Few countries are as entwined with a spice as Hungary is with paprika. It’s officially the national spice of Hungary and there’s a real cultural pride for this fiery red powder. There are two paprika festivals and even two paprika museums. Plus, paprika is crucial to authentic Hungarian cuisine, from goulash to paprikash.
So how did we get here? How did a country far away from typical hot pepper haunts become known for this delicious chili pepper based spice? What does the region’s earth and climate bring to the flavor? And what differentiates the many types of Hungarian paprika (yes, there are many)? Let’s break it all down.
Hungarian paprika history
Paprika is the Hungarian word for pepper and comes from the same Greek root, which is piperi. It is the dried and powdered form of chili peppers. Chilies were brought back to Europe by Christopher Columbus after his voyages to the Americas. Chili peppers were referred to as Indian pepper by Spanish explorers because they were cultivated by Native Americans and had a fiery bite that was similar to that of black pepper, with which the Europeans were more familiar.
Less than a century after the return of Columbus, chili peppers had become a fixture in many European homes as a houseplant. They would make their way from Spain to France and then to England. Eventually, they were brought to Hungary by the Turks; however, it would be a while before paprika became a fixture in Hungary’s food culture. As with many food items all over the world, chili peppers became popular among the lower classes over time and eventually became identified with Hungarian cuisine as we know it today. By the end of the 18th century, it was being used both as a food and as a medicine.
Hungarian paprika flavor: Sweeter than the rest…
Hungarian paprika is known for being sweet, which is a result of Hungary’s climate and the growing season. The Hungarian paprika growing season lasts seven months, a part of which is in the cooler months; the peppers are harvested in September. The relatively low temperature allows the paprika chili peppers to retain their sugar, which is what gives Hungarian paprika its distinctive sweetness and bright red color. When those same peppers grow in warmer environments, the paprika made from them is a darker red and less sweet. The cities of Kalocsa and Szeged are the main centers of paprika production in Hungary. This is because they have the highest number of sunny days per year.
Hungarian paprika types: A pepper scale in the pepper scale
In Hungary, paprika has evolved into eight distinct varieties. Yes, it is literally a pepper scale in the pepper scale. Hungarian paprika types range from mild to relatively hot (think cayenne level heat at max). Let’s review each from mild to hot, including notes on each paprika type’s flavor.
This translates to special and indicates that this paprika is special quality paprika. Kulongeles paprika is the mildest of the paprikas in terms of heat, but has an excellent flavor.
Csípmentes Csemege is the delicate variety of Hungarian paprika. Like the kulonleges, it has a mild taste but it varies from a light red to a dark and intense red.
Csemege or Csemegepaprika
Csemege is categorized as exquisite delicate and has a similar taste to Csipmentes Csemege but with a slightly spicier taste.
The Csípos Csemege variety of paprika is similar to the Csípmentes Csemege and Csemege varieties but has a more pungent heat.
The best known Hungarian paprika outside of Hungary is the Edesnemes variety. It is the variety that gets exported the most. It is bright red and has a very mild heat.
The Feledes type of Hungarian paprika is made by combining hot paprika and mild paprika to arrive at a blend that is moderately pungent.
The Rozsa paprika variety is paler than the other types of paprika and has a light pungency.
The Eros variety of paprika is the hottest paprika. It is closer in color to a brownish orange than it is to red.
In addition to the powdered forms of the spice above, paprika is also sold in paste form. Paprika paste is typically packaged in a tube or small jar and can be used in most of the dishes that require paprika powder.