Cooking with Paprika

The sweet and noble spice.

| August/September 1995

  • Summer Squash with Tomatoes and Paprika is a beautiful accompaniment for any meal.
  • Paprikas dry on the plants in a Hungarian field.
    Photograph courtesy of the University of Horticulture and Food Industry, Budapest.
  • Hungarian workers set young paprika plants into the ground.
    Photograph by Fred Lyon
  • Swordfish on the grill becomes a festive occasion when served with this Yogurt Mint Paprika Sauce.
  • Rosy Corn Fritters, shown here drizzled with maple syrup, are flavored with sweet paprika.
  • To grind paprikas into a fine powder, break open the dried fruits, remove the stems, seeds, and veins, and grind with a mortar and pestle or whirl in an electric spice mill or blender. Sift to remove any large pieces, then regrind.

6 Paprika Recipes

• Black Bean Soup with Red Paprika Sauce
• Paprikás Csirke (Paprika Chicken)
• Paprika Swordfish Kabobs with Yogurt Mint Paprika Sauce
• Summer Squash with Tomatoes and Paprika
• Red Shrimp and Vegetable Salad
• Rosy Corn Fritters 

The potato salad needs a little color, so you reach for the paprika and discover that it's all clumped together because it's so old. How about acquiring a fresh jar of paprika and a new attitude toward using it? You may discover why the Hungarians claim this pepper as their national spice. Indeed, paprika is beloved by Hungarians, who describe it as nemes édes—“noble and sweet”. With its unusual flavor and brilliant color, paprika adds richness and beauty to many ­savory dishes. The word “paprika” is also used for the sweet, thin-walled red peppers (Capsicum annuum, Longum group, of the Solanaceae, the tomato-potato family) which when dried are ground to make the spice.

Although today we usually associate paprika with Eastern Europe, particularly Hungary, the peppers are actually New World natives. Christopher Columbus, in search of spice trade routes, found a variety of red peppers, both pungent and sweet. His crew observed that natives dried and ground certain types to flavor food, and he brought peppers back with him to Spain. By the late sixteenth century, the Portuguese and Spaniards were growing their own peppers and making what came to be known as paprika, often mixing the dried peppers with other spices before grinding them into a fine powder. Paprika’s use spread throughout Europe and then to the tropics of Asia and Africa. In the seventeenth century, cooks in Italy and on the Balkan Peninsula regularly added paprika along with other spices to their soups, meats, and salads. Many Indian curry mixtures included paprika.

It was the Hungarians, however, who elevated paprika to star status. Most historians credit its introduction in Hungary to the neighboring Bulgarians or the invading Turks who occupied the region from 1526 to 1676. Before the end of the sixteenth century, Hungarian peasants began adding the red spice to their stews and soups as a cheaper substitute for the costly black pepper. The use of paprika was initially disdained by the upper classes, but as more and more people tried dishes laced with paprika and enjoyed its taste and handsome color, its use spread. By the mid-1880s, all economic classes in Hungary had embraced paprika. Hungarians use it pure, unmixed with other spices, and they have developed an enormous array of national dishes that feature paprika in a central role. At one time, they even made a paprika brandy.

Which Is The Real Paprika?

Some time ago, the owner of an American seed company asked a friend who was visiting Hungary to buy paprika seeds. She returned with more than a dozen types, all labeled “paprika”. Which was the traditional Hungarian paprika? They all were. In Hungary, paprika means “pepper”, of which Hungarians grow a huge variety in many shapes, sizes, and colors. The spice paprikas are bred for their flavor, fragrance, intensity of color, ability to hold that color, and their suitability for mechanized harvest.

The paprika peppers grown in Spain and Morocco are round and about the size of apricots. In the Balkan countries, the paprika pepper is longer and conical, with a pointed tip.

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