Hungarian Paprika is a spice made from the finely ground fruit of what we know as the pepper plant (Capsicum annuum L.). Though it is considered as base of the Hungarian cuisine, do not you think, it originates from Hungary and not known in other lands of the world! Just think of “Peperoncino”, “Peperoni”, „Jalepenos” or „chilis”!
Originally ground paprika came from South America to Spain in the 15th century, and from Spain it has spread all over Europe. (The first mention of “Paprika” in Germany is found in 1542, where it was used as a container plant.) In colonial times, the pepper was the big sensation of seasoning, but its price were higher, as gold’s. For a while pepper was even official monetary utensil, and was sold on burses of Europe. But for the ordinary people pepper was not affordable, they started to use paprika instead. Paprika arrived to Hungary with the Ottoman conquest, and – as it grows well on the hot, dry plains – has found good home here.
The first paprika plants in Hungary were the „highlights” of noble ladies’ gardens. According to the chronicles countess Margit Széchy educated the first paprika plant in 1570, and she named it „Turkish red pepper”. But the plant was called also „Pagan seed” and „Tartar pepper” too. It ws started to be called „paprika” only in the 18th century, namely in 1724, possible after the Greek name of the plant („peperi” or „piperi”).
Surroundings of Szeged and Kalocsa ensured more, than excellent conditions for larger paprika plantations. About the usage and cultivation of paprika in peasant households József Csapó wrote first in his Herbarium published in Debrecen in 1775. The first recipe with paprika originates from Kristóf Simai from 1798. From the end of the 18th century its usage became widespread in the country, evoking a total revolution in Hungary’s gastronomy. Paprika was used as medicine too – „hot stuffs”, on Turkish/oriental example, were considered as health preserves – , specially during the cholera plague of 1831. In the Szeged area wild capsicum (Vincentoxicum lacum) is known as a folk medicine even today: the dried root is steeped in pálinka (Hungarian brandy), thus used for stomach, liver and spleen problems. If paprika or pálinka helps, is question of point of view of the patient, but the process has its merciful effects!
Paprika becomes ripe at the beginning of September. In the old times it was usually the women who started picking it in this period. Then paprika was dried for a few days outside, followed by the process of threading. Actually, when cultivating paprika at home, the process followed is still the same today. After threading and selecting ill fruits follows the splitting, the process of cutting out the core, the veins and the seeds with a sharp tool until only the skin of paprika remains. This split skins are thread in a garland and hung on the “paprika-grate”. The grates then are suspended on the ceiling of the drying room, built for this special purpose. In the old days usually an iron stove warmed up the drying room. After drying it, the split skin is in a special bowl called „külü”. The smashed substance is sieved and the paprika powder, called “lángpaprika”(fire-paprika), is gathered. The rest remaining in the sieve is smashed again. This paprika is extremely hot as the core, the seeds and the veins are not cut out. “Cudgelling” (“furkózás”) is a more complex method, as before it the core is cut out. This difference results in „csemege” („mild”) and „csípős” („hot”) paprika powders and creams. As last step from the part of the producers the smashed paprika is taken to the mill for grinding.
Curiously, paprika does not develop any flavor until it is heated. And this is already a real Hungarian invention! And the best is to heat paprika on onion! All recipes for making goulash or any other paprika-meal starts like this: „cut onion finely, heat it on some fat (nowadays oil) until turns into brownish-yellow colour, add hot or mild paprika powder….” This base – which ensures the best dissolution of paprika’s ingredients and results in an unmistakable, thick, yummy flavour – hase made the Hungarian gastronomy world famous.
Our grand-grand pas and mas were right. Paprika is suitable not only for cooking, its use in the cosmetic industry is also notable. As for healthcare, the paprika’s vitamin C content was discovered by Albert Szent-Györgyi, who produced it in a large amount, thus creating the possibility to state the exact chemical structure of this vitamin, also called ascorbic acid. He also elaborated a technology for the production of a paprika sort with condensed vitamin C, a most healthy spice.
Finally some more interestings: how „hot” is paprika, we could think to be a subjective question. But „hotness” has its caliber, a scale named after the American chemistrian, Scoville. SHU is the Scoville heat unit scale, which indicates the relativ quantity of the capsaicin in the paprika. Though it is existing since 1912 (!), its usage is not widespread, but in some cases is indicated on the package of paprika products.