Valencia’s Arros a Banda – Paella’s Cousin

Arroz a Banda (Valencia) (2) Arròs a banda is a very old preparation from Valencia and really quite simple. Traditionally, arròs a banda was made on the small cabotatge, the coast runners that ran from north to south along the Levante, the Valencian coast. The boatmen would eat the fish with some hollowed out pieces of bread. Fishermen also made this dish. As with so many dishes, it begins with a sofregit, like the Italian soffritto, a mixture of onions, garlic, and other ingredients sautéed in olive oil before the addition of the remaining ingredients; in this case, a rich fish broth is added to be absorbed by the rice. A banda means “apart” in Valencian, meaning the rice is served first and apart from the fish, which is served as a second course. It is traditionally served with allioli, a pungent garlic mayonnaise.

My first taste of arròs a banda was at the modest seaside Port restaurant on the esplanade of Denía south of Valencia. I later read in Claudia Roden’s book Mediterranean Cookery that her first taste of this famous Valencian dish was also in Denía at another small restaurant. I read further and discovered that Penelope Casas, author of The Food and Wines of Spain, describes her “ultimate” rice dish as being an arroz a banda, in Denía, too. I suppose Denía has some extraordinary arròs a banda.

At a local fish market in Denía you would find a variety of shellfish and firm-fleshed fish, so-called soup fish, a category of fish unknown to Americans for the most part. What could be our soup fish are what are considered trash fish by commercial fishermen and retailers and sports fishermen. They are thrown back into the sea as garbage or used for animal feed or bait. For anyone who has seen this form of waste, and who loves fish, it is heart-breaking. In the Denía fish market you might see the rata de mar, literally sea rat, but with a more appealing and accurate English name of star-gazer: the eyes of this fish point directly upwards (the Venetians know how to name fish: they call this fish boche in cao, mouth-in-the-sky). The araña (weever) and lluerna (streaked gurnard) are two other small fish found in many Mediterranean fish stews and broths and may be seen along with gallina (red gurnard), salmonetes (red mullet), gallo (fluke), and rape (monkfish) that are used in the broth. As for shellfish, clams, crayfish, crabs, and shrimp are all popular for flavoring the broth, especially in restaurants. In both this arròs a banda recipe and the pasta version, fideuà al estilo de Gandia, the technique called arrossejat is used, where either the rice or the pasta is sautéed in olive oil before the addition of any liquid. The resulting burnt crust of rice on the bottom so prized by gourmets is called soccarat.
Read through the recipe several times to understand the steps leading through the process. If your clams are already well-scrubbed and purged of lingering sand you can skip the soaking instructions. Serve with allioli.

Arros a Banda
Prep time
Total time
You will cook in a paella pan. Make sure your choice of fish are fresh rather than the exact ones I call for; as they may not be available.
Recipe type: Rice with Seafood
Cuisine: Valencian
Serves: 6
  • For the clam and fish broths
  • 12 littleneck clams, scrubbed, purged in cold water to cover with 2 teaspoons baking soda for 1 hour, and drained
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 large garlic cloves, chopped
  • 3 ripe tomatoes (about 1 pound), peeled, seeded, and finely chopped
  • 5 cups water
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • Bouquet garni, tied in cheesecloth, consisting of 1 bay leaf, 6 sprigs each fresh thyme and parsley, and 1 teaspoon fennel seeds or 1 fennel stalk with leaves
  • 1 ½ pounds soup fish—whole fish and fish heads for broth (for example, 2 porgies (scup) or 2 butterfish, and 5 fresh sardines, 1 mackerel, and 1 bluefish or mahi-mahi head or ½-pound bluefish fillet or mahimahi fillet, cut up)
  • 1 pound fresh shrimp, saving the heads and shells (½ pound headless defrosted shrimp, shells saved)
  • For the garlic mixture
  • 2 large garlic cloves
  • Pinch of saffron threads, crumbled
  • 1 teaspoon hot paprika
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • For the fish
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion, very finely chopped
  • 2 large garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 ripe tomato, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons very finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
  • 2 ¼ pounds mixed fish steaks or fillets (consisting of ¾ pound monkfish, halibut, hake, cod, scrod, or Pollack, ¾ pound striped bass, kingfish, bluefish, Spanish mackerel, dogfish, yellowtail, mahimahi, or shark and ¾ pound red snapper, grouper, redfish, or wolffish)
  • For the rice
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 large garlic cloves, lightly crushed
  • 2 whole dried chiles
  • 2 cups medium-grain rice
  1. Put the drained clams in a small pot with 2 tablespoons water and turn the heat to medium-high. Once the clams have all opened, about 6 minutes, remove. Remove the clams from the shells and set aside in the refrigerator. Strain the clam broth through a fine-mesh strainer and set aside. Discard the shells and any clams that have not opened and remain tightly closed.
  2. In a stockpot or large casserole, heat the olive oil over medium heat, then cook the large onion, garlic, and tomatoes until the mixture looks saucy, 10 to 12 minutes, stirring often so the garlic doesn’t burn. Pour in the water, wine, and reserved clam broth and season with salt and pepper. Add the bouquet garni, cut-up whole fish and fish heads, and shrimp heads and shells (keep the shrimp and all other fish refrigerated until 15 minutes before needed). Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to low, and simmer 2 hours. Strain the broth through a fine-mesh strainer (you should have about 6 cups).
  3. In a mortar, pound the garlic cloves, saffron, paprika, cayenne, and salt with a pestle until completely mashed. Transfer to a 2-cup measuring glass and blend with 1 cup fish broth and reserve until step 5.
  4. In a large casserole or skillet, heat a ¼ cup olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook, stirring, the onion, garlic, tomato, and parsley until the onion is soft, about 6 minutes. Add the fish fillets and coat all sides in the mixture, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the reserved fish broth, bring to a boil, and cook 2 to 3 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally. Add the reserved shrimp and cook another 2 minutes at a boil, shaking the pan. Remove the fish and shrimp with a slotted ladle, set aside with the reserved clams, and keep warm with a sheet of aluminum foil covering the fish. Strain the fish broth through a fine-mesh strainer, reserving and setting aside 3 cups of it and storing the rest for another use.
  5. In a 16- to 20-inch paella pan or a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat and cook the crushed garlic cloves and dried chiles until the garlic begins to turn light brown. Remove and discard the garlic and chiles. Add the rice and cook, stirring well so the grains are coated with oil, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the reserved fish broth and diluted garlic mixture. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to low, and cook 30 minutes, uncovered. There will be an enormous temptation to stir the rice but you must be resolute and absolutely not stir the rice. It must cook undisturbed. Remove from the heat, cover with a lid or kitchen towel, and let the rice rest until tender, about 15 minutes. Serve the rice first and then the fish, or place the seafood on top of the rice and serve.


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