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Spice Girl: Hungarian Paprika

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By Lorette C. Luzajic

Without paprika, there would be no goulash- or any other passionate cuisine in Hungary. What Hungarians ate before Christopher Columbus brought back the capsicum annum from Mexico is a distant memory. Hungary’s red gold is truly the spice of life, an integral part of their culture. At harvest season in Kalocsa, the “paprika capital,” the shiny little red pepper can be seen far and wide. Fields of plants shimmer in the sun, and strings of peppers hang from every porch and doorway.

Paprika is nearly a synonym for Hungary. This bright red, sweet spice with a light bite of heat and bitterness enlivens everything from sausages to mushrooms to potatoes. The use of paprika seems an innocent enough freedom, providing a colourful and affordable condiment. However, during the Turkish rule, cultivating this pepper was prohibited and the punishment for flouting regulations was death. Thankfully, many Hungarians took this risk and cemented growing and curing traditions that now yield the piquant, sweet flavour to many dishes around the world.

Hungary was hit hard again in the mid-1990s when unscrupulous growers began adding lead oxide, a poisonous pigment used in red paint, to intensify the colour of lower-grade crops. This led to stomach aches, paralysis and death, and caused a drought in spices when paprika was pulled out of the marketplace, creating lost revenues and economic fallout. The hearty, pragmatic Hungarians refused to eat without their beloved spice and bought coffee grinders to make their own from whole dried plants, instead of relying on merchants and producers to create the peppery powder.

The spice was banned again in 2004, this time when it was found to contain aflatoxin B 1, a carcinogenic microtoxin produced by mold. Growers and cultivators were horrified that their world-class crops, renowned as the best paprika in the world, were contaminated. Merchants of Hungaricum, this world-famous paprika, were incensed to discover that the bad batches contained peppers imported from Spain and Brazil and not their own products. Despite these seemingly constant setbacks, few cabbages or stews are ever made without the national spice, and most Hungarians consider paprika a food group.

Hungary sure is valiant about a good goulash or chicken paprikash, and its historical methods of production and curing give us the bittersweet and pungent delicacy, but Spain was the first to powder the pepper. Legend says Columbus gave samples of the capsicum to the monastery in Guadalupe, and cooking with the new world pepper spread rapidly through Spanish cuisine. It also became a classic ingredient in Serbia and Croatia and other Balkan lands. Each country has slightly different preferences in strain of the pepper, in drying times, in smoking (or not) procedures, and so on. It’s still popular in Central America and Mexico, though the palate must share this flavour with dozens of other hotter peppers. Americans love it, too, often using it as a cosmetic to liven up the colours on the plate. It’s a handy condiment to have in the pantry when fruits and fresh veggies are lacking, because paprika is laden with Vitamin C, and its transport via ships in the days of world exploration saved many smart sailors from scurvy.

Hungarians would say there’s no taste like home, and it’s easy to try your hand at some classic, hearty dishes. \ Here are two easy ones:

Goulash
To make goulash, simply simmer a couple of chopped onions in butter with garlic and paprika (I like to use lots, in the Hungarian tradition that this is a food group!) Stir over low heat (high heat scorches paprika and makes it bitter). Add chunks of beef and a little bit of water, a few potatoes, and some salt, and let it simmer on low heat for an hour or so. Many recipes call for tomatoes, but traditional Hungarian cooks veto this idea. The tomato can overshadow the sweet intensity of the paprika.

Chicken Paprikash
Chicken paprikash is just as easy and quite possibly the best chicken I ever made at home. Though leaner cooking calls for boneless, skinless breasts, cooking with the meat on the bone makes this so tender it’s worth a few extra calories. Sautee, on low heat, a few chopped onions in butter and garlic until tender. Add sour cream and as much paprika as you want, making a vivid red sauce. Pour this simple mixture over your chicken and cook in the oven for an hour. Salt, and sprinkle with another dash of the good stuff before serving.



Comments


I am a traditionalist when cooking gulyas, and sauteeing onions in butter is a big no, no; lard is the way to go when cooking gulyas.
Post Reply By HELEN in HAMILTON on 10/5/2008 9:20:24 PM

Fascinating. Such an important part of Hungarian culture - and to be banned twice must have been devastating. I do love goulash. Thanks for the recipes.
Post Reply By simone in NORTH YORK on 10/2/2008 6:18:11 PM

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