Hungry for Hungary: The Red Carpet That Leads to A Recipe

Today in the Vintage Kitchen we are rolling out the red carpet. Award season starts in three days with the kick-off of the Golden Globes on Sunday (Feb 28th) and from then until the end of April, there is an awards show practically every week in the entertainment industry. The schedule looks like this…

the Critics Choice Awards (March 7th), the Grammy Awards (March 14th), the Screen Actors Guild Awards (April 4th), the BAFTA Awards (April 11th), the Independent Spirit Awards (April 22nd) and the Academy Awards (April 25th) not to mention a smattering more of lesser-known but equally important events that acknowledge artistic contributions made to the performing arts this past year.

Jennifer Lawrence at the 2013 Academy Awards. Credit…Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Known throughout history as a universal sign of welcome and special treatment, red carpets today are mostly associated with fancy galas and luxury experiences. But here in the Vintage Kitchen, we have our own version of red carpet festivities.  Just like those eye-catching ceremonies full of famous people and fancy dresses, the red carpet in the Kitchen this week is a source of inspiration, creativity, style and visual pizzaz. But unlike star-studded versions made for the entertainment industry, our red carpet is not made with yards of thread and fabric. It doesn’t spotlight a zillion famous faces or fancy dresses. Nor is it something that can easily be rolled out, rolled up or walked onto.  Instead, our red carpet looks like this..

Grown under the hot summer sun, picked and then pulverized to a fine powder, the red carpet that is unfurling itself this week in the Kitchen is one made of spice. The star of today’s post is paprika and the exciting event we are celebrating in such a colorful way is the kick-off of Part Two of the International Vintage Recipe Tour 2021.

 

If you are new to the blog, catch up here on the previous 20 countries we visited last year, by way of the kitchen.  If you have been following along from the beginning of the Tour, then welcome to Week 21 and to 2021. Throughout this year, we will be covering recipes from the remaining 24 countries featured in the 1971 edition of the New York Times International Cook Book.  This recipe tour brought so much unexpected joy last year, I’m excited to dive right in!

We begin the second half of this around-the-world culinary adventure with a country that tempts your taste buds straight away just with the letters in its name…

The red carpets of Hungary may not be star-studded, glamourous, paparazzi-loving experiences like the events are in Hollywood but they are full of celebrity in their own right. The Capsicum annuum fields and the paprika they produce have long been iconic stars of the country, culture, and cuisine for centuries.

Photo by Mark Stebnicki

You might be surprised to learn that paprika isn’t made from one particular plant, yet instead is made from all types of red peppers. Ranging from sweet to spicy depending on the variety and the region in which it’s grown, different levels of heat can be produced by using different types of peppers. Bell peppers produce sweet paprika, cayenne peppers produce spicy paprika.

Members of the capsicum annum family include all types and sizes of red peppers, although thin-walled peppers make the most ideal candidates for paprika. Illustrations by Marilena Pistoia from The Complete Book of Fruits & Vegetables circa 1976

Originally cultivated in Mexico, pepper plants were first introduced to Spain in the 1500s and then brought to Hungary in 1569 during the reign of the Ottoman Empire. Due to difficulties in importing spicy black pepper, Hungary’s search for an alternative brought red pepper plants into the spotlight and popularized paprika, quickly deeming it an essential spice that was both affordable and easy to grow. To say that a country fell in love would be an understatement. By the 19th century, paprika became synonymous with Hungarian cuisine and agriculture. Today, they export over 5500 tons of the spice each year.

Grow your own with seeds grown from the gourmet source at hungarianpaprika.net

Thanks to the idyllic Hungarian climate with its hot, dry, summer weather, plants mature over the course of a season. The peppers are picked in September when they reach a robust shade of red, and then are dried in the open air before being ground into a fine powder that is then packaged and sent out to cooks and kitchens all over the world.

Air-dried red peppers in Hungary circa 1968. Photo via pinterest.

Throughout this process the peppers retain their orangy-red hues, making paprika an ideal color enhancer for various foods as well as a semi-permanent natural dye for fabrics. Like curry, paprika takes on different flavor notes according to where it is cultivated in the world.  Mexico is known for spicier paprika and Spain for smoked paprika but Hungarian paprika is the most sought after for its sweetness.

Most Hungarian foods that contain this colorful spice proudly announce it in their names… Chicken Paprikash, Paprika Pork,  Paprikas Szalonna, Stuffed Cabbage with Paprika, Meat Ball Paprikash, Punjena Paprika… but there are other famous beloved heritage dishes like Goulash, Lipatauer Cheese, Fisherman’s Soup and Hungarian Stuffed Crepes that use the spice by the tablespoonfuls too.

Today in the kitchen, we are sticking to the literal side of things and featuring Paprika Shrimp with Sour Cream.  I first made this dish last September with the intention of sharing its ideal attribute of being one of those fantastic in-between-seasons recipes that blends so nicely with warm days and cool nights.

Light, thanks to the shrimp, but creamy and comforting thanks to the pretty paprika-colored sauce, I’m reminded again how this recipe now, six months later, is still an ideal candidate for this new time between seasons as we start to transition from winter to spring.  Serving it over a bed of steaming rice makes it satisfying for days that may still contain traces of snow and sleet yet the vibrant color of the whole dish brings a burst of bright pastels to the table – a nice change from all the earthy-hued stews and soups we customarily consume over the winter months.

Many Hungarian dishes are prized Sunday dinner-type foods since they often require lengthy amounts of steeping and simmering, but this recipe is quick and easy to make. It requires just a handful of ingredients, pairs nicely with a glass or two of wine, and can be accompanied by a salad for simplicity or a green vegetable for another pop of color. Traditional serving companions in Hungary would include sides of bread and potatoes.

Like any Hungarian cook would tell you – the secret to this recipe is seeking out the best sweet paprika you can find. Then you’ll truly understand and appreciate the impact this unique spice can have on such a simple dish.

Paprika Shrimp with Sour Cream

Serves 4

2 tablespoons butter

24 medium raw shrimp, peeled and deveined

Freshly ground salt & pepper to taste

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon paprika

3 tablespoons finely chopped shallots

1/3 cup heavy cream

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1/3 cup sour cream

2-3 cups white rice, cooked

A few extra sprinkles of paprika and finely chopped chives, parsley or scallions for garnish

Prepare your rice, then set aside and keep warm. Next, heat the butter in a large skillet. When it is hot add the shrimp. Sprinkle with salt and pepper (to taste), cayenne pepper and paprika.

Stir and cook just until the shrimp turn pink, then flip each shrimp once to cook the other side. Be careful not to overcook the shrimp.

Sprinkle with the shallots and add the heavy cream. Stir the mustard into the sauce and remove the skillet from the heat.

Stir in sour cream and heat thoroughly without boiling.

Serve over a bed of warm rice. Garnish with an extra sprinkle of paprika and top with whole parsley leaves or finely chopped chives or scallions.

Warm, sweet, and satisfying this dish is full of subtle yet layered flavors.  Hungarian cuisine with all its enjoyment of cream and butter and starch will never be considered diet food, but this recipe spread over 4 servings will hardly cause concern for any health-conscious eater.  And that’s not the point of it anyway. The Canadian writer Joanne Sasvari wrote in her 2005 memoir, Paprika, that “Hungary is a country where the past always sits down at the dinner table with the present.”  I love that sentiment. When you prepare a dish like Paprika Shrimp, you are not only enjoying a flavorful meal but you are also enjoying the historic journey of a spice – one that was ground from a pepper that was grown on a plant that was part of a collection in a field that stretched for miles and years and centuries ultimately coming to define a country’s heritage and its cuisine.

“When a Hungarian cook puts a steaming bowl of food in front of you, they are not only offering nourishment but also comfort, affection, and a safe refuge from the harsh realities of life,” shares Joanne.  In other words, they are offering you the red carpet experience. Signs of welcome and special treatment. Signs of dreamy decadence and luxurious dining shared with friends and family.  And signs of love and sweetness too. That’s the glamour of a Hungarian kitchen, as it has been in the past and as it will, comfortingly, continue to be in the future.

Cheers to paprika for not only coloring the landscape but also our plates. And cheers to Hungary for giving all eaters the red carpet treatment with each and every meal. Join us next time as we embark on Week 22 of the Recipe Tour with a trip to India via the kitchen and a special giveaway contest that will bring a dose of extra joy to one lucky reader’s kitchen space.

 

5 thoughts on “Hungry for Hungary: The Red Carpet That Leads to A Recipe

  1. What a lovely article. I never knew that about Paprika. Ya learn something new every day!. The recipe is great too. When you are on lockdown travelling around the world with food is a great escape.x

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  2. So interesting. I knew that paprika (one of my favorite spices) came in different varieties, but had never really looked in to what kind of peppers it came from. I do know that nothing beats the complex flavor of a really good Hungarian Paprika. I’ve really not found ones from this country to compare.

    Thanks for another great article, and amazing photos. And the Shrimp recipe. Just Yum!
    All the Best,
    Gwen

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    1. Oh Gwen! I love that you are a fellow spice lover too! Do you know about Savory Spice? It’s where I buy the bulk of our fresh spices and dried herbs. We are lucky to have one of their retail shops here in our city, but they also have an online store that you can order from if there is not a location close to you. I havent been to Hungary yet to sample straight from the field paprika so I can’t truly compare but the SS Hungarian Paprika is very flavorful. Just in case you are looking or a new spice shop to explore! https://www.savoryspiceshop.com/

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