Native to America and Asia, and distantly related to chilli, the sweet pepper that produces paprika is grown primarily in the Balkans, Bulgaria, Hungary, Spain and Turkey, and is used as an essential ingredient in sauces, soups, stews and in poultry, meat and vegetable dishes.
In nomenclature it is capsicum annuum.
In Hungary it is sold hot, mild and sweet in five grades, from light red (hot) to dark red (mild). In Spain it is sold plain and smoked, hot, mild and sweet. In Turkey it is sold as flakes and as powder.
Paprika is so entrenched in Hungarian food culture it is hard to believe it was only following the winter of 1875 that these enigmatic peppers became a resident flavouring in soups and stews – 300 years after they were first brought into the country.
Grown in the Kalocsa, Szeged and Szentes regions, they were originally known as Turkish peppers.
Suddenly they were Hungarian!
A paprika drying plant was built in Kalocsa in 1880 followed in 1917 by a paprika experimental farm, where the mild sweet varieties that have made Hungarian paprika famous were bred.
Paprika grown in the Szeged region travelled the world, the climate in the floodplains of the Körös, Maros and Tisza rivers producing a brilliant red sweet pepper.
North of Szeged is the Szentes region. Here in the low-lying basin of the Great Hungarian Plain, migrating Bulgarian market gardeners made good use of the sloping land and hotter climate, in 1895 producing most of the Hungarian paprika harvest.
They specialised in pre-germination hotbed production, practicised nursery bed inter-cropping, developed chain-bucket wheel irrigation systems, and managed the humus-rich alluvial soil – creating the perfect micro-climate for their produce.
Paprika production has been constant in Szentes ever since, the methods introduced by the Bulgarians continuing to yield ‘an exceptionally flavoursome, hot, sweet or spicy taste’.
The contrasting peppers from these regions make Hungarian paprika unique, hugely different to its Balkan, Spanish and Turkish counterparts.
That is the history and now we want to know the future so we are going south into the Great Southern Plain to Szeged and hopefully to Kalocsa to visit their famous paprika museum.
In the meantime let us whet your appetite with the equally famous paprika dishes of Hungary. First the meat stew that is defined by its flavour and taste.
Pörkölt (meat stew)
Pörkölt is a beef, lamb or pork stew with a thick sauce made from onions, paprika, salt and water, washed down with several shots of pálinka. It once had an identity issue, and was for many years confused with gulyásleves the traditional beef soup of Hungary. This was understandable. Meat stews will always be about local ingredients, and if you can‘t get them your version will be a mere home-made stew, it won’t be authentic
- 1 kg beef / lamb / pork, cubed large
- 500 g onions, chopped
- 250 ml water
- 30 g Hungarian sweet paprika
- 15 g Hungarian hot paprika
- Salt, pinch
- Sunflower oil, for frying
- 1 tsp Hungarian hot paprika, for garnish
In a deep, wide saucepan sauté onions in oil over a medium heat for 15 minutes.
Stir one teaspoon of hot paprika into onions, remove from heat to let paprika soak into the oil. Brown meat in batches over a low heat, add salt and water, stir.
Sprinkle remaining paprika on top of the meat, don’t stir. Cover, leave to simmer for 30 minutes. Cover again, simmer for an hour until meat is tender.
Bogracsgulyas (kettle stew)
A traditional dish of the plains, the essential ingredient was meat dried on the saddle. The Magyars added the meat to a large pot of water, then finished the dish with the addition of dumplings or root vegetables, heavily spiced with paprika.
- 1.5 kg beef, 2 cm cubed
- 1.5 kg floury potatoes, peeled, 2 cm cubed
- 1.5 litres water
- 500 g onions, sliced
- 250 g fatty pork belly, cubed small
- 30 g Szeged sweet paprika
- 10 g Szeged hot paprika
Fry pork over low heat in a large pot until the fat begins to separate and the meat turns crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon, set aside.
Fry onions in fat over a high heat, about five minutes, remove and set aside.
Brown beef, return the onions to the pot with the water, bring to the boil. Add the sweet paprika, cover and simmer for an hour.
Carefully slip the potatoes into the pot, bring back to the boil, reduce heat to low, season, cover, leave for 20 minutes.
Sprinkle half of the hot paprika on top of the stew, leave uncovered for five minutes.
Serve in deep bowls, adding a pinch of hot paprika to each dish, a chunk of bread on the side to mop up the juices.
Paprikás Csirke (chicken paprika)
- 2 kg chicken, cut into large pieces, leg and thigh separated
- 400 g onions, chopped
- 300 ml smetana / sour cream
- 150 g lecsó
- 2 paprika peppers, fresh
- 15 g sunflower oil
- 15 g flour
- 10 g Hungarian sweet paprika
- Salt, pinch
- Water, for deglazing
Warm oil in a deep, wide saucepan, sauté onions for ten minutes until soft, cover and cook for an hour over the lowest heat.
Lift the lid every 15 minutes and allow the condensation to pour back into the pan.
When the onions are browned and wilted they are ready.
Bring heat up to medium, add a little more oil if the onions are sticking to the pan.
Add chicken pieces, skin side down, brown for five minutes. Remove into a wide soup bowl.
Take pan off heat.
Sprinkle paprika on top of the onions, leave covered for five minutes.
Deglaze saucepan with sufficient water to cover the base.
Put chicken back with any juices in the bowl, add lecsó and peppers, cover and cook for an hour.
Add a pinch of salt.
Remove chicken pieces again, quickly reduce liquid to a paste.
Turn heat to low, stir flour into the paste and slowly add sour cream.
Turn heat up until gentle bubbles appear on the surface. Put chicken back, cover and heat gently in the creamy sauce, about five minutes.
Serve with galuska.