It was Friday the 13th and I told hubby this was going to be our lucky day and indeed it was! We participated in the first-ever paella cooking competition in Kuwait AND WE WON!
Much as we both enjoyed cooking, neither hubby nor I had ever participated in a cooking competition before, more so a PAELLA cooking competition, so naturally we were very, very elated that our paella was judged the winning paella that day.
We couldn’t believe it at first….they announced the second prize winner and as we watched the team receiving their prize and jumping for joy, I kept my fingers crossed. We waited for them to announce the winner, and I could feel the whole team wondering: Could it be us? Or maybe we didn’t win anything. And when they called out “Los Soles”, we just screamed…”We won! We won!”
Hubby had told me, just over a couple of weeks before, that a group of Spanish friends were organizing a paella cooking competition and a friend and colleague of his, Carolina, was trying to form a group. She had asked him if we wanted to join. Of course I jumped with glee, exclaiming, “Let’s participate! It’ll be fun!” Our team turned out to be the smallest team – only five people – and probably the most international – four different countries among the five of us!
The competition was held in the grounds of a Chalet by the beach belonging to the Kuwaiti friends of one of the organisers. The rules were simple: the paella had to be cooked on-site and all the ingredients could be cleaned and cut etc at home, but absolutely no pre-cooking of anything except the broth or caldo which was traditionally used in making paella. Doors opened at 10:30 am and the paella had to be ready by 2:30pm for the judging. We could choose to also participate in the tortilla de patatas competition and the tortilla could be cooked at home and brought to the Chalet. This wasn’t a spectator event and one could only go as a member of one of the participating teams.
Few people I know have never heard of paella – the quintessential dish of Spain. One of the first things hubby did when we got married was to teach me how to cook paella. He said it was his interpretation of how his late grandmother used to make paella for them when they were children. The thing is, he cooked just like my mum – intuitively! No recipe, no measures – just a bit of this and a bit of that and the whole dish came together. (He still cooks like this to this day!) Which was fine. Except, I also wanted to be able to make the dish on my own so I forced him to “recipise” his paella.
So one day we measured everything and I wrote it out in a recipe card. And THAT was the last time hubby ever made paella in our kitchen LOL!
I’ve made paella many times since I learned how to do it from hubby but never ever without referring to my recipe card – I guess you could say that since it wasn’t a dish common to my own culture, I was always conscious about getting it right. Thankfully, hubby loved it every time I made it. We have cooked our paella everywhere we have ever lived – in Malaysia, in England, in Dubai and of course in Kuwait! We always manage to find the ingredients somehow. One year I even cooked paella for Eid when many Malaysian households prepare special dishes to serve their friends and family during the traditional “open house”. Needless to say, its a hit because it was something different from the traditional Malaysian Eid fare. That Eid I cooked paella every day for four days!
Making paella is already a laborious task, what more when you have to cook it outside your kitchen! So from the moment we decided to enter this outdoor paella competition, I knew we had a lot to do. We had to figure out the size of paella pan to use, on what kind of burner to cook the paella and most of all, how to make sure our recipe worked in a larger quantity. We also had to make sure that ALL the ingredients, especially the seafood, required were available the day before the event.
We had a 40 cm diameter non-stick paella pan – a paellera – with a cover, which we had never used before since we always cooked smaller portions of paella for 2 to 4 people. As per our recipe. Since there were five people in our team, and we had to cook enough to feed the team and also for the judges to sample, we knew this paellera was the right size. But how much rice goes in there? How much liquid with the type of rice we were using here?
Not wanting to take any chances, we did a dry-run the weekend before the event, cooking a double portion of our paella recipe in our paellera on the largest burner of our gas cooker at home. We cooked it exactly the way we would during the competition and timed the whole duration so we knew exactly when we had to start cooking on the day.
It was the best thing we ever did because we went to the event feeling confident that our paella would turn out exactly the way we wanted it to – no surprises!
The event was very well-organised and the atmosphere at the Chalet was like a fiesta. Kudos to the organising committee! The costumes attracted my attention first – I gasped at how creative some of them were. We found out later that there was also a prize for the best costume and Eva and Gabriel’s team won!
The fiesta atmosphere continued throughout the day as we cooked. Spanish music blared in the background. Every team had brought their own refreshments and snacks and we brought our alcohol-free sangria which was another one of hubby’s invention. Some people started dancing and there was even a live guitar performance organised by one of the teams.
We started cooking at 12:30 pm using our brand new single gas burner which we bought after the dry run. There were all kinds of burners used by the teams, many used a large gas ring and one team used a wood fire. It was really interesting to watch how every team went about cooking their paella.
Everyone aimed for the same result yet went about it their own way.
Everywhere around us, everybody’s paella started to take shape and at the end we saw that every paella looked different from the other. And why not?
Even though there was always a basic way to cook anything, one has to agree that everybody had their own special touch which always differentiated their cooking from someone else. And the same goes for paella.
Hubby said our paella was now an “award-winning paella” and well, it did look good and it certainly tasted good. Actually, it tasted just like we make it every time, only better! LOL
I’ll treasure our recipe and we’ll certainly treasure this experience. All the seven teams that participated cooked their best paella that day and one man’s paella – OURS – was judged the winning paella – campeones…campeones…ole! ole! ole!