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I've been experimenting a bit more than usual with spices recently, and so pungent Hungarian paprika has been very much on my radar, bringing back memories of a three-week stint in Hungary several years ago. This spice is used in cookery throughout much of the world, but boy do Magyars love them some reddish pepper powder – and in some cases in much stronger versions than the capsicum annuum you might use in your own kitchen.
The word paprika is itself Hungarian but derives from Serbo-Croatian papar which in turn comes down from the Latin piper. The stuff was introduced by the Turks in the 16th century (remember, the Ottoman Turks invaded and lorded over parts of Central Europe a few centuries back), but over the centuries since the Magyars have turned it into their own national culinary icon. And like Peruvians with potatoes and Inuit with ice and snow, they’ve developed a nomenclature that can be, shall we say, somewhat complex:
Különleges (“special quality”) – sweet with a deep bright red color.
Csípősmentes csemege (“delicate”) – mild but rich flavor, light to dark red
Csemegepaprika (“exquisite delicate”) a bit more more pungent than csípősmentes csemege
Csípős csemege, pikáns (“pungent exquisite delicate”) - even more punget than the above
Rózsa (“rose”) – strong aroma, mildly pungent, pale red color
Édesnemes (“noble sweet”) – bright red, slightly pungent (this is the one most commonly exported)
Félédes (“half-sweet”) - blend of mild and pungent, so of medium pungency
Erős (“strong”) – the “five alarms” of paprika, a light brown in color
Hungarian goulash is of course the world’s most famous dish involving paprika, but the spice is used liberally in plenty of other foods, including stews, soups, pastries, and sausages – it even finds its way into a brandy called pálinka. Much of its production comes from the country’s south, in and around Kalocsa and Szeged.
Beyond the kitchen, this peppy little pepper has even done its bit for science and Hungarian history – scientist Albert Szent-Györgyi got the 1937 Nobel Prize in medicine for discovering Vitamin C and its properties, which he extracted from none other than paprika.
Be that as it may – I did find that one can certainly overdose on the stuff. I recall during that aforementioned stint in Hungary I was oh so enthusiastically scarfing down the local cuisine at first, but thanks in part to all that intense paprika I eventually needed a break from it so much that I found myself taking occasional refuge at the Burger King near the apartment I was staying in. No, I am not proud of this, but there it is. These days, though, I’m happy to say paprika is back in my life, with pride of place in my spice rack. Jó étvágyat!
photo: Pressebereich Dehner Garten-Center