The Secret History of the Paella Emoji

Courtesy of Apple / Roy Rochlin / Getty Images
How a Valencian adman and José Andrés fought to put authentic paella on our phones.

Making paella is not easy. The socarrat, or crust, must caramelize without carbonizing. The seasonings must sing but not bellow. The rice must plump up without bloating. The open flame bringing the magic to life must be strong but not aggressive.

That said, it’s still easier to get a perfect paella on the table than it was for Valencian adman and paella traditionalist Guillermo Navarro to align all the forces necessary that allowed for the April debut of an (almost) perfect paella emoji.

Paella, a rice dish made in a large flat pan, originated in the eastern Spanish province of Valencia many centuries ago. The paella emoji didn’t begin to twinkle in Navarro’s eye until 2015, when his ad agency, La Mujer del Presidente (First Lady) dreamed it up as a great way to promote its client, Arroz La Fallera. (Arroz means rice.) “It started out as a silly idea in a bar, like kind of a joke,” said Navarro. “Then we were like, maybe we can really do this. But how?”   

You can’t just pay these guys off. You have to convince them that paella emoji is something that people will really use, that is really important.—José Andrés

He may not have known exactly what to do next, but he did know who to call: chef and fellow Spaniard José Andrés, owner of Jaleo, Zaytina, Minibar—i.e. the man responsible for Spanish fine dining’s existence in the U.S.

It should be mentioned that before Andrés went into his involvement with the paella emoji we spoke at some length about his dedication to authentic Valencian paella. It very much annoys Andrés that chefs (or anyone) will throw random foodstuffs on top of a shallow pan of rice and call it paella. “There are a lot of crazy paellas out there,” he said, and then, in a reprimanding tone, as if instead of interviewing him I were at that moment whipping up “innovative” paella recipes, listed for me what is allowed in a traditional Valencian paella: “It’s chicken. It’s rabbit. It’s tomato. It’s olive oil. It’s garrofó (lima beans). It’s a green bean that is flat, and some rosemary and saffron and it’s done over an open flame. And water. And that’s the traditional paella.” He lamented his constitutional inability to buck tradition. “I am jealous of my American friends,” he said, “They are free. But—if someone is not even making traditional paella anywhere, who else but me is going to make it?”

It’s important that Andrés loved the idea of a paella emoji. More important, though, is the fact that the guy knows everyone. This includes, as he put it, “The guys who decide what emojis get made and which ones don’t.” These guys—namely Mark Davis and Vint Cerf, among others—are part of non-profit called the Unicode Consortium that meets twice a month, gets about 100 emoji applications a year and, as of January 2016, had greenlit just over 1,600 emojis.

“I called up these guys. They are like the smartest guys in the world. But that was the easy part. They say ‘Ok, we will take a look at the paella emoji.’ But that’s it. You can’t just pay these guys off. You have to convince them that paella emoji is something that people will really use, that is really important,” Andrés said.

Now the ball was back in Navarro’s court. He went to Silicon Valley. He met with WhatsApp. Apple cancelled on him. He did finagle a video conference with Unicode—a victory. But still, you can’t simply tell those darned Silicon Valley emoji gatekeepers that paella merits emoji status. Paella's status had to be shown. Luckily the world—Spaniards in particular—was not at all hesitant to do so, and in March 2015 #paellaemoji became a trending topic on Twitter, with 20,000 tweets reaching an audience of 35 million.

Unicode approved the application, but paella emoji was not yet ready to run on its little rabbit and chicken legs across the finish line and throw its own rice in the air in victory. And that’s because only Valencians and a few special paella freaks really know what goddamn paella is. So, though Navarro and his team submitted a “correct” (rabbit, chicken, green beans, garrofó, rice) prototype, when the folks at Emojipedia debuted paella emoji in December 2016, it was all wrong.

It had shrimp. And mussels. And peas.  “It was totally against everything we had proposed and it didn’t have anything to with tradition,” said Navarro.

Undeterred from his dream of a paella emoji that looked like paella and not just some random rice dish called paella, Navarro flew to Japan to leverage the influence of Shigetaka Kurita, the inventor of the very first emoji. Navarro delivered several impassioned speeches, one of which may have compared paella with shrimp to sushi with avocado. Meanwhile, back in social media land, the hashtag #ComboiPaellaEmoji alerted the world to the sad ingredients problem.

Lo and behold, on April 16, 2017, wrongs were righted, peas and shrimp were tossed aside and the world was presented with a paella emoji that basically looks like traditional paella. It’s lost the rabbit (unless rabbits start opening venture capital firms no one in Silicon Valley will ever know what one is). But it has chicken, the garrafó and green beans.

Sadly, it also has lemon.

“There has been a lot of chatting on the web about ‘Oh, why did they put lemon’,” said Andrés. “But many people say lemon is the least of the issues. This is as good as it gets. I’m very very happy.”

Navarro feels the same. “In Spain a lot of people eat paella. So, people use it a lot. They put ‘Let’s Party!’ and the paella emoji.”

You can currently order a pizza to be delivered to your home by simply texting a pizza emoji to your friendly neighborhood Domino’s. Can you get a similar service by texting a paella emoji to your friendly neighborhood Spanish restaurant franchise? Not at this moment. But should the right occasion arise, paella emoji is finally properly dressed.

Well, at least the paella emoji used by Apple is. Google, Facebook and other companies' platforms still have some shrimp and peas floating around on theirs, because despite Unicode’s recommendations, platforms are allowed to make changes to their emojis—or, in other words, to do things wrong.

Andrés delivered a critique of other platforms’ paella emojis. He was fairly generous and philosophical—“Twitter is not bad, because they don’t have lemon. Samsung looks like bibimbap, but you know, that is Korea”—until he got to the real heavy hitters. “I would expect more from Mark Zuckerberg,” he said, considering Facebook’s shrimp-laden paella emoji. Andrés saved his most savory disdain for Microsoft. “I am so upset at Bill Gates. Microsoft is the worst of the worst ones, because, well, you look at this paella emoji, and you don’t even know what it is.”

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