Red Gold & Spicy

In his witty, exhaustive “The Cuisine of Hungary,” George Lang, the Hungarian-born chef, writer and restaurateur, likens paprika to the Hungarian national character: “fiery, spicy and temperamental.”

by Jacqueline Ruyak

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I experienced some of that Hungarian fire my first morning visiting the Kalocsa region, about 90 miles south of Budapest, near the Danube River.

Kalocsa is one of two major paprika-producing regions in Hungary. The other is Szeged, a large city farther east, on the Tisza River. Both have the right combination of good soil, temperature, rainfall and sunshine needed to grow paprika. So, is there any difference in the paprika produced by the two regions? With some heat, my interpreter Tony Fekete replied, “In Szeged it’s called paprika. In Kalocsa it’s called red gold.”

Paprika (Capsicum annuum L. var. Longum) is a member of the Solanaceae family, which includes tomato, potato and tobacco. The genus Capsicum is highly adaptive and has evolved in a variety of locales far different from its origin in the tropics of South America. Hungarians distinguish between two kinds of paprika: one for eating, be it raw, cooked or marinated, and the other for grinding into the powdered spice known throughout the world as paprika.

In the 18th century, it came again to Hungary, this time as an herb from the Balkans.

Paprika is synonymous with Hungarian cuisine, yet it is a comparative latecomer to the country’s long, richly flavored food culture. Columbus gets the credit for first bringing Capsicum, and other members of the Solanaceae, to Europe from the New World. Called Indian pepper, it was regarded as an ornamental plant with possible medicinal uses. In the 16th century, it was used as a seasoning, mixed with other spices, on the Iberian Peninsula. Elsewhere it was a prized garden ornamental and naturalized, as such, both across Europe and the Turkish empire. In Hungary, it appeared in aristocratic gardens around 1570 as a rare exotic called red Turkish pepper.

The first recorded use of paprika, a Bulgarian diminutive of the Latin piper (pepper), was in a 1775 garden book by Josef Csapo who wrote that peasants ground paprika pods into powder and flavored their food with it — so did fishermen and shepherds. In the late 18th century, Ubaldus, a Capuchin from Austria, wrote of the Kalocsa area: “The spice in their food is a red beast called paprika that burns like the devil.” In the 1820’s, recipes using paprika first appeared in Hungarian cookbooks. By the mid-1800’s, the peasant spice, with its characteristic color, aroma and flavor, had taken over Hungarian cuisine and, eventually, the cuisine of Central and Eastern Europe.

In Homokmegy, a village about six miles from Kalocsa, it was almost harvest time for Tamás and Katalin Fekete, Tony’s parents. Retired farmers, they still plant about three-fifths of an acre of paprika each year. Row after row of the low bushy paprika plants was covered with fiery red conical fruit. Compounds called capsantin and capsorubin give Capsicum varieties their red color when ripe; another, called capsaicin, gives them their characteristic hot taste. Paprika is either sweet (mild) or hot. Tony’s parents grow the sweet paprika for which Kalocsa is famous.

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Tags: Farming/Agriculture Hungary Cuisine Central Europe