off the sense I was veering from unbreakable tradition when I settled for a slightly larger variety of clam than the one my grandmother used. On the whole, it turned out . . . good. Maybe not as good as hers, but still layered and briny and Spanish. And, of course, pretty. I took a couple photos. 

All this is to say: I stake quite a lot on one particular, somewhat incidental version of paella. But there are a thousand. And they all have socarrat.

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