Zafran is Spanish for saffron, the heady spice from crocus flowers whose labour-intensive cultivation process makes it famously expensive. Its price means that there are huge amounts of fake saffron out there. Incidentally the town of Saffron Walden, near my childhood home in Essex, was so named because it used to be a key cultivation and trading centre for the precious commodity back in the 16th century.
Anyway, back to Hong Kong, Wyndham Street to be precise. Zafran the restaurant is deceptive. If you haven’t been, you may have walked past the entrance and steps leading down and thought it was a bar. This space is however first and foremost a Spanish restaurant. But don’t go expecting scary chorizo or limp frittata – this is the real deal, especially so under their recent new arrival, Chef Pere from Barcelona.
He recently led a paella masterclass that revealed some of the secrets behind one of the world’s great dishes. Frankly, it’s not the sort of dish that you’re going to make at home, especially not in a Hong Kong kitchen. Paella is actually the Valencian word for a pan, any pan, but traditionally the bigger the better. This world record holder takes some beating, especially as they used a digger as a spoon:
At Zafran, he starts by giving a demonstration of a brunoise, one of the most common knife techniques when it comes to cutting and prepping. He produces picture-perfect tiny cubes in no time, his fingers an effortless blur of blade like a culinary Edward Scissorhands. I manage to produce a misshapen mess, onion shrapnel flying in every direction, but Pere still manages to salvage it with a few deft chops.
So the brunoise is the building block of the paella, a dish loved and imitated in equal measure. Paella has iterations around the world, truly global, with Cajun Jambalaya and biriyani just some of the variations on the basic theme.
Ours today is a black squid ink paella, not the classic Valenciana with mounds of seafood, rabbit, chicken and more. Traditionally in Valencia, paella is cooked over an open fire made from orange and pine branches which infuses even more fragrance and flavour into the dish. Once the onions, peppers and carrots are away, the next stage here is to add the thin strips of squid and black squid ink, followed by the bomba rice. Small, nutty grains are the perfect vehicle to soak up the heady stock.
A puree of Nyora peppers comes next, before ladles of a brilliantly aromatic stock, slow boiled for hours from fish bones, shells and other sharp fishy bits rich in flavour. Then, of course, the strands of Spanish saffron:
Another great paella is at La Paloma in Sai Ying Pun where Chef Vito there told me that some diners have sent it back, complaining that the rice was burnt. It just confirms that it’s all about the crispy crunchy soccarat underneath and, as Pere reveals and demonstrates here at Zafran, the best way to form it by not stirring at all. Or, as he puts it poetically “You can hear the crisping sound in the pan.”
Twenty minutes later, dotted with aioli and a beautiful seafood cream made from the prawns, it makes for a sensational and utterly authentic Spanish experience, especially for $320. Having seen the effort and time that goes into it, it’s nothing short of a steal.