A passion for paprika

The origin of paprika has been hotly debated so often that a discussion at this stage may seem pointless, but it may just be interesting to know that when one grinds dried sweet peppers correctly, that’s what happens. The first capsicum annuum seeds arrived in Spain for the first time in 1493 when the doctor on Christopher Columbus’ ship returned from Central America and got them to grow. At first the pepper plants were used to decorate the baroque gardens of the nobility in Europe but later they arrived in Turkey via the trade routes, from where it went to Hungary and the Balkans. It spread quickly into Europe and Asia. Mexico is still one of the biggest pepper producers in the world, if not the biggest. Hungary is the biggest in Europe.

Capsicum fruit, regardless of the colour, can be used to make the paprika that has now become widely used in a  large variety of dishes throughout the world. Paprika, known as pimentón in Spain, colorau in Portugal and chiltoma in Nicaragua (to mention a few of the countless names for this spice) is used mainly as a seasoning and often breathtaking colour. There are both hot and sweet “paprikas”. In Spain, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Portugal this spice is often used in sausage making. It can be smoked with for phenomenal flavour.

Hungarians cook in kettles influenced by the nomadic Asiatic Magyars who also inspired their famous goulashes – (but their baking traditions were strongly influenced by the early European settlers). They learnt from their conquerors, their neighbours and one another and they adapted, adopted and simplified their cuisine to create an interesting and vibrant cuisines. For the purposes of this article we discuss the pepper seeds that arrived in Hungary during the 17th Century.  Many authorities insist they were brought there by the Turks who were occupying Hungary at the time and that these Turks grew the plants under strict guard in the central courtyards of their homes. They say that ordinary Hungarians were threatened with decapitation should they plant the pepper plants themselves, but I have great difficulty in believing that. One only needs to know the Turkish people to realize that it’s quite contrary to the essence of their beings to want to deny anyone knowledge of their food. They are hospitable and fiercely proud of their own cooking traditions and like nothing more than to share their food with anyone that’s interested. That tendency is not just a recent sociological development, it’s who they are!  Like the Italians “always have the best of everything in Italy” and the Greeks firmly believe that “everything started with them” and South Africans believe that “there is no other way but theirs” so the Turks want everyone “to know the Turkish way and understand it”.  And you want me to believe that they refused to share their culinary finds? Bho!  There is another theory, but that’s all it is – a theory. I read a lot (but can’t always remember where I read things) – somewhere someone suggested that some Hungarian clans or prisoners who were fleeing back to Hungary actually stole seeds from the Turks and then planted it once they were back home, safely across the border. They started planting it where they lived in Hungary.  Szeged and Kalocsa are the centers of Hungarian paprika culture and are situated in the southern part of the great plain – very close to the Balkans.  Think about it, seeds were easy to steal and to hide and they may have taken a few other things as well which could be why the Turks took after them like the Wrath of God – there is a diffence between that theory and the first one – not so?

In 1932 Albert Szent-Gyorghyi discovered that capsicum pepper had as much as nine times the vitamin C as tomatoes by weight.  Just remember, as we  all know, high heat will remove the vitamin C from the peppers with the result that the naturally dried peppers will contain more Vitamin C than commercially dried peppers, that most probably contain very little.


Notwithstanding the fact that peppers may have arrived in Hungary long before, one can only use the written word as proof positive and judging by the local cookbooks, it was only towards the end of the 1800’s that paprika was really used in Hungarian cooking -and that’s when Hungarian food got “houding”. (Afrikaans slang word that would mean attitude in normal terms but in this case would mean that it developed it’s own characteristic but with a pride – very difficult to translate correctly). In 1879 Auguste Escoffier introduced paprika to the rest of Europe at the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo.
Always remember how to use paprika because it has a very high sugar content and must never burn – something that can so easily happen.  It burns easily and gives a brutally bitter taste, so be careful not to use it in a direct heat situation.  Keep correctly in cool cupboards and you’ll be able to use it for up to six months – after that, throw it away.  Peppers are ground between stones and steel cylinders in what they call a “closed system” so that the essential oils that are released can give colour and taste.  Because of the high sugar content, there is a slight caramelization during the grinding process that adds to the taste.  If the taste isn’t quite right, the millers add some seeds to the pods beforehand. They rely purely on experience for this as there is no way to judge accurately (and a mistake here could destroy and entire batch).  Once the pepper is ground, laboratory checks have to be carried out, the paprika tasted and then put into bags and stamped.  In the last century the Palfy brothers from Szeged started grinding the pods without stalks and seeds, producing the varieties of paprika now available and roughly categorized as follows:

Special Quality (Különleges) – mildest & reddest with divine aroma;
Delicate (Édes csemege) –
light to dark red, mild with a rich flavour;
Exquisite Delicate (Csemegepaprika) –
mild red with pungent aroma;
Pungent Exquisite Delicate – (Csípős Csemege, Pikáns)
exactly as the name says;
Rose (Rózsa)
like the name but pungent;
Noble Sweet (Édesnemes) –
this is the one we all know;
Half-Sweet (Félédes) –
a medium pungency (you know it’s there);
Hot (Erős) –
light brown & the hottest of all (my favourite);

It is interesting to note that capsaicin is used in treating of rheumatism in cream form to stimulate blood supply. It is also an excellent natural antibiotic.

I have included three recipes below, all of them my own versions but as close to the authentic as I can.  It’s winter in Cape Town, which always inspires my mood to cook.

GULYÁSLEVES (Goulash soup)

1,25 kgs beef neck or shoulder
1 large onion, finely diced
3 tablespoons butter (the authentic recipe calls for fat)
½ teaspoon caraway seeds (you can grind them)
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
1 medium carrot, sliced
2 sweet peppers, sliced and seeded
1 large tomato, peeled and cut into cubes
2 whole celery stalks, thinly sliced, leaves included
500 g baby potatoes, halved
Pasta pieces to taste (pasta is extremely important in Hungarian cuisine)
Oil for frying

Cut the meat into cubes. Fry onion in oil I in large pot or a kettle until transparent. Add the caraway seeds and crushed garlic, remove from the heat and then add the paprika, the meat and salt to taste.  Should you find it necessary, add a splash of water.  To this you add all the vegetables, excepting the celery that’s added half way through the cooking process.  Pour over one and a half liters of water or vegetable stock and simmer on a medium to low heat for about twenty minutes until the meat is tender to the fork.  Now add the pasta and cook for another five minutes.  Check and correct the taste.
Serve hot with fresh white bread, dried hot paprika pods and kardaka (local red wine) or a burgundy pinot noir.

PAPRIKA CHICKEN (Parikás csirke)

1 Free range chicken (about 1,5 – 2kg), divided into pieces with skin
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon ground paprika (medium)
salt to taste
2 sweet peppers, sliced and seeded
1 large tomato, peeled and diced
500 ml sour cream
oil for frying

Fry onion until transparent in olive oil.  Remove from heat and cover with the paprika (there is enough fat from the chicken and add salt.  Add all the rest of the vegetables and cook the chicken over very low heat in it’s own juices, taking care not to let it burn. It should take about 20 – 25 mintes.  Just before the end stir in the sour cream and cook for about 4 – 5 minutes. Check and correct the taste.
Serve with dumplings and a good burgundy pinot noir.

As can be expected there are literally thousands and thousands of recipes calling for paprika in the Hungarian cuisine. Noone knows who discovered the need to combine paprika with fat and onions for optimum taste, but who cares?

At one stage during the Napoleonic wars when the cook was running out of provisions, he realized he had potatoes and pasta left for a meal. Having to come up with something quickly, the Hungarians serving in the imperial army came up with this because they had a spice that could colour and flavour the simplest of food.

GRANÁNÁTOS KOCKA (March of the grenadiers)

600 g potatoes, peeled, cut into small dice
1 onion, peeled and chopped finely
3 1/2 tablespoons oil
1 heaped teaspoon mild, sweet paprika
Salt to taste (remember potatoes draw a lot of salt)
400 g large, square, flat pasta shapes

Fry the onions in oil, remove from the heat and add the paprika, combining it well with the onions. Add salt to taste. Pour over a little water, return to heat and cook until it is soft but still lumpy. Make sure it doesn’t burn and if it gets too dry, obviously add water. Cook the pasta separately and once cooked ‘al dente’, add to the potatoes, combining it well.  Check and correct the seasoning.
Heat the mixture again taking care that it does not stick to the pan and serve hot with sour gherkins.
It is usually served at the winter meal accompanied by Lescó (a dish of peppers, tomatoes and paprika) and these days also meat. It was created from need and passed through the generations to remain popular to this day.

There are thousands of recipes and the best of all are the ones from people living in Hungary since they, like all of us, guard their recipes jealously.  Have fun with these and next time you buy paprika, do check the date.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “A passion for paprika

  1. This is one of my favourite spices, I love the smokiness of it. I add some to my prawn cocktail sauce – like a warm smoky kiss!

  2. And your sauce is? Don’t be stingy – do share.

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