This blog post was originally posted on April 28, 2017 and was updated on September 15, 2020.
Paella is just the beginning when it comes to Spanish rice dishes!
Depending on where in the country you are, the type of pan your rice is cooked in and the ingredients it contains, rice can go by a huge range of names here in Spain. Making sure you know which words to look for will ensure that you get the freshest, most delicious rice in each region.
Here’s our foolproof guide to ordering paella and other scrumptious Spanish rice dishes.
Types of Spanish Rice Dishes
With the exception of the eastern region of Valencia (the birthplace of paella), what the rest of the world calls “paella” goes by many different names here in Spain. In fact, outside of Valencia, the dishes that are not called paella are often even more delicious!
Purists will tell you that the only dish that should ever be called paella is the traditional recipe for paella valenciana. But the roots of this now iconic Spanish rice dish are not what you might imagine!
True Valencian paella has no seafood and is only about 2 centimeters (less than an inch) deep in the pan. It originated as a hearty lunch for workers in the fields far from the coast.
The traditional recipe calls for rabbit, snails and large green beans and is cooked over an open fire in a thin, round pan known as a paella. That’s right: the name for Spain’s most famous rice dish actually comes from the pan it is cooked in!
To avoid confusion, many Spaniards now refer to the pan as a paellera while using the word “paella” to refer to the food.
Today, you can find many delicious variations of paella, including the famous seafood version, paella mixta (a sort of surf-and-turf), and even vegetarian paella.
2. Arroz con bogavante (or anything else!)
Outside of Valencia, most menus will refer to rice dishes as just that: arroz. Most are still cooked using the exact same paella pan, but because the ingredients and the region are different, it’s not called a paella. Instead, it’s “rice with…” whichever main ingredient they’ve chosen to add.
Perhaps the most prestigious ingredient is bogavante, or lobster. A well-made arroz con bogavante is a flavor-packed thing of dreams! Other popular ingredients are scallops, shrimp, chicken and fish.
3. Arroz al caldero
The thing about paella is that the rice soaks up all the cooking liquid, so the end result isn’t very moist. But if you’re craving a Spanish rice dish so juicy that it’s almost creamy, look for arroz al caldero.
This rice dish is prepared in a deep, black, cauldron-like pan and hails from Murcia, the region just south of Valencia along the Mediterranean coast. And where paella is all about the crisp crust on the bottom of the pan, arroz al caldero puts its money on intense flavors and luxuriously creamy textures.
The secret to a spectacular arroz al caldero is all in the broth, which often contains up to 15 different types of fish, and the smoky ñora peppers that are native to Murcia.
4. Arroz caldoso
This style of rice will have you debating whether to grab a fork or a spoon!
Arroz caldoso literally means “brothy rice.” This style of Spanish rice dish is popular throughout the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal included!) and has hundreds of variations, from seafood to vegetables to chicken.
5. Arroz Negro
With its inky black color, this style of rice lives up to its name!
Arroz negro, or black rice, gets its jet black color from squid ink. It usually contains calamari and other seafood hidden in the inky goodness. And don’t forget to ask for bright white alioli sauce, a garlicky mayonnaise, to go with it!
Words to know
When it comes to ordering Spanish rice—or making it at home—there are a few words you’ll want to know. Here are few terms that might come up that you probably didn’t learn in your Spanish class at school!
1. Socarrat: Perhaps the most important word when talking about paella! Socarrat is the crispy, almost burnt layer along the bottom of the paella pan. Only the best paella chefs know how to create socarrat without burning the rice, making it a surefire sign of a great paella.
2. Paellera: The large, shallow, round pan used to make paella and many other Spanish rice dishes.
3. Caldero: A deep, cauldron-like pan used to make the creamy Murcian-style of rice known as arroz al caldero.
4. Garrofón: A unique style of large, flat, green beans used in a traditional paella valenciana. You can find these unique beans almost exclusively along Spain’s easternmost provinces in the region known as Levante. If you’re not in eastern Spain, butter beans are an acceptable substitute.
5. Ñora pepper: The secret to spectacular arroz al caldero. These dried, round peppers are an essential part of the broth and bring a richness and deepness of flavor to the rice. Most chefs use about three ñora peppers per person in their recipes.
6. Azafrán: Saffron. As the key ingredient in paella, saffron famously gives the dish its characteristic yellow color.
Fun fact: saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world. Many Spaniards substitute it for a yellow food coloring to cut down on the cost of making paella.
7. Arroz bomba: The most popular type of rice used in dry Spanish rice dishes like paella or arroz al caldero. This variety of rice has a lower starch content which means each grain stays intact and doesn’t fall apart, which is how paella maintains such a unique texture!
Where to eat the best Spanish rice and paella in Madrid
Paella and other Spanish rice dishes are not part of traditional madrileño cuisine. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find amazing Spanish rice in Madrid!
The great thing about the Spanish capital is that you can find authentic versions of just about every regional cuisine in Spain. Seek out restaurants owned and operated by families from Spain’s coastal regions, and you’re guaranteed to have a memorable meal.
Need some help getting started? Here are a few of our favorites.
1. El Caldero
This family-owned restaurant brings the coast of Murcia into the heart of Madrid. They offer 14 different types of rice dishes, from their namesake arroz al caldero to various types of made-to-order paellas.
90 percent of the ingredients that the restaurant uses, from the rice to the salt to the wines, they bring fresh from small producers in Murcia every week.
2. Casa de Valencia
For classic Valencian paellas, there are few better places in Madrid than Casa de Valencia. In fact, the king of Spain himself inaugurated this spot and it has been serving a wide selection of paellas (socarrat included!) since 1975.
3. Cañas y Barro
Located in the Conde Duque neighborhood, Cañas y Barro is one of the best spots in Madrid to try arroz negro. This is a no-frills neighborhood restaurant with classic Valencian recipes.
4. Bar La Gloria
Sol Pérez Fragero named Bar La Gloria after her grandmother, whose homemade meals created years of special family memories. This restaurant in Malasaña, home to some of the best paella in Madrid, continues the family legacy by serving hearty, homestyle traditional Spanish food.
Heads up: Bar La Gloria usually only offers their paella on Sundays, but it’s well worth the wait—and the experience of enjoying it as a long weekend lunch like many Spanish families do.
5. La Barraca
Founded in 1935 by a Valencian family, it’s safe to say that La Barraca knows what it’s doing when it comes to paella. Their extensive menu offers nearly 20 excellent Spanish rice dishes and even a fantastic fideuà.
6. Restaurante Samm
Samm is one of Madrid’s foremost arrocerías, or restaurants specializing in Spanish rice. In addition to an incredible paella, they also offer an unforgettable arroz al horno, or baked rice, with a crispy socarrat you’ll be dreaming of long after you take the final bite.
The best Spanish rice recipes
Can’t make it to Spain right now? Here are a few tried-and-true recipes that will help you bring the best Spanish rice dishes to life in your own kitchen.
Traditional Spanish paella recipe
Let’s start off with a classic. This traditional Spanish paella recipe follows the Valencian standards, but uses ingredients that are more easily accessible for most home cooks outside of Valencia.
Seafood paella recipe
While traditional paella valenciana has its roots in the inland parts of Valencia, the region also has hundreds of miles of stunning Mediterranean coastline. So it’s no surprise that locals soon began adding fresh fish and shellfish to their paella!
Seafood paella is the best-known version of the dish outside Spain. Try it for yourself at home with this delicious seafood paella recipe!
Murcian-style vegetarian paella recipe
Murcia’s prime location right on southeastern Spain’s Mediterranean coast gives it plenty of sunshine. As a result, it’s home to some of the best fresh produce in Spain.
Delicious local vegetables are the star of the show in this vegetarian paella. It’s also easily adaptable to whatever produce you have on hand!
Arroz al horno (baked Spanish rice) recipe
The earliest versions of paella were cooked in large pans over an open fire outdoors. But oven-baked Spanish rice dishes are worth a try as well. This arroz al horno recipe with garbanzos and dates is completely vegan and the definition of comfort food!