Cultural Identity Cultures Food Lifestyle

Recipe: Arroz caldoso – a dish that shines like the Spanish sun

The aroma of freshly cooked rice is something I always look forward to in the summers, when I usually go back to Malaysia. Made in countless ways, rice can grace any meal – whether steamed, fried, or boiled into porridge. This summer, I found a piece of home in a small village in Spain when the mother of my host family, Daniela, told me that we were having rice for lunch.

The meal of the day is arroz caldoso (trans. ‘brothy rice’). It’s a family favourite and one of Daniela’s standout recipes. Deciphering her explanation with my very limited Spanish, I initially envision something like risotto, and I don’t think I’m too far off! Yet, as the mountain of ingredients builds on the kitchen counter, I realise the complexity of this rice dish far outstrips the peppers-onion-wine combo that I’m used to.

Firstly, we need a fumet, which is a concentrated seafood stock. Daniela stresses the importance of hers being completely homemade as she reveals a pile of pre-peeled prawns. To make this, reserve all the prawn shells and put them in a large pot with minced garlic and some olive oil. Fry until fragrant, before adding enough water to fill around 3/4 of the pot. Boil, let cool, and strain. Set the liquid aside while you blend the softened shells until they form a paste, adding broth if needed. This is then strained through a fine sieve. It’s this smooth seafood paste that Daniela refers to as fumet, even though online recipes differ.

While we make this, a less concentrated fish stock is bubbling away on the hob. We make this with cod cutlets, leeks, carrots, and onions. Seasoned with salt, pepper, bay leaf and parsley, it is left to boil and later strained. The way Daniela makes her arroz is considerably more time-consuming than necessary, with most recipes using just one type of fish stock (or even store-bought). Nevertheless, she insists that the fumet and less concentrated stocks work to give her dish the strength of flavour the family love.

True to the Mediterranean stereotype, the family enjoy their lunches late, often not sitting down to eat until after 3pm. The table is always properly set and complete with a salad and fresh bread from the village bakery. A seemingly endless supply of watermelon, yogurt, and flan waits in the fridge for dessert – this is a life I could easily get used to! It certainly beats eating instant noodles from a pot while writing an essay, or munching a Pret sandwich during a stress walk around Uni Parks.

The pot which the rice will be served is removed from the garage and placed on the hob. It will easily make fifteen servings, though there are only six of us. Daniela assures me that the leftovers will simply go in the fridge and feed us for the following days. There seem to be no problems with reheating rice in Spain, unlike the strange reluctance to do so in the UK. Having come from Malaysia, where rice is cooked at least half a kilo at a time, you can only imagine my surprise at watching my British friends throw away perfectly good cooked rice after dinner!

For this type of dish, I’m told that arroz bomba (a type of short-grain rice) is the best. It’s worth noting that the ratio of stock to rice is 3:1, which is much more liquid than you need for other varieties of rice. With the stocks ready to go, I put chopped onions, garlic, and olive oil into the big rice pot. The rice is sautéed with these, so that it absorbs flavour before any liquid is added. Next, throw in the herbs: bay leaves, oregano, parsley, and saffron; also, a little powdered orange food colouring. Season generously with coarse salt and pepper before pouring in all the necessary liquid (a mixture of the seafood stocks). Yes, you read that right, all of it at once. A couple of spoonfuls of fumet, then cover and let boil.

Daniela and I heave the massive pot outside to the portable induction cooker in the garden – to make sure the house doesn’t smell like fish for the rest of the week! An hour (and several heat adjustments) later, the rice has expanded and the broth has thickened. To this, we add the remaining ingredients: chunks of fish, squid, mussels, the peeled prawns, and peas. Just before we both carry it over to the table, Daniela comes over to give the pot a once over. She nods approvingly and declares “Vamos a comer.” (“Let’s eat.)”

The product of five long hours of prep and cooking is a stunning yellow-tinted rice packed with flavour and a luxurious amount of seafood. As frizzante (gently sparkling wine) is poured and bread passed round the table, I am enveloped in the warm embrace of family, subtly different to home but greatly familiar, like the aroma of rice that fills the garden.