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(Capsicum annuum)

Paprika--a true capsicum originating in the New World--is today commonly found in powdered form, made by grinding dried, aromatic, sweet red peppers, usually the Tomato pepper. Most commercial brands come from Spain, South America, California, and Hungary.

Certainly, it is world renowned as a key ingredient in Hungarian cuisine. In fact, totally erroneously legends would have it that the feared Hungarian warriors of the early Middle Ages, who rode through Europe on the backs of wild horses striking terror into the hearts of the locals, were fired by paprika-laden dishes. Impossible, of course: capsicums weren't discovered in the New World until the 16th century and weren't used in Hungarian cuisine until the Napoleanic Wars.

According to Culinaria Hungarica--provided to me by good friend Sándor Fenyvesi, an air traffic controller at Budapest Approach, whose own bilingual site on cooking can be found at www.cookbook.hu -- the history and uses of paprika in Hungary can be described as follows:

The first pepper plants arrived in Hungary during the l7th century. Some say they were brought by Turks, who occupied the country at the time and who grew the plants under strict guard in the central courtyards of their homes--threatening any Hungarians who wished to grow them with decapitation. Others believe pepper plants were introduced by ethnic groups from the Balkans, who were fleeing north from the Turks. This last theory is the most likely, since the towns of Szeged and Kalocsa, which compete against each other for the title of "Paprika capital," are both in the southern part of the Great Plain, close to the Balkans.

Henceforth, records kept by pepper growers and old cookbooks show that paprika became commonly used as a spice in Hungary at the end of the l8th century. Later, it was French chef Auguste Escoffier who introduced it to western European cuisine. In 1879 he had the red powder brought from Szeged on the river Tisza to Monte Carlo, where he brought fame and recognition to this "Hungarian spice" in the noble kitchens of the Grand Hotel.

Cooking with paprika

The main thing to remember is that paprika only releases its color and flavor when heated. Thus, sprinkling ground paprika over colorless dishes may improve their appearance, but does little for their flavor--in Hungary, this is called "a feast for the eyes" and is used as a garnish, not as a flavoring. Similarly, if you want to color the contents of a dish, stir the red powder into a little hot oil before adding.

If using ground paprika in a roux (a mixture of flour and fat), or adding it to onions, first remove the saucepan from the heat--and do not return to the heat until liquid has been added to the roux or the fat combined with any other ingredients that have a high water content, such as meat, potatoes, etc. This is essential, since paprika has a high sugar content and therefore burns easily. If the paprika burns, it will turn brown and develop a bitter flavor.

Usually, sweet or slightly hot paprika are used, unless the cook knows for certain that the guests enjoy (and suffer no ill effects from) spicy dishes. Alternatively, fresh green or dried hot red pepper pods can be served with the meal. The ground powder can be used freely as a seasoning; most recipes call for teaspoons or tablespoons, rather than pinches. In powdered form, paprika also adds consistency as well as flavor.

Kept in a cool, dark place, paprika retains its flavor for six to eight months. After that, it begins to lose its color and aroma, but can still be used.

Drying peppers

The types of pepper that are particularly suited to drying are grown near Szeged on the river Tisza, and Kalocsa on the Danube. The plant needs plenty of nutrients and water, as well as care, to ensure a qualiry product. The growers' expertise and experience also help to ensure that the peppers are harvested at the right time: when they are ripe, but not too ripe. The peppers acquire their typical aroma and beautiful red color during the drying process. As they ripen, the peppers go through a range of attractive colors, from green to light brown, then growing ever darker until they are a deep black-brown - the Hungarians speak of them "rusting"; finally they take on the glorious, shiny red of the fully ripe fruit. In the villages around Szeged and Kalocsa, the peppers are still threaded onto long pieces of string and hung up to dry outside the houses and from garden fences. The length of the pepper chains, which varies from region to region, used to be a unit of measurement for the dealers: a Szegedinian chain measured 16 feet (some five meters).

Grinding peppers

Grinding peppers has a long tradition. At first, the dried pepper was simply crumbled into the cooked dish; later it was ground with a mortar and pestle. As demand increased, paprika became a successful commodity. Water and windmills began to grind more and more paprika, and less and less grain, and in time the manufacturing process became more refined. Today, peppers are ground in a closed system, between stones and steel cylinders. The warmth that is created by the friction releases the essential oils, and it is these, which impart the flavor and color. Thanks to the high sugar content, the peppers also caramelize slightly, intensifying the flavor. In order to achieve the right flavor, a quantity of seeds is added to the pods before they are ground. The pepper millers use their experience to determine the exact quantities and ratios. After grinding, laboratory checks are carried out, and tasters make sure that quality remains consistent. If the ground paprika meets the requirements, it is filled into bags and stamped with a quality seal.

In the 19th century, the Pálfy brothers of Szeged received awards for the quality of their ground paprika, and the world owes these brothers a debt of gratitude for the introduction of semisweet paprika. They removed the stalks and seeds from the pods before grinding them, as these contain capsaicin, which gives the paprika its heat. This not only resulted in a mild ground paprika, but also formed the basis for a number of different strengths.

The growers also contributed to paprika's fame throughout the world. They produced new types, such as the fairly mild "delikatess paprika," which contains no spiciness at all and can therefore be ground whole.

Types of paprika

The following are the most widely available types of paprika in Hungary. "Sweet" means "not hot."

  • Special: Bright, shiny red, pleasantly spicy aroma, sweet or hardly hot, aromatic, the most finely ground.
  • Mild: Light red, pleasantly aromatic, not hot, not quite so finely ground.
  • Delicatess: Light red, pleasantly aromatic, slightly hot, medium coarse
  • Sweet: Dark, rich color, fairly mild, medium coarse.
  • Semisweet: Light, matte color, spicy, pleasantly hot, medium coarse.
  • Rose paprika: Lively red, spicy, medium coarse.
  • Hot: Light brown red to brick-red and yellow; very hot; slightly coarse.