Hungary’s sweet paprika
Decoding the quintessentially Hungarian spice that was an import from the New World
I was introduced to paprika by Jonathan Harker, Bram Stoker’s swashbuckling hero in Dracula, who tells his fiancée Mina about “very good chicken done up some way with red pepper." It stayed with me. Somewhere, far away, where vampires roamed in deep misty valleys, people ate chilli, just like me. Yet for years the garnet-hued, talc-like powder eluded me. It had pungency but it was also fruity and I didn’t quite know what to do with it.
It wasn’t until I reached Budapest and slurped on pörkölt, a delicate beef stew served with home-made pinched pasta, that I realized its brilliance. Paprika rounds everything it touches with sweet pungency, sans the bitterness and acridity I associate with stirred-in chilli. It is a tastemaker. I sprinkled it over goose fat liver pâté, and it melted in perfectly. There was none of the rawness you get from an uncooked spice; I understood its reputation as a garnish.
Paprika is to Hungary what tea is to the Nilgiris, defining what it means to be Hungarian. “I was supposed to like it as a true Hungarian. I didn’t, but I had to conceal it," says András Török, author of the brilliant Budapest: A Critical Guide, when I ask him about his relationship with paprika.
Yet Paprika isn’t Hungarian at all, even though Hungary now produces eight types of paprika. Capsicum annuum hopped on to ships returning from Mexico and on to the plates of the Spanish. The spice travelled around Europe and hitched a ride into Hungary with Balkan immigrants fleeing Turkish rule. In the 1800s, farmers discovered they could control the pungency, and they combined the chilli with bell peppers to create the sweet paprika that the world has come to love and associate with Hungary.
Not surprisingly, my souvenirs were a blue ceramic pot filled with paprika from Kalocsa, and a tube of roasted paprika paste. I sprinkled the paprika on hummus, adding a wonderful kick. I lathered it on to raw mango, and my dinner guests wanted to know where I had got the chilli powder. Finally, I made lamb stew. Since I’ve always found my stews bland, I invariably add a teaspoon of chilli, which means I’m left with lamb curry. This time, I marinated my lamb in sweet paprika, adding a tablespoon of the paprika paste while cooking it. The result was a dish that transported me to a place so far away. What more can you ask for from a travel memento?
Get your dose
While paprika is closely associated with goulash, András recommends the chicken paprika at Gettó Gulyás (VII. Wesselényi utca 18, +36-20-3764480).
Paprika is sold everywhere, but I suggest getting it at Budapest’s Central Market. In the middle corridor, you’ll find the shop of the man who sold paprika to the late Margaret Thatcher when she visited Communist Hungary in 1984. A packet of paprika is about Hungarian forint 850 (around Rs210), while the ceramic pot was HUF1,500. A tube of paprika paste (PaprikaKrem is a popular brand) costs HUF600.