The first time I experienced quality Hungarian paprika was akin to being invited to a party laced with contraband. “This is the good stuff,” my Hungarian professor proclaimed, pulling a zip-locked baggie full of deep red powder from her purse. “This stuff is straight from Budapest; I’ve never been able to find it so fresh here in America.”
She proceeded to add a shower of powder to the pot of boiling liquid on the stove, measuring with her fingers. “I have to use it carefully, until we make our next family trip back to Hungary.” The remaining stash was whisked back into hiding.
Fresh paprika powder has a distinct taste that I’ve been unable to find replicated after my Hungarian teacher’s homemade cooking demonstration. Until now anyway, when I came directly to its source in Budapest. I’ve been eating paprika all week.
Paprika has a kick that’s more savory than spicy. And with a deep red hue that permeates whatever food it touches, it’s instantly recognizable. Paprika is the central spice in Hungarian food, but it actually has roots in Turkish cuisine, when Hungary was part of the Ottoman empire in the 16th century. There are also many different kinds of paprika, from sweet and mild to spicy.
With a ready eye for it’s rich red color, I spotted paprika bases in dishes at nearly every restaurant I ate in. Being in Buapest during Hungary’s largest national holiday, independence day, only served to enhance my paprika encounters, as street festival vendors across the city center fried, boiled and grilled Hungarian dishes en masse. Paprika was everywhere. Here are a few of my favorite paprika moments.
Paprika is used as a base for goloush, a meat stew. As my Hungarian professor had stressed, letting the meat simmer in a paprika base is critical for capturing the distinct kick that stayed with me long after her stew had been eaten. I found a similar flavor in the goloush I ordered on my first night in Budapest.
Stewing various vegetables in a paprika broth is a common Hungarian cooking method, as I learned at a local canteen/cafeteria. These stewed beans were my favorite paprika dish of the entire trip.
I spent most of Friday afternoon grazing on the streets, as festivals celebrating Hungarian independence day opened for the weekend. Here’s a bowl of bright red fish soup; forget fancy cutlery, focus instead of the view.
I bought a bag of my own contraband. Most grocery stores and markets offer an entire shelf (or more) dedicated to the various kinds of paprika.
I could have even tried my hand at cooking with it, as my stay in Budapest at the Junior Townhall apartments afforded me my own kitchen. The self-service apartments were an awesome alternative to expensive hotels and the dreaded 20-bed hostel. I could have happily spent my entire week in Budapest sitting on my apartment balcony, eating paprika dishes.
*For more information about stays in local apartments in Budapest and other cities across Europe, check out City Breaks Europe.