Dishes pop with paprika

When we were in Budapest three years ago we brought back little containers of paprika as gifts. It’s probably the best gift you can bring someone from

Hungary, because Hungarian pepper is regarded as the best in the world.

Unfortunately, we neglected to buy any for ourselves, but luckily a friend visited Budapest a few months ago and brought us back little sample-size sacks of hot paprika and sweet paprika. These will join the jar of smoked paprika I already had in my spice collection: a paprika for every occasion!

Paprika is one of the world’s most popular spices. Even cooks who have little more than salt, pepper, garlic and oregano on hand will likely also have a bottle of paprika. Made from dried and ground red chili peppers, it adds a dash of color to any dish just by being sprinkled on top.

A New World spice

Chili peppers were unknown until the discovery of the New World—amazing when you consider how popular they have become in Asian and European cooking.

Hungarians were particularly drawn to the zesty flavor of paprika. When the laborious process of turning dried peppers into paprika was mechanized during the Industrial Revolution, the Hungarian city of Szeged became the center of the industry. Cheaper than black pepper, paprika became a staple forHungarian  home cooks.

Until the 1920s, the only kind of paprika available was the hot kind. Then a breeder in Szeged discovered a sweeter variety of the pepper, and propagated it by grafting. The sweet plant is the most popular type today.

Spain also produces paprika, mainly the smoked variety.

Paprika came back to the New World with Hungarian immigrants in the 19th century.

High in Vitamin C

A Hungarian scientist Dr. Szent Gyorgyi won a Nobel Prize in 1937 for his work with paprika pepper pods and Vitamin C research. Paprika peppers have seven times as much Vitamin C as oranges. (Though one must take such statements with the proverbial grain of salt; you’d never eat as much paprika as orange!)

The paprika you buy in the supermarket doesn’t have much flavor and is best used to give color to dishes. For real paprika flavor, use sweet or hot paprika labeled “Hungarian” paprika.

Paprika is an important part of many Hungarian dishes, including (duh!) Chicken Paprika (also called Chicken Paprikash). This recipe comes from my old standby, The Joy of CookingIf you are kosher or want to cook the dish dairy-free, you can use a soy-based product from Tofutti called Better Than Sour Cream.