Because Spaniards prefer eating fresh local food, Spain’s diverse geography and climate, which ranges from snow-capped mountains to hot sun drenched beaches, affects what people eat. For instance, thick stews and soups are popular in the mountains. Fish pies made with cold-water creatures like octopus and cod are favored along the Atlantic coast, while along the Mediterranean coast, shellfish stews rule. Despite these regional differences, all Spanish cooking refl ects the nation’s long colorful history. Favorite dishes such as paella (pah-el-yah), gazpacho
(gahs-pah-cho), and tortilla española (tor-tee-ya es-pahn-yo-la) are good examples of this blending of history and location.
It Started with Rice
Paella is a rice dish that originated in Valencia, Spain, in the 19th century. But, if not for the ancient Romans and the Moors, this dish might never have been
created. The Moors were a group of Arabs who occupied Spain from the 8th to the 13th century. They were the first people to plant rice in Spain.
Spain’s climate is somewhat dry for rice cultivation. But, because the Romans introduced irrigation farming to Spain 200 years earlier, this was not a problem. The Moors used this farming method to channel water from the mountains to the rice fields. Rice has flourished in Spain ever since.
Today, Spaniards eat about 50 pounds (22.7kg) of rice per person, per year. A large part of this is used in paella. Paella is a kind of stew that features a wide range of ingredients such as seafood, fish, pork, sausage, chicken, or rabbit. These may or may not be mixed with each other. There are seemingly limitless variations of the dish. “Put two Spanish cooks together and you’ll likely get three paellas,”6 say authors Richard Sterling and Allison Jones. But no matter the other ingredients, paella always contains rice, olive oil, sofrito, and saffron. The last is a costly spice that the Moors brought to Spain. Its bright yellow color brightens paella, and its tea like flavor adds a savory taste to the dish.
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