A brightly colored spice, paprika (pa-PREE-kuh) is used for everything from barbeque rubs to garnishing deviled eggs. After Christopher Columbus brought peppers from the New World to Europe, the wealthy residents of Spain used the plants decoratively in their gardens. Cooks of lesser means soon discovered tastier uses, and eventually, peppers were ground into the fine powder we now know as paprika.
Native Americans used a paprika-like substance for seasoning and healing, but the mild pepper used in paprika was cultivated in Europe. Hungary was ground zero. And Hungarian cuisine demonstrates paprika’s power to influence a dish: think Goulash, or Chicken Paprikash. Many consider Hungarian paprika to be the ultimate. And Hungary’s well-earned pride in its product is illustrated by the names for various grades: Nobel Sweet, Exquisite Delicate and Pungent Exquisite Delicate, to name a few.
But Hungary has some pretty stiff competition. Recently, pimentón, a Spanish paprika made by smoking peppers over oak fires, has set the food world ablaze. It’s easy to see why. Its distinctly smoky taste makes it a great choice for grilled meats, seafood and sauces.
Most paprika is mild, but hotter varieties are available. If you can, buy it in tins rather than bottles; it’s pretty delicate stuff, and light diminishes flavor. Oh, and a tidbit for the trivia-obsessed: In the early 1930s, a Hungarian scientist used paprika as the source for vitamin C in his research. In 1937, he took home the Nobel Price for Medicine.
—Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.