I didn’t start paying attention to paprika until I started spending a lot of time with someone who pronounces it “PAP-ri-kah.” Heretofore I had always pronounced it “pa-PREE-kah,” and limited its use to giving food a sharp look before serving to baked or fried fish, deviled eggs, or hummus. I never really thought of it as having flavor; it was just for looks. When you think of a spice as largely decorative, you don’t tend to think about what it actually is.
When I was growing up paprika was used almost exclusively on deviled eggs; we didn’t eat any fish except canned tuna. When I was cooking in a seafood restaurant in Bar Harbor during a summer when I was in college, there was a big shaker of paprika right in front of my work station. The last step in preparing a haddock or flounder dish was sprinkle some of this innocuous red powder on top to give the otherwise bland-looking surface a little zip.
About 10 or 15 years ago I started to hear about Hungarian paprika, how it was so much more flavorful than the stuff that most of us purchased at the supermarket. My then-wife had a Hungarian professor in graduate school who was always talking about goulash, so eventually she decided to make it. All the recipes she encountered emphasized the importance of using Hungarian paprika, not that terrible stuff passed off as paprika in the mainstream. Lo and behold, there was a difference; it has a rich flavor that combined sweet and savory and it actually had a smell, even when it was dry.
Paprika, along with various chili powders (e.g. ancho chili), red pepper, and cayenne pepper, are all made from the dried fruits of Capsicum annuum. This single New World plant—it occurs from southern North America to northern South America—has over the last 2,000 years given rise to many varieties of “pepper” that vary in shape and spiciness. The latter attribute is determined by the amount of capsaicin in the fruit. Bell peppers lack this chemical altogether because of a recessive trait that was isolated in the breeding process untold years ago. But all other pepper varieties have it in varying amounts.
Several varieties of C. annuum were brought back to Spain by Columbus in the early 16th century. They immediately became popular on the Iberian peninsula and spread into Africa and thence to the Middle East. The Ottoman Turks invaded Hungary in the 16th century (they remained there until 1699) they brought their cuisine with them. Paprika did not, however, become a popular part of Hungarian cooking until the 19th century.
The region of Szeged in Hungary is the center of paprika production. It was here in the 1920s that a sweet pepper was developed that allowed paprika producers to create a full spectrum of flavors from very sweet (Különleges) to very hot (Erős).
In Hungary the peppers are dried in the sun. In Spain (and elsewhere) they are dried by smoking them, traditionally over oak-fueled fires. The Spanish call the spice pimentón, and they too blend sweet and hot cultivars of pepper to create several paprikas.
Trying to figure out what kind of peppers went into the red powder we call “paprika” is complicated by the fact that in a lot of countries the fruit itself is called a “paprika.” Apparently, depending on the country of origin and the maker, paprika can be made from peppers from either the “Bell Group” and/or the “Cayenne Group.” Most, but not all, of the Bell peppers are mild and sweet, while all the Cayenne peppers—which includes chili, serrano, and jalapeño peppers, among others—are hot.
When I looked up the pronunciation of the spice name in my trusty Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Fifth Edition; 1947) the first—and therefore preferred—way of saying the word turned out to be “PAP-ri-kah.”