Hungarians eat a pound of paprika per person each year. It’s enjoyed in everything from sausages and stews to breads and cakes. It’s a key seasoning in all of the national dishes of Hungary. If there isn’t enough paprika in the dish you’re served, not to worry—on the dinner table you’ll find salt, black pepper, and paprika.
It wasn’t always this way. Five hundred years ago, there was no such thing as paprika.
Like all chile peppers, paprika’s ancestors come from South America. The first chiles arrived in Europe in 1492, a gift for Queen Isabella from Christopher Columbus’s ship doctor. I wonder what they were supposed to cure?
Spain isn’t that far from Hungary, but chiles took the scenic route to get there. When the Moors were exiled and the Jews were expelled from Spain, they brought chiles with them across North Africa. The Portuguese brought them south along the west coast of Africa to their trading posts in India and Thailand. From India, Middle Eastern traders brought chiles west with them to Turkey. As the Turkish armies pushed west into central Europe to expand the Ottoman Empire, they brought chiles with them. When the first chiles arrived in Hungary via the Turks, they were called “Turkish pepper” or “heathen’s pepper.”
Though the Turkish troops eventually left Hungary, chiles stayed.
Unlike other new world crops like potatoes and tomatoes that took centuries to be widely adopted, chiles took off right away. They can be grown in all sorts of climates and conditions, which allowed them to become the first spice that could be grown at home—and therefore, the first spice that was not a luxury.
By the end of the 1500s, farmers and fishermen across Hungary had taken to sprinkling chiles on bacon or into stews. Over the centuries, those Hungarian chiles developed into the paprika we know today and it became one of the primary drivers of flavor in the cuisine. Along with onions and lard, paprika is one of the elements of the “holy trinity” of Hungarian cooking that form the basis of many dishes today. George Lang, a Hungarian-born restaurateur wrote in his book Cuisine of Hungary, “Paprika is to the Hungarian cuisine as wit is to its conversation—not just a superficial garnish, but an integral element.” That must have made it especially hard during the Communist rule of Hungary when paprika was a controlled substance, like tobacco. There are stories from that time about it being sold on the black market; sneaky paprika vendors (dealers?) would come to the market with a matchbox full of a sample of their goods for potential customers to discreetly try.
Paprika is one of the most prominent examples of peppers weaving their way into an Old World cuisine, but it’s hardly the only one.
Across Northern Africa, harissa—a spread made of crushed dried peppers, olive oil, and spices—is used to season everything from eggs to couscous to soup. In the Basque country in Spain, tapas bars serve up skinny green piparra peppers with anchovies and roasty red piquillo peppers stuffed with tuna. In Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot, pasta and vegetables are perked up with a punch of chile. In each case, it’s hard to imagine the local cuisine without the peppers.