Considered to be the national spice of Hungary, we see paprika in many forms all over Budapest—signs, mounds of fresh peppers in the markets, strings and strands of dried red peppers hanging in many places, souvenir collections, on menus, as a restaurant name.
If there’s one ingredient in Hungarian cooking that everyone knows, it’s Paprika. And probably the one dish that everyone has heard of is Hungarian goulash, which uses paprika.
However, another dish is perhaps just as “typically Hungarian”; chicken (csirke) or veal (borju) paprikas. What paprikas means here is a meat in a spicy, creamy red paprika stew, usually served with noodles called nokedli (a bit like German spatzle).
In Hungarian, the word paprika refers both to the peppers (red, light yellow, or green) and to the spice that’s made from them. That powder is made from grinding the pods of various kinds of Capsicum annuum peppers, and is reputed to be the fourth most consumed spice in the world, often also appearing in spice mixes and garnishes. Shakers of red dried paprika are often found on tables next to the salt and pepper in Hungarian homes and restaurants.
Paprika peppers, like all chili peppers, originated in the Americas, probably in central Mexico, but are now more closely linked to Hungarian cuisine—since the late 19th century. These peppers were brought to Spain in the 16th century, where it was known as Pimenton. Trade in paprika expanded from Spain to Africa and the Middle East and eventually through the Balkans (then under Ottoman rule) to Central Europe.
Fresh peppers are used a lot in Hungarian cooking—stewed, stuffed, sautéed, baked, grilled, pickled. Many Hungarians say that the best paprika comes from the sunny south part of the country, as paprika plants need lots of sunshine to get ripe and sweet. Peppers are one of the main crops in Hungary, along with wheat, corn, potatoes, sugar beets, sunflower seeds and grapes.
Hungarian paprika (the spice) is made from peppers that are harvested and then sorted, air-dried, sometimes toasted, and blended to create different varieties. All Hungarian paprikas have some degree of rich, sweet red pepper flavor, but they range in pungency and heat.
The two main types are; sweet paprika (edesnemes, or just edes for short), and hot paprika (csipos or eros). Edes is sometimes also called csemege (delicate). The sweet paprika is usually used to add flavor and color to a dish, while the hot paprika is used to give more ‘kick’ to a dish.
Many people like to buy paprika as a souvenir, and the souvenir shops all have a variety. As we wandered along Vaci utca and on the streets up on Castle Hill, we saw many shops and stalls with strings or bunches of dried (or drying) red paprikas, and row upon row of paprika in bags, bottles, jars or tins. The best selection is probably at the Great Market Hall, however. In the Market are whole alleys of paprika stalls vying for people’s custom. The fresh paprika peppers in the Market are remarkably cheap—we saw many stalls where the price was about $1.20 per kilo (roughly 0.50 cents a pound).
We did buy some sweet paprika in pretty little bags with a small painted wooden spoon, and a small Hungarian cook book, and I know we’ll have fun experimenting.