Food can tell us a lot about history– and often, food undermines our own self-conceptions of what ‘history’ is all about. Take the example of paella. Paella is (unofficially) Spain’s ‘national dish’– it exudes Spanishness and Hispanophiles the world around cherish the smell and savour of a proper paella (cooked of course in a proper paellera (the utensil which gives the dish its name)).
However, when we dig a bit deeper we realise paella isn’t quite what it seems; nor is, consequently, “Spanishness”. Food historian (good job if you can get it!) Clara Maria de Amezua traces the history of paella to the Jewish community in pre-Muslim Iberia (prior to 711). Large amounts of Jews had arrived in Spain as part of the Roman Empire and had settled in various parts of the country. Jews in Catalonia and Valencia provided a key trade link with Provençal and lived as other citizens of the Roman, and then Visigothic kingdoms that occupied the Iberian peninsula.
One of the staples of this ancient Jewish community was a dish called adafina– more or less a type of cholent. Adafina was a slow-cooked stew of meat and vegetables, designed to be eaten on Shabbat. As usual, Jewish practice shaped Jewish eating habits, and through them, Spanish identity (but we’ll get there).
The big transformation happens when Muslim armies begin to conquer Spain in the 8th century and bring with them a crop which had been hitherto unknown in those parts: rice. It was the wide reach of the early Muslim empire (only one generation after Muhammad), which developed rice in India and brought it across the world to Spain. There, Jews and Muslims lived in close proximity and on-again off-again friendship. As a result of this contact, the Jewish adafina seems to have been adapted to include stewed rice, and appears in inland Valencia fairly early into the Moorish period. There it was called paella valenciana de la huerta (from the vegetable garden).
The original paella wouldn’t have featured seafood– but rather rabbit, duck, or chicken, along with fresh vegetables and beans. In many ways this dish came to represent the compound identity of Spain– using a dish (paellera) with roots in Roman cuisine, developed from a Jewish style of cooking for Shabbat, and with the inclusion of Arabic staples (like rice) and spices (like saffron). Later, Valencians who lived on the coast introduced a second version of paella this time with local seafood.
There are so many examples of food which both reinforce and undermine our identity. Paella demonstrates that Spanishness is quite a compound one– made up of different cultures and communities. We also can see in paella a link to our own history– as one of thousands culinary offerings which have been shaped by contact with Jewish dietary laws. These processes are still ongoing today (ie. Yotam Ottolenghi has brought Israeli cuisine to the British mainstream, etc.) but perhaps paella may have a special place in our own culinary history.
Regardless of the past, there’s paella in the future– specifically, vegetarian paella (closer to the original!) at this Sunday’s annual Garden Party. If you haven’t already signed up– email the office to RSVP and get ready to savour the complicated trajectory of paella from Roman-era Jewish adafina to the 2019 SAMS Garden Party. Buen provecho!