By Sharon Hudgins
Photos by the author
Many people travel to Hungary for the architectural treasures, historical sites, and cultural life of Budapest, the cosmopolitan capital. Some venture farther into the wine country of Tokaj and Lake Balaton. Others float down the Danube on leisurely boat cruises.
But I go for the food.
And what would Hungarian food be without paprika, the red spice so characteristic of Hungarian cooking?
Although many Hungarian dishes use paprika as an ingredient, this colorful, flavorful spice is actually a relative newcomer to Hungarian cuisine. Pepper cultivation was established in Hungary during the Turkish occupation of that country in the 16th and 17th centuries. But it wasn’t until the late 18th century that paprika gained widespread acceptance as a spice in Hungarian foods. Formerly found only in peasant dishes, it gradually entered the culinary repertoire of the gentry and the nobility, dispersing throughout all levels of society so thoroughly that today it would be hard to imagine Hungarian cooking without paprika.
PICK A PEPPER
Many different kinds of peppers are cultivated in Hungary, including those grown specifically to be dried and ground into paprika. These include several kinds of long red peppers commonly used for making the milder paprikas, and small round red “cherry peppers” used for some of the hotter varieties of the spice.
After being picked, the peppers are left to rest for two to three weeks, to let their flavor and color develop even further. Then they’re washed, dried, and ground into a powder. Paprika is now such an important cash crop that the locals even call it “Red Gold.”
Before the Industrial Revolution, farmers would string all their ripe peppers by hand, hang them up in a protected place to dry, and then complete the drying process in large earthenware ovens. The dried peppers were crushed underfoot, then ground into a fine powder by hand, using a huge mortar with a large pestle. Water mills, windmills and steam engines eventually replaced the hand method for grinding paprika. And today modern automatic machines wash, dry, crush, sort and grind the peppers all in one continuous process.
Much of Hungary’s paprika comes from the fields and factories around the small town of Kalocsa, near the Danube River, and the larger industrial city of Szeged, on the Tisza River, both located on the country’s Southern Great Plain. These two centers of paprika production have just the right combination of soil characteristics, temperature, rainfall and sunshine necessary to cultivate the pepper plants successfully. Harvesting starts at the end of the first week in September and lasts for about a month, depending on weather conditions.
Harvesting peppers in a field near Kalocsa
For three to four weeks every autumn, more than 8,000 acres of fields around Kalocsa are filled with farm workers picking bright red peppers and stacking them in small wooden crates or big plastic mesh bags. In the town itself, strings of shiny red peppers hang from balconies, porches, and eaves, like colorful ribbons on a peasant girl’s costume. And on some of the houses, long cylindrical mesh bags full of peppers are suspended from the eaves like giant sausages.
During September the entire town, its population swelled by busloads of tourists, celebrates the pepper harvest with a paprika festival called “Kalocsa Paprika Days,” featuring exhibitions of food products, a variety of sports competitions and a cooking contest (with paprika as an ingredient, of course). The highlight of the festival is the Paprika Harvest Parade, complete with local bands and colorful folk-dancing groups, followed that evening by a Paprika Harvest Ball.
Regardless of the time of year, however, the visitor is never far removed from paprika in Kalocsa. In addition to its pepper fields and commercial paprika factories, Kalocsa has a Paprika Street and a Paprika Museum. Strings of dried peppers festoon store windows and roadside stands. Souvenir shops are filled with folk-art gifts adorned with images of bright red peppers, including hand-painted eggs, decorated dishware and embroidered linens. And walls of houses and restaurants are painted with murals depicting traditional floral motifs, often with red peppers incorporated into the design. A sleepy little town that was once just an agricultural center has become a tourist mecca, especially at harvest time, attracting travelers from all over Europe and beyond.
Stringing peppers to dry in Kalocsa
The much larger city of Szeged also has a paprika museum, as well as a pepper-and-paprika festival in early September.
TYPES OF HUNGARIAN PAPRIKA
The Hungarians produce a range of paprikas from mild to very hot—although the milder versions are used most often in Hungarian dishes. Contrary to popular belief, the brightest red paprika powders are the mildest and sweetest in taste, whereas the pale-red and light-brown colored paprikas are usually the hottest.
Heat levels range from édes (sweet, mild) to félédes (semi-sweet, medium-hot) to erös (hot). Füszer on the package just means “spice,” and orlemeny means “powder.” What’s important is the type of paprika you choose.
- Különleges (Special): The brightest red paprika of all, with a good aroma and very mild, sweet flavor.
- Édesnemes (Noble Sweet): Bright red in color but with only a mildly spicy flavor. Most of the paprika exported to the rest of the world is this type.
- Csípmentes Csemege (Delicate): Mild-tasting, richly flavored, light- to bright-red paprika.
- Csemege (Exquisite Delicate): Similar in color and aroma to “Delicate,” but with a slightly spicier taste.
- Csípös Csmege (Pungent Exquisite Delicate): Similar in color and aroma to Delicate and Exquisite Delicate, but a bit spicier in flavor. One of the most popular of the hotter varieties of paprika in Hungary.
- Félédes (Semi-Sweet): Medium-hot paprika.
- Rozsa (Rose): Paler-red in color, with a strong aroma and hot-spicy taste.
- Erös (Hot): The hottest variety, pale rust-red to light brownish-yellow in color.
Decorated cloth bags of paprika from Kalocsa
Paprika is a popular souvenir to bring back from your trip to Hungary. The largest (and freshest) selection can be found at the Great Market Hall in Budapest. If you travel in the countryside, you’ll find paprika sold at many souvenir shops and roadside stands, too.
Kalocsa paprika is often packaged for retail sale in small cloth bags sometimes stamped with the image of a ripe pepper plant, or decorated with red, white and green ribbons, the colors of the Hungarian flag. Paprika also comes in less expensive, but still colorful, tin boxes and even cheaper cellophane or plastic bags.
In the United States, where Kalocsa paprika is less commonly available, you’re more likely to find tins of paprika from Szeged at gourmet stores and major supermarkets.
Paprika peppers are also made into bright-red pastes and packaged in cans, jars, and even tubes (like toothpaste).
Since all powdered paprikas lose color and flavor as they age, it’s best to purchase paprika that was harvested and milled during the past year. Keep it in your kitchen cabinet, away from heat and sunlight, and use it within a year after buying it.
COOKING WITH PAPRIKA
As the spice that defines many Hungarian dishes, paprika is often in combination with other traditional Hungarian ingredients such as lard, onions and sour cream. Hungarian cooks always have several kinds of paprika in their kitchens, in a whole range of hues and flavors.
Just remember that when cooking with paprika, you should always stir the spice into HOT fat, to dissolve the powder and release its full flavor and aroma. Then quickly stir in the meat or a liquid to lower the temperature, to keep the paprika from burning, or it will turn bitter and ruin the dish.
Once you’ve tasted true Hungarian paprika—and mastered the simple technique of cooking with it—you’ll never again think of paprika as just a pretty spice, good only for garnishing potato salad and devilled eggs.
As the Hungarians say, “Jó étvágyat kívánunk!” (“Enjoy your meal!”)
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