The Hungarian spice
Most countries have one or two specific ingredients or flavours which stand out as particular to that country. In Hungarian cuisine that is undoubtedly paprika. Lashings of this red spice are used in dishes such as goulash and paprikash and there are eight types made from different varieties of capsicum or bell pepper, and each exhibits a distinct character. They are: –
- csípősmentes csemege – mild and delicately flavoiured
- csemege paprika – more robust and strongly flavoured
- különleges – mild, sweet and deep red in coulour
- édesnemes – strong and bright
- félédes – fairly sweet and mildly hot
- rózsa – a slight heat and pale red
- erős – hot but more orange in colour
In Hungary, paprika is made by laying the peppers in the sun until they are dry enough to grind into a fine red powder. After drying they are lightly crushed and the seeds and membranes removed – it is a misconception that the seeds of capsicums contain the highest concentration of capsaicin which gives them spicy heat, it is actually in the membranes which surround and hold the seeds together, some varieties do however contain a significant amount in the flesh which is why some paprikas are hot. It is also worth noting that the hottest paprikas, often searingly hot, are orange or even brown. The next stage in production is to grind the remaining dried flesh into a fine powder and it is usually this powder which is packaged and sold. If kept dry and in the dark ground paprika will keep for up to a year, after this there is a notable loss of both flavour and colour. You may also see paprika paste available in jars or tubes but this is considered inferior and has little advantage over the powder; it does not have the same intensity of flavour or colour nor does it keep so well.
At this point I must mention that, although Hungary is the biggest producer and Hungarian cuisine is the most noted for its use of paprika, Spain also makes great use of it. Much of the flavour of chorizo for instance, is due to the prolific use of paprika. The Spanish version is very often dried not in the sun but over wood fires and the resulting spice then takes on a warm, smokey aroma and flavour; the La Vera region of Spain is particularly noted for its smoked paprika or pimenton de La Vera.
Spanish paprikas are grouped into: –
- Dulce – very mild and sweet
- Agridulce – moderately hot, sweet but with a bitter edge
- Picante – hot
Adding the smoking process results in six possible combinations.
Purists would of course insist that Hungarian paprika is used in Hungarian dishes and Spanish in Spanish. Although there are significant differences between them don’t be put off if you only have Spanish paprika available when making a goulash or Hungarian paprika when making a patates bravas. They may not be authentic but they will still have a delicious paprika flavour; leave the purists to bemoan the differences while you enjoy your meal! I do suggest though, that unless paprika is identified clearly as either Hungarian or Spanish on it’s packaging it is perhaps best avoided; these varieties usually come from the US or South America and do not have the flavour of the genuine article and are only really suitable for sprinkling over a finished dish as a colourful red garnish.
Unless particularly hot, paprika can be used liberally in your cooking and imparts a deep, rich, fruity flavour and an equally rich colour . It is indeed difficult to add so much as to make a dish unpalatable. It is best gently heated in some moderately hot oil at the beginning of the cooking process but do not fry it for more than about thirty seconds as it is easily burnt and will become bitter. The frying releases the oils, which give the flavour and colour, and allows them to infuse the cooking oil so the subsequently added ingredients of the dish all receive an even and flavoursome coating. Paprika can also be added to marinades particularly for chicken which absorbs the flavour well.
Some recipes where paprika is an essential ingredient: –
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