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On the Trail of Hungarian Paprika: the Origins and Varieties of this Iconic Spice


Sweet, spicy and aromatic, paprika is the defining flavor of Hungary - in more ways than one

Hungarian cuisine is bold, rich and full of color, and it’s all thanks to one spice: paprika. This ancient ingredient made its way to Europe in the Middle Ages, where it was readily adopted by the nomadic tribes of the Magyar, the forefathers of modern Hungary.

Since then, paprika has proved the go-to ingredient for some of Hungary’s trademark plates, lending delicate spice and subtle sweetness to dishes like goulash, paprikash and pörkolt. But it’s so much more than just another spice on the spice rack – its rise from peasantry to beloved national icon echoing the culture and spirit of the Hungarian people.

Here, we’ll explore why Hungary has such rich associations with paprika, before exploring the different varieties to look out for at the country’s markets and food stores. We’ll also look at some of the iconic dishes you can make at home – using the paprika you can find in the Budapest markets on a Scenic river cruise.

The History and Origins of Hungarian Paprika

While paprika has been linked to Hungarian gastronomy for centuries, it may surprise some to learn that the pepper plant isn’t native to Hungary. The Turks introduced the plant in the 16th century, and for a time, it wasn’t used for cookery at all, but for decorating homes and serving as ornamental foliage.

The first Hungarian natives to begin using paprika as a spice were shepherds and herdsmen. Being in close contact with other tribes, migrants and nomadic peoples, they learned the secret of the chili pepper plant long before Hungary’s established upper classes, and began adding the spice to stews, broths and meat dishes for its hot, smoky flavor and ability to impart natural color.

paprika on sale in market

Like so many of Europe’s classic cuisines – be it French, Portuguese or German – Hungary’s love affair with paprika stems from humble origins. It took decades for the spice to infiltrate Hungary’s mainstay dishes, but once embraced by the aristocracy, its popularity flourished, and it quickly became the defining ingredient of Hungarian cuisine in the restaurants and home kitchens of the 19th century.

The 1800s was also the century in which Hungary began producing paprika at scale, with the fields around the southern towns of Kalocsa and Szeged given over to pepper production. Midway through the 19th century, the Pálfy brothers came up with an innovative new way to cull the veins and seeds from the peppers, speeding up production and making the process much more efficient.

Today, paprika is the main ingredient in many of Hungary’s signature plates, from the classic goulash to the roasted meat dish of pörkölt. Imparting dishes with a sweet, smoky flavor, the spice is not only an indispensable ingredient in Hungarian cooking, but a defining characteristic of local culture and tradition.

How Hungarian Paprika is Produced

Hungary began producing paprika at scale in the 19th century, and is today among the world’s biggest suppliers of the vibrant spice. The country’s climate and geography offer favourable growing conditions for the pepper, particularly in the southern regions, with the town of Kalocsa often cited as the historic heart of Hungarian paprika country.

Paprika is sourced from dried chilies, and is produced through a long process of growth, harvesting, drying and grinding. Historically, it was impossible to gauge the pungency of paprika, meaning that some batches contained large amounts of capsaicin, resulting in an overly hot spice.

different forms of paprika

Thanks to the efforts of paprika innovators like the Pálfy brothers, Ferenc Horváth and Jenö Obermayer, however, a non-pungent version of paprika was developed through a process of cross-breeding and trial and error. This meant that, rather than just offering pure spiciness, Hungarian producers could focus on developing the flavor of their crops, focusing on enhancing its sweetness and smokiness.

To attain paprika from chili peppers, the fruit is allowed to reach full ripeness, before the annual harvest takes place in September. From here, the chilies are tied together and left to dry, after which they’re sorted and ground, before being packaged up in powder form.

While much of Hungary’s paprika is now mass-produced by machinery, many farmers, particularly on the country’s beautiful Great Plain, continue to produce their own paprika. If you can get your hands on a batch of this homegrown spice, it’s truly worth the extra money.  

Varieties of Hungarian Paprika

As more and more farmers took up paprika as an annual crop, cross-breeding and experimentation gave rise to many different varieties, each offering a distinctive flavor and different level of spiciness. Below, we explore the most common varieties of Hungarian paprika, from rózsa to erös.

Különleges 

kulonleges

The mildest variety of paprika, known for its bright red color and delicate flavor.

Csíposmentes Csemege

csiposmentes csemege

Rich in flavor, this is a mild paprika blend with a rich, smoky flavor.

Csemege

csemege

On the brink of spiciness, csemege adds a touch of pungency, but is still considered a mild variety.

Csípos Csemege

csipos csemege
The first true spicy paprika, with a bold smoky finish.

Édesnemes

edesnemes paprika

Easily the most popular variety of paprika, this blend offers the perfect balance of sweet, smoke and spice.

Félédes

feledes paprika
Erring towards hot, félédeos can help add heat to popular Hungarian dishes.

Rózsa

rozsa paprika

Light red in color, this blend is mildly pungent with a delicate, round flavor.

Erös

eros paprika

The hottest of all Hungarian paprika blends, erös is for when you want to add genuine heat to a dish.

These are eight of the most common Hungarian paprika varieties, but there are other blends which can bring their own unique flavor properties to your dishes. The Great Market Hall in Budapest is one of the best places to browse paprika blends and types, with a wide variety of spices available for you to purchase and take home.

Classic Hungarian Recipes with Paprika

The national spice of Hungary, paprika is added to a range of savory dishes for its unique flavor and vibrant color. Here, we take a look at a small handful of traditional plates which rely on this iconic Hungarian spice.

Goulash

goulash

Goulash is the definitive dish of Hungary, and one of the very best recipes for showcasing the flavor and heat of paprika. The traditional recipe for Hungarian goulash goes back to the earliest origins of paprika, when nomadic herdsmen would create rich, hearty stews from beef, vegetables and spices. While goulash is believed to have been eaten since the 15th century, it rose to prominence in the 1800s, when the dish came to the attention of Hungary’s upper classes.

Try this recipe for making an authentic Hungarian goulash at home.

Pörkolt

porkolt

In Hungarian, ‘pörkolt’ literally translates as ‘roasted’, which gives you an idea of the premise of this classic dish. Here, regional cuts of meat are roasted in a sauce of paprika, onion and other spices, and served alongside ‘nokedli’, or egg noodle dumplings. This is a beloved plate that’s a local favorite across Hungary, and has been enjoyed since at least 1780. The dish, which is often topped with salad and sour cream, is usually eaten on Sundays or during special occasions.

Have a go at this recipe and enjoy the aromatic warmth of classic Hungarian pörkölt.

Chicken Paprikash

chicken paprikash

While beef, lamb and liver are the traditional meats marinated and cooked in paprika, chicken has become a popular choice across Hungary in recent years – and paprikash is the best example of this. A simple stew comprising of chicken pieces, slowly cooked in a broth of paprika, butter beans, onions and cream; paprikash is Hungarian cuisine at its finest, offering an easy, unpretentious recipe that harks back to paprika’s humble peasant origins.

Take a look at this recipe for an easy, delicious version of a Hungarian classic.

Discover Budapest with Scenic

 

Join Scenic for a luxury river cruise on the iconic Danube, and you’ll have the opportunity to shop for traditional, locally-produced paprika in the markets and food stores of Budapest. For more information about our luxury European river cruises or to book your place, visit the homepage or call us today on 0808 149 2139.