MADRID — After all the hearty and sophisticated food and drink we had consumed during a two-week trip through Spain's Basque country, we had a yearning for simple, humble paella once we returned to Madrid.
Many people call paella the national dish of Spain, but the distinctive food culture of San Sebastian in northern Spain showed me that Spanish cuisine is too regionalized to support the claim.
Paella actually is a classic Valencian meal. While a tourist version may have game and seafood (including picturesque unshelled lobster tails), real Valencians usually stick with either meat or seafood.
Paella began as an informal outdoor celebratory meal cooked over open fruitwood fires in the orchards of Valencia's countryside. People now put paella together using varying combinations of ingredients, cut up in advance and added once the cooking starts.
Usually prepared indoors now, paella is a common centerpiece for Sunday afternoon gatherings. And like chili makers or steak grillers in the United States, Spanish friends and neighbors chide each other about who makes the best paella on the block. (Picture a laughing, apron- wearing man scolding his sister-in-law.)
Key paella ingredients include olive oil and fresh garden vegetables. The foundation is short-grain Valencian rice, whose cultivation began near Spain's Mediterranean coast during the Moorish conquest. While paella cooks, the rice soaks up all the flavors of the other ingredients. Saffron, another Moorish introduction, usually adds to the bouquet of flavors infusing the rice.
Most paellas are cooked in special pans of varying sizes. The crispy layer of rice that forms on the bottom of the pan after the liquid has evaporated is called the quemada. Spaniards love it and fight over it.
Our friends in Madrid, Diego and Marta, are a modern double-income family with kids ages 6 and 4. They also rush around the way we do in the Chicago suburbs.
While we obviously knew Spain had modernized, I still had to chuckle when our friends said they usually ordered paella by phone, just as I would call for pizza delivery.
Has Madrid, known for its nightlife and home of the action-oriented movida from Pedro Almodovar movies, succumbed to suburban nesting?
Diego ignores the question and recommends a Madrid restaurant and delivery service called Arroceria Balear. It is the real thing and a good option for tourists who've eaten Basque tapas out on the town for several nights running. About an hour after ordering by phone, our paella arrived via motorbike inside a pizzalike carton.
When the family is especially busy, Diego says they order paella almost weekly. With Spanish courtesy, he washes the pan before a second driver picks it up later in the evening.
While a neighborhood taverna might send a paella to a house down the street once in a while, our friends say organized paella delivery is not common in Spain.
The local concept, however, is popular. Arroceria gets so busy on Sundays, Diego sometimes needs to phone right after breakfast when aiming for the traditional afternoon meal.
Diego's favorite, "mixed clean seafood" paella, arrives piping hot with vegetables, peeled shrimp, shelled clams, and squid. It's fragrant and delicious.
Does delivered paella hint at the disappearance of traditional Spanish culture? Probably not. For busy young families, not having to spend hours over a hot stove is delightful. But the delivered product is still high quality. And it's still traditional Spanish paella - a far cry from America's ubiquitous fast-food hamburgers.
• For more information on Arroceria Balear, see www.arroceriabalear.com or call 011-34-916-027-100.
Small plastic containers of saffron cost about $3 at El Cortes Ingles, the biggest department store chain in Spain. It's nice to have if you want to make your own paella.