July 26, 2010

The Origins of Spice: Paprika

There’s always that single, awkward moment of parenthood when your child asks you:

“Mom, Dad, where does paprika come from?”

And just in case your parents danced around the subject, providing answers like “the store” or “that bottle over there,” I wanted to start your Monday by giving you the information that you have been seeking your whole life.

Now, when I myself discovered the origin of paprika, I have to admit that I was shocked. I couldn’t believe that in all my years of cooking and using these burnt, ruby grains, that I didn’t already know the plant from which they came; that I hadn’t put the red dots together, so to speak.

But before we launch into the big reveal, it is important to understand some history. According to Internet mythology, way back in the days of sailing the Ocean Blue, Christopher Columbus and his compatriots assigned the name “pepper” – like the previously discovered peppercorn plant – to any fruit or vegetable that had a slightly spicy taste, even though capsicums (i.e. chili peppers and sweet peppers) were completely unrelated to said peppercorns. Woops.

While the chili pepper is at least “correct” in its spiciness, the sweet pepper does not contain capsaicin, which is the chemical responsible for the spicy heat of the chili pepper, giving it a more mild, sweet flavor. But the name “pepper” stuck, and many of us (i.e. all of us) in the United States of America continue to follow Colombus’s nomenclature. The rest of the world  – specifically Spain and Hungary – however, refer to sweet and chili peppers by a more proper name, which is none other than…you guessed it…paprika, or pimentón. Just like the spice you know and love.

Low and behold, paprika does not come from a nut, or a leaf, or from some magical volcano in the South Pacific. It comes from a variety of dried and ground peppers (or as my Hungarian ancestors would say, paprikas). Just like peppers, paprika comes in a spectrum of heat levels, from mild to hot, hot, hot. And if you’ve ever wondered what “smoked paprika” is, well there are two versions of that as well and the place of origin matters greatly. Hungarian smoked paprika is made by sun-drying the peppers while Spanish smoked paprika is actually smoked (usually over oak wood) to give the spice its husky flavor.

Paprika is traditionally used in deviled eggs, sausages, goulash, hummus, and as a coloring agent for soups and stews. But it has recently become the darling of the new foodie nation, and as it is such a versatile taste agent, paprika is also a wonderful way to add robust flavor to your food without salt.

It’s my secret agent of the spice rack: I use Spanish smoked paprika, which tends to be the stronger of the two smoked varieties, on my rib, chicken, and steak rubs; I always add a few sprinkles of the more mild stuff to my vegetables or tomato sauces; and because paprika releases most of its flavor when combined with heat and oil, it works wonderfully on roasted vegetables, French fries, or even zucchini flower chips.

For more detailed information about the origin of paprika and its many uses, check out the Spice Hunter’s description on Serious Eats. And remember, the fresher the better. Paprika tends to lose its flavor quickly. So test out a few varieties of paprika and see how well it pairs with your savory (and perhaps sweet) treats.

Chow on.

waiwa July 26, 2010 at 9:44 am

paprika = bell pepper?? mind = blown.

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