Quick! Name two Hungarian dishes. How about paprikash and goulash? And what do they have in common? Why, paprika, of course! If ever a whole country was linked to one seasoning, Hungary and paprika would top the list.
While paprika is a Hungarian word, the paprika plant, Capsicum annuum, has its roots in the New World, brought to Europe by the Spanish and Portuguese. It has been grown in Hungary since the 1500s, but it really didn’t take off in Hungarian cooking until the late nineteenth century. Its use was limited by its fiery taste. Then, it took off with a vengeance in the 1920s when a plant breeder found a plant that produced sweet fruit, making a sweeter paprika. This plant was then grafted onto others, creating a whole vocabulary of paprikas.
On tables in Hungary, you will find shakers filled with salt and hot paprika and none with black pepper. Since no visit to Hungary would be complete without bringing home at least one or two paprikas, here’s a list of what to look for when you shop for paprika in the markets of Hungary.
Különleges has a special quality and is the mildest paprika, with a deep, bright red color and a very sweet flavor.
Csemege paprika is exquisitely delicate, similar to Csíipösmentes, but more pungent.
Csípős csemege and pikáns are an even more pungent paprika.
Róaza is prized above all others for its sweet aroma, mild pungency, and brilliant pale red color.
Édesnemes is noble and sweet; it’s the most commonly exported paprika. Bright red and slightly pungent, you might want to cross this one off your list since you can likely find it in any supermarket at home.
Félédes is a blend that is half sweet and half pungent.
Erős, although light brown in color, is the spiciest and strongest of all Hungarian paprikas.
If you are in Budapest, the city’s Central Market is one of its greatest tourist attractions. This gigantic indoor market has over 100,000 square feet of space. There you’ll find sausage stands and pickle emporiums and of course, paprika.
However, you’ll have to dig around to avoid tourist-ready sacks of paprika, complete with painted wooden spoons that are wildly overpriced. Instead, look around the market for what the locals buy and be sure to take home at least two, one hot (csipös) and one sweet (édes). Or better yet, visit the non-touristy Hold Utca Market in the city center or the Hunyadi Tér Marketd in Terézváros, where prices are more reasonable and varieties are just as extensive. All these markets are on the Pest side of the Danube.