The Surprisingly Spicy Origin of Paprika
I was recently asked to review five different smoked and non-smoked paprikas made in Washington State. I beg your pardon? There’s more than one paprika? Smoked and non-smoked? Shouldn’t that have been "made in Hungary," instead of Washington? And, what’s to review? Just sprinkle some on deviled eggs or baked chicken for a bit of color, right? Blissful ignorance gave me a sly wink as I stood squarely at the intersection of "Who Knew?" and "How Interesting!"
My experience with paprika, prior to this project, was two-fold. There is a 4-ounce bottle of the stuff in the spice rack received as a wedding gift when Kennedy was president, and an accent wall in my office is painted in a rich red shade called paprika. That’s about it, not much to go on. I remember my mother sprinkled it on mashed potatoes when company was coming. She says she really doesn’t know why, it had no taste, it just looked good.
A kissin’ cousin to chili powder, paprika is generally 100 percent ground chile peppers, with nothing added. Chili powder is a blend of ground peppers and other spices, including cumin, oregano, garlic, salt, and sometimes cayenne. To aficionados, the word "paprika" refers to the preservation process of chiles, regardless of what kind of chile it is.
When you dry and grind them, the chiles become paprika. Interesting note about the spelling of chile/chili: when referring to a single pepper, use the 'e' and when referring to a blend of peppers and other spices, or the prepared food you eat with corn chips, use the 'i.'
Paprika has a noble history, dating to the very early 1500s. Christopher Columbus reputedly brought chiles, native to Mexico, back to Europe, following his discoveries in the New World. Initially, the plants were appreciated for their ornamental beauty at the aristocracy’s residences, but eventually were recognized for their culinary value.
The legendary French chef Auguste Escoffier is credited with introducing the spice to western European cuisine. Today, Hungary is the country most associated with paprika, with the epicenters of its celebration being the regions of Szeged and Kalocsa. There is a paprika museum and annual festival in Kalocsa, and in Budapest, one can purchase pálinka, a paprika brandy.
It is fitting that a Hungarian scientist, Dr. Szent-Györgyi, working at Szeged University, won a Nobel Prize in 1937 for his work with paprika peppers and vitamin C research. Paprika peppers have seven times as much vitamin C as oranges.
Paprika is produced by grinding dried pods of the pepper plant known as Capsicum annuum. The chemical compound called capsaicin is what gives paprikas and chiles their fiery kick. In fact, it is this heat factor that makes over-the-counter capsaicin creams effective in reducing pain and stiffness in joints and sore muscles. The amount of heat provided by various peppers is measured on the Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) Scale. Simply put, this scale rates the amount of heat (capsaicin) present in various peppers.
Sweet bell peppers start the scale at zero (no significant heat); jalapeño pepper and Tabasco sauce is rated at 3,500 to 8,000; cayenne pepper at 30,000 to 50,000; habanero chile at 100,000 to 350,000; law enforcement grade pepper spray at 500,000 to 2 million; and pure capsaicin at around 15 million Scoville units. According to Guinness World Records, the world’s hottest pepper is the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T, grown in Australia. It carries a SHU rating 1,463,700. The quest for this red-hot title is heating up, with another (unofficial) pepper reputedly flirting with the 2 million SHU mark.
Smoking chile peppers after grinding into paprika is sometimes done to enhance natural flavors, aid in the drying process, and to ensure the dried product will store well. Americans' most familiar smoked paprikas include mesquite smoked Mexican chipotle and oak smoked Spanish paprika.
And, what about that review of Washington State paprika that started my research? In Port Townsend, Wash., Charlie Bodony smokes his artisanal paprika over alder wood, producing a sweeter taste than other woods. Charlie’s company is called Some Like it Hott (SLIH), specializing in small-batch, artisanal paprikas. Five of his varieties are smoked, three are not. How many peppers can Charlie Bodony pick? Seven, more or less, depending on time of year, including green jalapeños, poblanos, a jalapeño/habanero hybrid, red jalapeños, serranos, fatalii, and piment d’Espelete.
Hotter paprikas like Charlie’s, packing more heat than an on-duty sheriff, are exactly what many cooks are looking for to zip up their creations. Even the color palette of SLIH paprikas — tan, dusty green, dark reds, rusty browns, and pink — differs from the traditional monochromatic deep red. Visit Charlie’s website at AlderSmoked.com.
A new day for the often forgotten and misunderstood paprika seems to be dawning. Recipes for short ribs, braised lamb stew, root vegetables, pork, sausage casserole, and lots more, seasoned with smoked and hot paprika are popping up on TV shows and websites, along with increased frequency in newspaper food sections. A few popcorn sites suggest using sweet paprika for a different flavoring. The culinary kick in paprika even made it to Broadway in 1940 in Cole Porter’s lyrics in "I’m Throwing a Ball Tonight" for the musical Panama Hattie:
I feel like a million dollars.
I feel simply out of sight.
So, come on down, come on down,
I’m throwing a ball tonight.
I’m full of the old paprika –
I’m loaded with dynamite.
So come on down, come on down,
I’m throwing a ball tonight.
For your next dinner party, or ball, some of today’s zippier, more flavorful paprikas might well ignite some high temperature praise for your culinary skills.
— Ray Pearson, JustLuxe
More From JustLuxe: