Sunday, 12 August 2012

Dear Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547 - 1616),

You know you've hit the jackpot as a writer when your native tongue is nicknamed "the language of [insert your name here]." So when people call Spanish "la lengua de Cervantes," I bet it gives you a little thrill. (Unfortunately, writers are usually dead by the time they reach this status... so... sorry about that.)*

It also helps if, four centuries after your write it, people still review your most famous work as the 'first' and 'greatest' modern novel of all time - or, in one oft-quoted assessment, "the Spanish Bible" (Miguel de Unamuno). Now I have never understood why people call Don Quixote the first modern novel. I mean, come on Cervantes. It wasn't even your first novel, let alone the first novel. You had written a pastoral novel before you got around to scripting your chivalric epic, as had many others. Heck, there are novels written on 11th century Japanese scrolls, if you know how to read 'em. Even beside all that - and this is the crux of my problem with the whole "first novel" thing - the protagonist of Don Quixote is a man who has funny ideas from reading too many novels. How can we name a novel about a man who reads too many novels as the first novel?! That's like strolling up to some prehistoric chicken, ignoring the egg it's just hatched from, and congratulating it for being the first of its kind while its mother clucks disapprovingly in the corner. And yet, literary critics continue to heap unquestioning praise on Don Quixote as the originator, the great untouchable king of novels, the first of the form.

Okay, okay, some parts of that claim are true. Novels before yours were typically very closely constrained by rules of genre: there were pastoral novels, there were romantic novels, there were poetic epics, but there wasn't much in the way of free-form novel-length prose. But if we consider a "novel" to be defined by its form rather than content (prose style, length more than that of a story or novella, to be read off the page rather than performed, etc etc) then surely the novels that were around for a long time before Don Quixote's 1605 debut should count. And even if we are snobby enough to discount early genre novels, then we box ourselves into limiting our view of "the novel" to exclude modern genre fiction, or indeed many of the works of modernism and postmodernism which play with the boundaries of the form.

Cases in point: in 1951, Jack Kerouac typed On the Road on a 36-metre length of scroll. Is that not a novel? The text in Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves (2000) curls all over the pages, becomes architectural, and sometimes isn't text at all. Is that not a novel? The death of a character in Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759-67) is marked with a full page of black. Is that not a novel? (Actually, don't answer that one.)

To me, a "novel" is a unit of fiction writing that, if our alien overlords were to discover it in some horrible impending future dystopia, would tell them something about their human slaves. A novel, in other words, is a sociological and anthropological artifact.

To a cook, one of the interesting anthropological discoveries lying in wait in Don Quixote concerns rice. For those of us who succumb to every food trend (Oh! It's 1998! I think I'll have some pesto. Oh! It's 2001! Where's my cupcake? Oh! It's 2011! My caramel needs more fleur de sel. Etcetera.) paella has been around long enough to become familiar. The aroma of saffron, the bubbling of smoked paprika-infused rice, and the exotic piles of prawns, peppers, and parsley just waiting to dive in, are all common kitchen sensory experiences. Even the frustrating, infuriating, non-intuitive command NOT TO STIR has become a little more acceptable, after many glorious tastes of that golden crust on the bottom of the pan.

But when you consider that paella has only been popular worldwide for a few years, and has only existed since the 18th century, it's quite astonishing to find references to unstirred rice in Spanish fiction from 1605. And yet, Cervantes, that's what you give us:

"It is better not to stir the rice though it burn to the pot."

Even if this was given as a metaphor - a maxim on the dangers of meddling with Spanish duennas - I like to think it hints at the existence of some early form of paella. So, Cervantes, did you feast on plates of crusty rice, tomatoes, and seafood? Not going to rise from your grave to tell me? OK, mind if I feast in your honour? No? Great.

*I can live in hope that, after my death, English will be renamed "the language of Irvine". Sadly, English has already pretty much been formulated by other writers. Thus, I shall have to write in another, bastardised language. I therefore take this opportunity to debut Irvlish, a burgeonating lingwage of neu phorms n innovational lingwistik neuvelties. Irvlish: the lingwage ov Irvine!**

**I feel dirty.

Cervantes' Unstirred Paella

Serves 6-8, but I only shared with one.

0.5g saffron threads
1/4C boiling water
Olive oil
2 chicken breasts, cut into 2cm cubes
1 smoked onion, diced^
4 cloves smoked garlic, minced^
1/2C tomato paste
2 tsp smoked paprika
1 can chopped tomatoes
1L vegetable stock
2C arborio rice (or paella rice, if you can find it)
10-12 cooked prawns
1 red capsicum, seeds removed & sliced
Salt & pepper
1/2C olives
1/2C parsley, roughly torn


Measure out the half-gram of saffron, ignoring the sneaking suspicion that this is what drug dealers must feel like. (To avoid amplifying the drug dealer feeling, try not to sniff the saffron just yet.) Dissolve the threads in the boiling water and set aside.

Heat the vegetable stock in a large saucepan. Meanwhile, in a paella pan or other large frying pan (my stoneware pan worked great), warm some olive oil on medium heat. Brown the chicken and set aside.  Add a little more oil, and sweat the onions (about 4 mins). Then add the minced garlic and cook for another minute. Throw in the paprika, tomato puree, hot vege stock, and tomatoes, and simmer for a few minutes.

Add the rice, give it a quick stir to distribute the grains, and then put down your spoon. I'm serious. No more stirring allowed, from this point on. Refer to your Cervantes. Cook the rice in the tomatoey liquid for 10 minutes.

Add the browned chicken, and arrange the capsicum slices and prawns on top. Season with salt and pepper. You are still not allowed to stir, so I don't know why you've picked up your spoon. Tut tut. Cook for another 15 minutes.

Before serving, sprinkle the olives and parsley over the top. Now your spoon can enter the pan, but only to scoop out delicious chunks of crispy-bottomed paella.

^NZ readers: you can buy smoked onions & garlic at the Parnell markets on a Saturday / Sunday morning. Failing that, use regular onions & garlic - but trust me, the smoked variety smell amazing.


  1. Looks nice. If you are interested, you can also buy the smoked onions and garlic on occasion from the supermarket (New World), I've seem them at Victoria Park and New Lynn stores, as well as Titirangi Market (on sundays). Paella rice is purchasable from Sabatos, as well as I'd guess Farro Fresh and New World (probably Nosh as well), Bomba is a classic variety, but there are others.

    1. Brilliant, thanks Colin! I've been hunting for paella rice for ages, with no luck until now.

  2. welcome to NZFBA, we have added you to the members list!