On a recent trip to the rice-growing areas of Calasparra and Valencia in southeastern Spain, I learned just how prickly a subject paella can be. People debate every facet of Spain's famous dish: What is the best rice to use? Does hard water or soft work better? Can paella legitimately be prepared in a kitchen on top of the stove or in an oven, or must it be cooked in the field over an open wood fire? What goes into an authentic paella? When is a paella not a paella but an arroz?
A Spanish journalist, in explaining the difference between paellas and the family-style rice dishes called arroces, spoke in terms of gender. Paellas, she said, are "virile" dishes because they were originally prepared in wide steel pans in the countryside by men who gathered snails, hunted rabbits and caught ducks or freshwater eels and then cooked them with rice until the grains were plump with flavor yet still dry and slightly firm. "Womanly" arroces, on the other hand, she told me with a straight face, are meloso, or soft and creamy; they're not cooked in shallow steel pans but in deeper earthenware cazuelas, or casseroles.
"In Valencia, they are absolute fundamentalists when it comes to paella," said Norberto Jorge, chef and owner of the popular Madrid restaurant Casa Benigna. Because Valencia is coastal, its cooks transformed the rudimentary rabbit-and-eel version of the countryside into an apocryphal seafood, chicken and sausage version, then never strayed from the recipe that has since become immutable in many people's minds.