Paprika: The Magic Ingredient in Hungarian Cuisine

Paprika: The Magic Ingredient in Hungarian Cuisine
Eastern European Cooking With LUKA

00:00 / 10:38


Paprika is essential to classic Hungarian cooking and so it is therefore the focus seasoning for the main course at our Hungarian dinner on Wednesday March 25th. Tickets are now on sale for that event, and you can find them at, on the Eventbrite page, or at the LUKA Facebook page. With that in mind, I’m going to talk about the history of paprika and its use in Hungarian cuisine today. But before I bury myself in paprika, I have a couple of announcements.


The LUKA dining series will be undergoing some transformations this spring, and (I think) that means an expansion of products and services beyond the scope of the dining series. One of these services hearkens back to the origins of the series, and that is private culinary services. I’m developing a menu of items that you can order in advance for your own parties and private events.

This will include classic Eastern European smoked meat and fish, grain and vegetable salads, and some bread and pastry. I’m also willing to discuss full service cooking for your events, so if you have a party or event coming up and you need assistance with the menu, you can contact me through the website or call 314-226-9184.

For those of you in the Tower Grove area of St. Louis, I’m also working to start pick-up and delivery of piroshki, which are baked meat and/or vegetable hand pies. If you’ve noticed the similarity with the word pierogi, then your instincts are on target. If you can imagine a giant baked pierogi with a pastry crust, then you’re still on track. When I do get these going, there will be a variety of rotating fillings based on classic Eastern European dishes, and each one of these bad boys will be big enough for two meals for most people.

This is another item that I did in Portland, Oregon, when I started offering Eastern European food services there about ten years ago. They were well loved, and I’m excited about bringing them to St. Louis. I know that a few other businesses do hand pies and empanadas here, but I can guarantee you that they’re not like these.

These new products and services will be offered with limited availability and regularity for the moment, because I am still the only employee of this company, and I am not Popeye. With that in mind I am also looking to build out the LUKA team with some part-time help. If you’re looking to make a little extra money in your spare time, I’m currently looking for a driver, and a dining room server. since I’m currently too small to use any of the big online delivery services. if you’re curious about this opportunity contact me through the website or 314-226-9184.

I think that does it for the announcements for now. With that let’s get back to paprika and our Hungarian menu on Wednesday March 25th. Our main dish is Chicken Paprikash, or Paprikas Csirke in Hungarian, and it will be served with buttered nokedli, which is the Hungarian version of spaetzl.

Etymology and History of Paprika

As noted on the menu page for the event, chicken paprikash features a sauce made with paprika. LOTS of paprika. If you’re not familiar with this sauce, it’s not only one of my favorites, but also one of my specialties. The aromatic vegetable sweetness of this paprika sauce is like nothing else on earth. So let’s talk about paprika, the reason behind that unmistakable flavor, and I’m going to go a little deep here.

In English paprika pretty much only refers to the powdered spice made from dried red bell peppers, with the occasional addition of hot peppers. But in Hungarian and several other regional languages, the word paprika refers also to the fresh pepper itself. The word paprika is a Hungarian diminutive of papar, which is the Serbo-Croatian word for pepper. That word, papar, stems from the Latin piper or Greek piperi, and those both have their origins in the Sanskrit pippali. You may also notice a similarity to the Turkish word biber.

So where does paprika come from? I thank you for your curiosity.

Origins of Paprika

The red peppers used to produce paprika originated in Mexico. They were brought back to Europe by Spaniards and traded widely in Iberia, Africa and Asia, eventually reaching Central Europe and Hungary through the Balkans with the Ottoman Turks who controlled the region. You’ll be as surprised as I was to learn that, although paprika had been cultivated in Central Europe since the 1500s, it didn’t gain its stranglehold on the Hungarian appetite until the 1800s. Hmmm.

Now, there are a lot of ways to use paprika. For instance you can garnish deviled eggs with it or sprinkle it around the rim of a plate when you don’t have any beautiful parsley. But I consider those applications a waste of the amazing flavor available from this lusty, red spice. As the base flavor for a sauce, it gives not only a rich, deep red color, but also the sweet vegetable aromatics I mentioned earlier. It has a very comforting flavor when used in this way.

But you have to know how to unlock that flavor. You can’t really just dump paprika into a broth and expect to get the most out of it. No, no. No. You should ideally bloom the spice in warm fat such as lard, butter or oil to get the aromatics to release and disperse properly. If you have done any Indian cooking, then you know that toasting or frying spices before adding them to a dish is the best way to get all of the aromatics compounds. We’re looking at the same principle with paprika, and that’s what we do when we make chicken paprikash.

Classic Chicken Paprikash

We first fry onions—ideally in lard—then brown our chicken pieces in that fat. We remove the browned chicken, allow the fat to cool a bit, then add what some would consider an obscene amount of paprika to unlock the aromatics. Once the paprika is adequately bloomed, we add chopped tomatoes for their liquid and acidity and, in the classic recipe, some sliced or diced green bell pepper. Once that has simmered and come together, we return the chicken to the pot and let it finish cooking in its own juices.

When the chicken is fully cooked, we remove it again so we can finish the sauce. This entails the addition of sour cream and, in the oldest versions of the recipe, which I’m drawing from, heavy cream. A little slurry of flour and water can be added for thickening, and from there it’s just a matter of adjusting the seasoning and adding additional stock to achieve desired thickness.

Then the chicken goes buk, buk, buk, BACK into the pot take up some of that silky creaminess and impart more of its own flavor to the sauce. At that point we have our finished paprikas csirke, also known as chicken paprikash. It’s nearly always served with buttered nokedli, the Hungarian version of spaetzl. Trust me, nothing else needs to be on the plate, and it’s seldom seen with more than a little parsley or sliced onion for garnish.

So there you have it. It’s what’s for dinner at the next LUKA dining event at Seed Sprout Spoon on Wednesday March 25th. You can find tickets at, and on the Facebook event page. You’ll also find all the needed links on the page that contains this podcast.

This has been Eastern European Cooking with LUKA, written and produced by yours truly, John J. Goddard. We’ll talk again soon. Egészségére!

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