"What spice do you associate with Hungary?" The answer to this question is unlikely to tax competitors in gastronomic quizzes anywhere in the world: paprika.

A lot of people believe that it is paprika which gives Hungarian dishes their typical heat - a heat that makes your eyes burn with the first mouthful, and forms a ball of fire in your stomach.

Others have heard that the feared Hungarian warriors of the early Middle Ages, who rode through Europe on the backs of wild horses, striking fear and terror in the hearts of the locals, were fired by paprika-laden dishes.

The latter is simply a legend; paprika was in fact completely unknown in Europe until the discovery of America. Ground paprika was first used in Hungarian cuisine during the Napoleonic Wars. The lower levels of society used it as a substitute for pepper, which had become scarce as the result of Napoleon's continental barrier, and they named it "Turkish" or "heathen" pepper. Prior to this, the pepper plants were used for decorative purposes in elegant gardens.

Pepper's cultural history is dogged by uncertainty and contradiction. Just about the only fact that seems fixed is that it was the doctor on Columbus' voyage of discovery who brought the first pepper seeds from Central America to Europe. However, some types of pepper are native to the Indian subcontinent, and some researchers believe that the Hungarian and Asian types are related. We do know that the first pepper plants arrived in Hungary during the l7th century, supposedly brought by the Turks, who occupied the country at the time. They grew the plants under strict guard in the central courtyards of their houses, and any Hungarians who considered growing pepper for their own use were threatened with decapitation. According to another theory, ethnic groups from the Balkans, fleeing north from the Turks, introduced pepper seeds to Hungary. This last theory is the most likely, since the towns of Szeged and Kalocsa, which compete against each other for the title of "Paprika capital," are both in the southern part of the Great Plain, close to the Balkans.

After this time, it becomes easier to chart the development of paprika. Records kept by pepper growers and old cookbooks both say the same thing: paprika has been used as a spice in Hungary only since the end of the l8th century.

Auguste Escoffier, the famous French chef, was responsible for introducing it to western European cuisine. In 1879 he had the red powder brought from Szeged on the river Tisza to Monte Carlo, where he brought fame and recognition to this "Hungarian spice" in the noble kitchens of the Grand Hotel.

How to use the red spice

In order for paprika to retain and develop its qualities in cooked dishes, quite a few points must be observed during preparation.

If using ground paprika in a roux (a mixture of flour and fat), or adding it to onions, first remove the pot from the heat. Do not return the pot to the heat until liquid has been added to the roux or the fat combined with any other ingredients that have a high water content, such as meat, potatoes, etc. This is essential, since paprika has a high sugar content and therefore burns easily. It then takes on an unsightly brown appearance and bitter flavor. Also, bear in mind that the flavor and color are released in hot fat, which is why sprinkling ground paprika over pale-looking dishes may improve their appearance, but does little for their flavor.

If you like to use paprika to add color to a prepared dish, always stir the red powder into a little hot oil, and then add this to the dish. Paprika served separately at the table is not used as a seasoning in Hungary, but as an appetising garnish -"a feast for the eyes."

Usually, sweet or slightly hot paprika are used, unless the cook knows for certain that the guests enjoy (and suffer no ill effects from) spicy dishes. Alternatively, fresh green or dried hot red pepper pods can be served with the meal. The ground powder can be used freely as a seasoning; most recipes call for teaspoons or tablespoons, rather than pinches. In powdered form, paprika also adds consistency as well as flavor.

Kept in a cool, dark place, paprika retains its flavor for six to eight months. After that, it begins to lose its color and aroma, but can still be used.

Drying peppers

The types of pepper that are particularly suited to drying are grown near Szeged on the river Tisza, and Kalocsa on the Danube. The plant needs plenty of nutrients and water, as well as care, to ensure a qualiry product. The growers' expertise and experience also help to ensure that the peppers are harvested at the right time: when they are ripe, but not too ripe. The peppers acquire their typical aroma and beautiful red color during the drying process. As they ripen, the peppers go through a range of attractive colors, from green to light brown, then growing ever darker until they are a deep black-brown - the Hungarians speak of them "rusting"; finally they take on the glorious, shiny red of the fully ripe fruit. In the villages around Szeged and Kalocsa, the peppers are still threaded onto long pieces of string and hung up to dry outside the houses and from garden fences. The length of the pepper chains, which varies from region to region, used to be a unit of measurement for the dealers: a Szegedinian chain measured 16 feet (some five meters).

Grinding peppers has a long tradition. At first, the dried pepper was simply crumbled into the cooked dish; later it was ground with a mortar and pestle. As demand increased, paprika became a successful commodity. Water and windmills began to grind more and more paprika, and less and less grain, and in time the manufacturing process became more refined. Today, peppers are ground in a closed system, between stones and steel cylinders. The warmth that is created by the friction releases the essential oils, and it is these, which impart the flavor and color. Thanks to the high sugar content, the peppers also caramelize slightly, intensifying the flavor. In order to achieve the right flavor, a quantity of seeds is added to the pods before they are ground. The pepper millers use their experience to determine the exact quantities and ratios. After grinding, laboratory checks are carried out, and tasters make sure that quality remains consistent. If the ground paprika meets the requirements, it is filled into bags and stamped with a quality seal.

In the l9th century, the Pálfy brothers of Szeged received awards for the quality of their ground paprika, and the world owes these brothers a debt of gratitude for the introduction of semisweet paprika. They removed the stalks and seeds from the pods before grinding them, as these contain capsaicin, which gives the paprika its heat. This not only resulted in a mild ground paprika, but also formed the basis for a number of different strengths.

The growers also contributed to paprika's fame throughout the world. They produced new types, such as the fairly mild "delikatess paprika," which contains no spiciness at all and can therefore be ground whole.


Capsaicin, wich is an irritant, is also used in medicine. It is particularly effective in the treatment of rheumatism: used in a cream, known as "Capsicum plaster," it promotes the blood supply to the skin.

Types of paprika

The following are the most widely available types of paprika in Hungary. "Sweet" means "not hot."


Bright, shiny red, pleasantly spicy aroma, sweet or hardly hot, aromatic, the most finely ground.


Light red, pleasantly aromatic, not hot, not quite so finely ground.


Light red, pleasantly aromatic, slightly hot, medium coarse


Dark, rich color, fairly mild, medium coarse. Semisweet: Light, matte color, spicy, pleasantly hot, medium coarse.

Rose paprika:

Lively red, spicy, medium coarse.


Light brown red to brick-red and yellow; very hot; slightly coarse.

Spices in Hungarian cuisine: then and now

One of the main features of Hungarian cuisine is that flavor is achieved by combining just a few, very carefully balanced, spices.

For some unknown reason, the former wealth of spices, which is documented in old records, has shrunk over the centuries. In recent times, however, it has been noted that the herbs, seeds, and roots that used to be in common use are now reappearing in the country as the result of foreign influences. These include tarragon, rosemary, basil, thyme, aniseed, juniper, saffron, and also ginger, which used to be just about the most important ingredient in Hungarian cuisine.

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