As I said in my tasting of chorizo, this week we’re having paella. Or is it? Does it qualify?

I don’t mean the absence of shellfish – that’s characteristic of a regional version of paella, but it’s not universal; this dish has many variations. But there’s one thing that doesn’t vary about this dish: the dish.

By which I mean the dish it’s made in. Or, in this case, the pan. You tell me if you can have a tuna casserole that’s not made in a casserole, or a beef skillet that’s not made on a skillet, or a chicken tajine that’s not served in a tajine, or pork skewers that aren’t cooked on skewers. But I made my paella in a nonstick electric pan, one shaped like a rounded square, and that is definitely not a paella.

Because, yes, a paella is a pan: a large shallow round metal pan with two handles. And when you cook the rice and all the other goodies in it, you don’t stir them after a certain point, so that the bottom develops a browned crust (which loosens up when you let it sit for several minutes after cooking); this does not happen in my nonstick pan. (But I couldn’t fit it all in my iron skillet.) 

So. I may have used exactly the right kind of rice (in fact, I did), and saffron, and various necessary vegetables, plus chicken, not to mention the chorizo, but would I call creamed tuna with noodles cooked in a saucepan on a stovetop a casserole? (On the other hand, there is “stovetop stuffing…”) Also, it wasn’t made in Spain by a Spanish person, but so it goes. 

We know paella as a Spanish word, which means that it’s said with the ll as like “y” – so “pa-eh-ya,” ish. But the word paella came into Spanish from Catalan, just as the culinary item made it in did, and in Catalan the ll is said sort of like in English million, or more like Italian voglio (if you don’t speak Italian, you won’t get it quite right, though). Catalan, in turn, got it from Old French paelle (which became modern French poêle, by the way), which in turn came from Latin patella.

Patella! What has this to do with kneecaps? Just that they’re shaped like a concave dish. Patella is in its turn a diminutive of patina, which is also a word for a broad, shallow dish or pan. (Patina refers in English to tarnish such as one may find on a metal pan, and it gained that sense by transference, rather as paella and casserole and all those other things came to name foods served in the dishes.) Patina in its turn descended to various words in various European languages, mostly for a pan-like dish.

One of those words, in fact, is probably pan. I say “probably” because the route from patina to pan is a windy and mysterious one by way of Old High German and Proto-Germanic. But the evidence is suggestive and the derivation is plausible. So pan is, in its way, the English for paella. And since the evidence is even more suggestive and the derivation even more plausible that what I made for suppers this week is based on Catalan paella, if a pan is, more or less, a paella, do I get away with it? Hmm…

Well, maybe next week I’ll make a casserole. If I do, I’ll probably use my slow cooker. …What?

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