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The Spice That Came From Halfway Around the World

The Spice That Came From Halfway Around the World

 The Spice That Came From Halfway Around the World


“WHAT a wonderful stew! What did you use to season it?” This might be your reaction to the taste of a typical Hungarian goulash. Its distinctive flavor comes from paprika, a spice made from the pepper plant, which came to Hungary from halfway around the world.

History points to South America as the earliest known home of the pepper. Pottery found in Inca graves—believed to be thousands of years old—is decorated with pictures of the pepper plant. Peppers are even among the foods that were buried with Inca mummies.

Some historians believe that a doctor who sailed to America with Columbus carried pepper seeds to Spain in 1493. Whatever the case, Spain was the first European country to cultivate peppers widely. From there the pepper plant made its way to Britain and to southern France, where it was more popular as a houseplant than as a seasoning or a source of food! Later, Greek tradesmen took pepper plants to the countries around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

The pepper plant has been known in Hungary since the 16th century. One of its designations, “Turkish pepper,” suggests that it may have come to us by means of the Turks. In any event, to this day the dark-red, aromatic, and sweet-flavored paprika of Hungary is a favorite of spice lovers around the globe.

Pepper plants thrive in flat fields of brown, sandy soil bathed in plenty of sunlight. Farmers begin to prepare the soil for planting in late summer, right after the previous year’s harvest. Some pepper plants are sown from seed; others  are transplanted. Pepper plants for transplanting need to be started off in a controlled environment, such as a well-ventilated greenhouse. There the tiny plants are carefully watered, fertilized, and weeded. Before being transplanted, they are gradually exposed to outdoor conditions.

After six to eight weeks, it is time to move the pepper seedlings to the fields. In Hungary this takes place during the first few days of May. At this stage the plants still require careful attention—the farmers must water and spray them and hoe around them if they want to harvest healthy peppers.

The harvest starts at the end of August or the beginning of September. A green pepper will turn a luscious red when ripe. Unless the plants all ripen at the same time, they must be harvested by hand rather than by machine. Whichever harvesting method is used, the peppers will go through many physical and chemical changes before appearing on your dinner table. For example, after harvesting, the pepper loses most of its moisture, and its sugar and vitamin-C levels decrease. *

After the harvest, peppers must be allowed to dry and ripen further. A traditional way of doing this has been to hang them on a string. Today, though, it is more common to put the peppers in long sacks made of material that is woven loosely, which allows air to pass through. The sacks are suspended on racks or in barns. Once they are fully ripened, the peppers can be ground into powder to produce the delicious seasoning known by the Hungarian word for pepper—paprika.

Some types of paprika can be quite spicy, largely because of the presence of a chemical agent called capsaicin. This natural product has even been used for medicinal purposes, such as for treating digestive difficulties and rheumatic pain. In any event, paprika’s distinctive flavor—whether spicy or mild—is just one of its attributes. On the aesthetic side, the dash of color that paprika adds to a dish appeals to the eyes. When added to chicken feed, paprika has even helped hens to produce eggs having brighter-colored yolks!

Would you like to taste a dish seasoned with paprika? Why not try the recipe for goulash shown below? As we Hungarians say, jó étvágyat!—enjoy your meal!


^ par. 9 A single pepper may contain five to six times as much vitamin C as an orange or a lemon.

[Box on page 11]


1/2 pound [1/4 kg] boneless beef, cubed

1 tablespoon [15 ml] oil

1 medium onion, chopped

2 large cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons [30 ml] sweet paprika

2 teaspoons [10 ml] salt

1/4 teaspoon [2 ml] caraway seeds (if desired)

2 medium potatoes, washed, peeled, and cubed

1 small green pepper, cored and chopped

2 small tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and cut into pieces

4 ounces [100 g] of dried egg noodles

Heat the oil in a soup pot, and add onion. Sauté until soft. Stir in garlic and paprika, adding a little water if needed to prevent scorching. Then add the beef and the salt, stirring well. Cover the pot and simmer. Stir occasionally, adding water only if needed to prevent burning. Add caraway seeds, if desired. When the beef is tender, add peppers, tomatoes, and two quarts [two liters] of water. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes. Add potatoes and simmer until potatoes are cooked (10 to 15 minutes). Salt to taste. Serve hot with separately prepared egg noodles. Serves four to six persons.