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Today's topic takes us to the Mediterranean basin with a foray into the Middle East. This is the cradle of two dishes which appear in the menus of thousands of restaurants all over the world: couscous and paella. Both are typical dishes for placing centre-table and sharing. These are dishes which thrive on conviviality: no one prepares couscous or paella for a single diner. A multi-coloured mound of chopped vegetables mixed with meat, fish or seafood. But that's where the resemblance ends.
The origins of couscous and paella
Paella would seem to originate from a generous region, that of the Valencian countryside, with plenty of chickens and rabbits providing meat, and fresh vegetables. The vicinity of a vast area called Albufera, meaning lagoon, characterized by paddy fields, provides the main ingredient on which this dish is based. From Valencia, paella has spread to the rest of Spain and today every region has its own particular version.
As far as couscous is concerned, there is growing evidence that the method of steaming couscous grains over a stew bubbling in an earthenware pot could have originated from an area of western Africa before the tenth century. From there, the recipe spread throughout the Mediterranean basin. Like the one described above, this dish belongs to the Arab culture, that of Maghreb in particular. In Italy, it is also widespread in Sicily and Sardinia where it is known as fregola.
The ingredients for couscous and paella
The essential ingredient of paella is rice, flavoured with saffron which is equally important. Paella would not be paella without its typical amber hue of yellow. The ingredients used for paella vary according to the region you happen to be in: the type of meat may vary (rabbit ,chicken, duck), and the same applies to fish (seafood, sea snails) while mixta paella is made from a combination of meat and fish. The most authentic paella is made using rice from the Albufera, a lagoon in the south of Valencia. In this area rice has been farmed from time immemorial.
What do you need to cook couscous and paella?
The term paella derives from the name of the pan in which it is cooked, the paellera, a wide pan with shallow sides whose long handle has been replaced by two small ones.
The couscousier works rather similarly to a primitive bain-marie. It is an earthenware pot (today they also exist in stainless steel), consisting of two sections: a tallish saucepan in which the stew and its liquid are left to simmer and a more rounded perforated section that fits on top for containing the semolina while it cooks in the steam. If the two sections are not hermetic, they may be sealed with damp cloths or with fresh dough (water and flour), to prevent the steam from escaping at the sides.
How to cook couscous and paella
According to tradition, paella should be cooked in the open air, possibly over a fire of orange wood, which is widely available in Valencia. Apart from conferring a particular aroma to the paella, this wood makes a fire that is of a consistent temperature and easy to control. The first step consists in making a vegetable stock, then the pieces of chicken and rabbit are browned in the pan. The meat is followed by the various vegetables and, finally, the rice, which has to be poured into the pan in the shape of a cross and stirred once only.
The semolina destined to become couscous is mixed with water and manually pressed into balls which are then dusted with dry semolina to keep them separate and subsequently passed through a sieve. Nowadays, couscous is sold pre-cooked. You just have to place the couscous in a bowl and pour over some water or boiling broth, taking care to cover the bowl. The couscous will swell and, in the space of a few minutes, is ready to serve, after being mixed with a fork. The vegetables and meat are cooked separately from the semolina, apart from the final 30 minutes of cooking when all ingredients are combined.
How to serve couscous and paella
When tasted, no two dishes could be so different on the palate. Both are complex, like all those recipes which spring from what is readily available locally or from what is left over from the fruits of the garden, farmyard or fishing net.
One strict rule applies when making paella. It may seem to be an end in itself but it has a lot to do with the final flavour: it is absolutely forbidden to stir the rice after adding the vegetable broth or fish, because it is actually the part which remains stuck to the bottom of the pan which gives this dish its characteristic taste of being roasted to an extreme, almost smoky and slightly bitter. A taste which recalls those Neapolitan sauces which seem to go on cooking for ever and are almost brown in colour.
The texture of couscous is finer and the pieces of vegetables and lamb, as in the traditional Moroccan version, have to be small and compact. A mouthful of couscous releases spicy aromas and slides over the palate, while paella needs to be chewed more and the taste of saffron predominates at all times. In many countries people use their hands to eat couscous, while paella is enjoyed in forkfuls.
If you are now craving for a couscous or paella recipe to try at home, don't miss to look at our recipes!
Looking for the classic paella recipe? Here's how to cook a proper and traditional paella, that quintessentially Spanish dish of saffron rice and fish.