This Spice Paste Is the Secret to Hungarian Cooking
Hungarian paprika paste can make tonight’s dinner next-level delicious.
Open the pantry of almost any Hungarian, regardless of age or background, and you’ll find at least one tube of paprika paste. Often, it's Univer’s Piros Arany (“Red Gold”), a neat metal tube with a red, white, and green emblem, a nod to the Hungarian flag. Piros, meaning red in the Magyar language, is both the color of the package and of the fragrant, umami–packed paste inside, made with the rich, fully ripened, and mildly hot red peppers ubiquitous in Hungarian cuisine.
What is paprika paste?
Peppers are thought to have come to Hungary in the 16th century (via Turkey, or perhaps Portugal). This versatile paste has been widely used since the 18th century, giving its signature color, body, and flavor to Hungary’s beloved goulash, chicken paprikash, and fisherman’s stew, among other famed dishes.
Paprika paste is made from fresh Hungarian wax peppers, which are sweet and slightly hot (between 5,000 and 15,000 Scoville units on the heat scale), and deeply red when fully ripened. The peppers are ground while fresh, strained of their liquid, then mixed with salt and ascorbic acid (a preservative) which lends a mild tang. It mirrors tomato paste in texture and body, though it is more brightly almost iridescent red.
Paprika paste is often used in combination with dried paprika, not in place of it. Like dried paprika, it can be found in both hot (Csípős) or mildly sweet (Csemege), though sweet dried paprika would be labeled édes.
There are variations on paprika paste that also deserve space in your kitchen. Erős Pista, or Hungarian crushed paprika paste, is a different yet equally brilliant flavor booster, akin to North African harissa, Korean gochujang or sambal oelek from Indonesia. It is less concentrated, darker red with visible hot pepper seeds, and is usually csipos (spicy) and heavy on salt, yielding a potent, instant flavor. You’ll also find tubes of Guylas cream paste (gulyaskrem), made with red peppers mixed with onions, tomatoes, cumin, and spices. Use this as a goulash and soup shortcut.
How to use paprika paste
Paprika paste is the vital base layer of many Hungarian stews, like gulyás (goulash), halászlé (fish stew), pörkölt (stew), lecsó (pepper stew), and csirke paprikás (paprika chicken). The paste is usually bloomed in hot oil, added just after onions, garlic, or other mirepoix to build flavor and body.
In my recipe for Pörkölt-Style Grilled Chicken Thighs with Stone Fruit, Fennel, and Paprika Salad, I veer from tradition, using Piros Arany or Erős Pista as a marinade to amp up flavor and heat on grilled chicken thighs. In the same way, it pairs well with pork, shrimp and meaty white fish like swordfish, or cod. Paprika paste is also the secret ingredient in my brothy, vegetarian soups (made with vegetable stock or water), creating depth you might otherwise get from a meat-based broth.
Where to find paprika paste
Hungarian supermarkets have entire aisles devoted to paprika, paprika paste, and its cousins. In the U.S., they can be a little tougher to find. Look for them in the international aisle, or at dedicated Hungarian markets (like Ottos, based in Los Angeles). You can also order them online (Amazon carries all paprika pastes listed above, sold individually, or in bulk). If you can't find authentic Hungarian paprika paste, substitute harissa for hot Hungarian paste, and Italian red pepper paste for mild or sweet paprika paste.
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