It was summer 2009 in Valencia, Spain. The classroom was cool, the students tanned with glistening skin, the sparkle of youth in our eyes. We were eager to learn, and eager to play. One warm night it was tapas and dancing in the old town, gliding through the cobbled streets, surrounded by churches and buildings with a history. The other night it was fooling around at the beach, grabbing a few beers to while the evening away on the golden sand, chilling and laughing and acknowledging the breaking sound of the waves as they touched and tickled our naked feet.
Nestled in between these magical nights were culture trips organised by the language school. One such outing was a lunch at a beachfront restaurant, bristling with groups of people full to bursting with energy. The tables were long, the space wide and high, the walls adorned with colourful murals of scenes from the local area. And then, in a gargantuan frying pan, the waiter brought in a dish as black as the night. As our teacher spread the black rice onto our plates, the mysterious, glistening dish already had me under its spell. Mesmerised, I pushed a spoonful of this velvety, thick substance into my mouth and found myself overflowing with a creamy, heavenly sensation. And it is one that has stayed with me until this day.
Enjoying a meal bathed in squid’s ink was almost an other-worldly experience. It clung to my synapses, forming a memory that was very sensory and synesthetic (a concept anthropologist David Sutton has written much about). It sparkled my desire to return one day, which I did, eight years later. Eager to share my experience with my partner and my friend, we visited La Riua. Located not at the beach, but in the old town, it was equally lively. Despite having developed into somewhat of a tourist destination, the place had history and soul, it felt cosy and yet vibrant too.
The surprise and amazement spreading across my companions’ faces was one easily matched by my own those many years ago. How could something edible be so black? It was, of course, more than just edible. It was mouth-watering. I was very much afraid that I would be disappointed, led on by my high expectations supported by a faint and yet so very clear memory. I could not recreate the simultaneous sensation of surprise and delight, suspicion and excitement, curiosity and thrill. But the feeling of satisfaction quickly settled when I shoveled in spoonful after spoonful of black, creamy deliciousness.
Arroz negro, or arròs negre in Valencian, is a Valencian and Catalan dish of black rice with seafood. Although there exists rice that is part of a cultivar of heirloom rice that is naturally dark, the black colour in the black rice dish comes from nothing other than the ink of a squid. It is extracted from a squid’s ink sacs, which the creature uses as a defense and escape mechanism. When the squid perceives to be in danger, it releases ink from the ink sacs, located between the gills, accompanied by a jet of water. The ink is dispersed more widely during its release in order to create a dark, diffuse cloud that can obscure the predator’s view, and to allow the squid to rapidly escape. Aside from squid, other molluscs also have this defense mechanism in place. While octopuses will produce black ink, and cuttlefish brown ink, squid ink is a seductive, shiny blue-black.
Although the squid ink itself doesn’t add much taste to the rice dish, it gives it an infinitely delicious, creamy consistency. According to a book by Roger Martinez, called The Rice Cooker, the origin of the black rice comes from the use of squid ink by the fishermen of Levant and Catalonia. It certainly makes sense that fishermen would have been the ones to come up with the idea of using their prey’s ink as part of a meal. And with Spanish rice tending to absorb about three times more liquid than other rice varieties, there was no concern that the rice underneath the ink would not keep its firm consistency.
Aside from squid ink, squid or cuttlefish are also part of the ingredients, as well as white rice, green cubanelle peppers, seafood broth, garlic, sweet paprika, and olive oil. Other seafood such as prawns or mussels are often added as well. Given its similarity to the famous seafood paella in terms of cooking and serving style, the dish is also sometimes referred to as paella negra. However, this denomination is a very recent one. In Cuba and Puerto Rico, the dish is disguised under the name of arroz con calamares (rice with squid), omitting the reference to the blackness of the ink. Fideuà negra is the same dish but with noodles, usually served with aioli (garlic and olive oil sauce).
I have yet to make the dish myself, but in the meantime you can find recipes at delicious. and Olive magazines. Squid ink is easier to come by than one might imagine. It can be bought from most fishmongers, comes in sachets in Spanish delicatessen stores, and is also available online, for example at souschef.co.uk. If you’d rather try it in a restaurant first, there are several options: Hispania, Opera Tavern, and Barrafina in London. Socarrat Paella Bar, El Colmado, and Estela in New York. Alma Restaurante, Sobre Mesa (here called paella negra), and Spain Club in Seoul.
However and wherever you come to enjoy that first creamy, luscious arroz negro, be sure to savour the moment. It won’t be quite the same again, but you’ll keep coming back for more.
Area: Ciutat Vella neighbourhood in Valencia, Spain
Closest metro: Alameda (linia 0, 3, 5, 7, 9), Pl. Espanya (linia 0, 1, 2), Bailén (linia 0, 7)
Address: La Riua
Carrer del Mar, 27
Note: This is an informative article with no affiliations or sponsored links. The recipes, and restaurants mentioned for arroz negro dining options in London, New York, and Seoul have not been tested.