If you’ve ever looked into the origins of this most Spanish of dishes you’ll know that paella is a rice-based dish, and gets its name from the dish in which it’s cooked – the paella – and originates from the region of Valencia. The first paellas date back to the 15th century and are believed to have been made with a mixture of meats – including water vole – caught from the shores of the Albufera lake. As the dish’s popularity spread, so the recipes evolved to adapt to the produce of each region: seafood and fish paellas appeared, as did mixed ‘surf and turf’ paella, known as mar y montaña.
Today paella remains a staple of the Spanish diet, each household having its own recipe and tricks to making the best stock or getting the rice just right. Essential to the dish’s success is the layer of crusty rice on the edge of the dish known as the socarrat – amateurs will discard it thinking it’s burnt, while those in the know will jump on the opportunity to help themselves to a spoonful of this most flavorsome of morsels. Given the time and effort required to prepare a respectable paella, it’s perhaps no surprise that paella is a popular dish served in restaurants across the country. What may come as more of a surprise is that aside from Sundays – when the dish takes center stage at the family table – it’s tradition in Spain to serve paella on Thursdays… and no one is entirely sure why.
As is often the case with traditions, the precise origins are unclear and largely disputed – some say there are as many explanations for the custom as there are restaurants serving the dish in Spain. However, a survey of the main contenders leaves us with a handful of options, among which the true origin is bound to lie. There are two main factors which are believed to have influenced this peculiar eating habit: one has to do with fishing, the other with house maids.
One one account of why Spaniards tuck into paella on a Thursday, it is said that traditionally the fish was brought in on a Monday and would gradually make its way inland. This meant that in cities like Madrid the fish would not make it to the restaurants until later in the week, usually by Thursday, which meant that that was the best day to serve fish paella on the menu. As seemingly rational as this story might sound, it doesn’t explain why it is also customary to eat paella on Thursdays in seaside towns as well as inland. Another story goes that traditionally restaurants would do a big weekly shop on Fridays and so would make paella on Thursdays in order to use up any remaining bits of meat, fish or vegetables before they went off.
However, there’s also an entirely different line of thinking, which claims that the custom has less to do with what was available than with who was available. Traditionally the house servants would be given Thursday as their weekly day off to rest before the busy weekend. Some suggest that this resulted in many bourgeois families eating out on a Thursday, as no one was available to cook the family meal. The story goes that restaurants therefore decided to start serving paella on that day to give it the feel of a fancy Sunday meal.
Others claim that the custom originated not in the restaurants, but in the homes of the wealthy families who were left without help on Thursdays. The servants would prepare the stock and ingredients for the dish the day before – having all the hard work done, it was easy for the lady of the house to assemble this prototype of a ready meal.
In the end, the precise origin of the custom doesn’t seem to matter all that much – the most important thing is that traditional restaurants continue to serve this hearty Spanish dish on their menu del día when the time comes. Often served as a starter and without much of the pomp surrounding a Sunday paella, this is popular paella, to be served to the many, and is perhaps all the better just for that reason.