“I’ll have what she’s having.” Those five words, uttered during the infamous orgasm-at-Katz’s-Deli scene in When Harry Met Sally, are arguably among the most legendary to emerge from 1980s cinema. But my favorite line in the movie comes from a different scene, when Harry (Billy Crystal), on a stroll through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, coaxes Sally (Meg Ryan) to repeat after him in a goofy, zayde-inflected accent: “Waiter, there is too much pepper on my paprikash.” The line itself means very little, spoken mostly as a means to a flirtatious end. But there is something so utterly charming about Crystal’s impish delivery—something so irresistibly New York, and undeniably Jewish—that I fall for Harry’s shtick every time.
I was a child of the 1980s, and that scene also first introduced me to chicken paprikash, or paprikas csirke in Hungarian. Since there’s no Hungarian ancestry in my own family, the country’s famous stewed chicken dish, which turns rosy under the heavy influence of sweet paprika, never appeared on our table. Over the ensuing decades, I have probably eaten the dish only half a dozen times. Still, I feel an unspoken connection to chicken paprikash as a food of my people. Like Harry, the dish—and a liberal hand with the paprika shaker more broadly—has always seemed implicitly Jewish.
In Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen, the memoir of the late New York restaurateur George Lang, he recounts leaving his parents’ home at 19 to report to a Nazi labor camp. Lang, who would eventually go on to direct the Four Seasons and resurrect the famous Café des Artistes on New York’s Upper West Side, maintained a deep connection to Hungarian food throughout his life. Tellingly, he writes about the supplies he took with him as he bid his childhood home goodbye: “Almost as important a part of the backpack inventory as my books, was a well-wrapped slab of paprika-coated ‘bacon,’ my mother’s rendition of the real thing … made out of the sides of a well-fed goose.”
Lang’s anecdote points to an important function that paprika played in the kitchens of Hungary’s kosher-keeping Jews. To them, it was more than a spice. It was a common denominator—an ingredient that unequivocally signaled a dish’s “Hungarian-ness,” even while adhering to Jewish law. And yet, it was not until Hungary’s Jews began immigrating en masse to America that the ground peppers began to be specifically associated with Jewish cuisine.
Jews are hardly the only people who love paprika, the ground spice made from members of the Capsicum annuum (pepper) family. It is still sprinkled ubiquitously across Hungarian cuisine, and a smoked version is used in dishes throughout Spain, Portugal, and elsewhere. So, on a recent trip to Budapest, which is home to the country’s only remaining sizable Jewish community, I set out to discover just how Jewish paprika really is. The answer, perhaps not surprisingly, is “not at all,” but also “profoundly so.”
Paprika is everywhere in Budapest, a constant that almost literally paints the town red. It is all over any menu touting authentic Hungarian dishes from hearty meat stews like goulash to saucy chicken paprikash and letcho, a ratatouille-like dish. In the Great Market Hall, the city’s sprawling indoor food market, a ring of competing stalls peddles tourist-friendly packages of the pepper powder ranging from sweet to scorching, as well as long strings of dried peppers and tubes of paprika-spiked goulash paste.
The city’s Jewish eateries are no exception. At Macesz Huszár, an upscale Jewish-Hungarian restaurant in the city’s historic, and currently quite fashionable, Jewish district, paprika colors the veal and barley-stuffed cabbage and adds dimension to a Passover-friendly menu item of porcini mushrooms and cream served over matzo farfel. “With matzo, it is all about adding taste to the tasteless,” said owner David Popovits. “That’s why you add the paprika.” Like virtually every Jewish Hungarian, Popovits, 41, also adds paprika to his menu’s sólet—the Hungarian take on cholent, the Sabbath bean-and-meat stew.
Pastry chef Rachél Raj, who co-owns the popular bakeries Café Noé and Tortaszalon, uses considerably more cocoa powder and cinnamon than any savory spice in her professional kitchens. She iss a younger Jewish cook (she is 33), and the elaborate Shabbat meals she regularly serves to family and friends tend to skew toward modern, seasonal flavors and ingredients. But when I visited her at one of her shops, she took a break from cake-decorating to recount some of the Jewish Hungarian dishes she grew up eating. “We often had a wonderful fish and fish roe soup flavored with grated onion, bay leaves, butter, and of course paprika,” she said. She also described ines, a decadent dish of goose fat that gets rolled in a mixture of paprika, salt, and sometimes finely chopped garlic, and chilled until it reaches the textural midpoint between pâté and sausage. Sliced and served on bread, it is a kosher-friendly take on the country’s pork sausages.
Two days later, while I was dining at Rosenstein, one of Hungary’s most legendary Jewish restaurants, two crimson-ringed disks of ines made a surprise appearance alongside crunchy goose-skin cracklings, an eggplant spread, and Jewish-style eggs (finely chopped and mixed with paprika, sautéed onions, and more goose fat) on an elegant appetizer platter. Paprika also showed up in numerous other dishes including Rosenstein’s smoked brisket and tongue-topped solét, their stuffed cabbage, and their kocsoyna—a fire-engine-red dish of jellied carp that mimics Hungary’s traditional pork aspic.
Unlike solét, which has crossed over into the Hungarian mainstream, ines is neither well-known nor commonly served today. But if any place would celebrate it, it is Rosenstein. Founder Tibor Rosenstein lost most of his family in the Holocaust but said he grew up living and “constantly cooking” with his two grandmothers. At 72, he has a remarkable flair for the contemporary, but his knowledge of traditional Jewish Hungarian history and cuisine is unparalleled. Not surprisingly, when I asked him about the ines, Rosenstein replied, “That one I make just like my grandma used to.”
For an ingredient that has so completely permeated a country’s cuisine, paprika arrived in Hungary rather late. According to Gil Marks’ The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, the Turks introduced the New World plant to the region in the 16th century during the period of Ottoman rule. After they left, he writes, “the plants were left behind, and … since paprika was locally grown and much less expensive than peppercorns, it emerged as the predominant plebeian seasoning … used in classics such as goulash.” The country’s wealthier class, however, did not largely accept or use paprika until the 19th century.
Once it took hold, paprika quickly became indispensable in Jewish and non-Jewish kitchens alike. In Hol Van a Videk Zsidosag (Where are the Countryside Jews?), a collection of essays about Jewish life in Hungary around the turn of the 20th century—which was translated over email for me by klezmer musician, food enthusiast, and long-time Hungarian resident Bob Cohen—paprika was used in a wide variety of dishes. It showed up in all kinds of soups, often as part of a paprika-flavored thickening roux called rántás. It flavored solét, stuffed cabbage, and tarhonya, a tiny dried pasta commonly called egg barley. And it also amped up the kosher takes on chicken paprikash and pörkölt (a beef and paprika stew), which omit the sour cream typically used to enrich the Hungarian versions.
Between the mid-19th and early 20th century, more than 1 million Hungarians, many of them Jewish, immigrated to the United States and settled in New York City and communities across the country. Like all other newcomers, they brought their beloved foods with them—and not just the Jewish ones. “Hungarian Jews were among the most assimilated Jews in Europe and often thought of themselves as Hungarian first,” Popovits told me. “So, when they left for America, they brought the foods of their homeland in addition to their Jewish cooking.” That means solét and stuffed cabbage came, but so did goulash, letcho, and chicken paprikash.
Over time, as these foods were cooked in Jewish-American households, shared in community cookbooks (Marks writes that in 1912 a recipe for “Chicken Paprika” was included in The Neighborhood Cook Book, put out by Portland Oregon’s Council of Jewish Women), and served at delis and Catskills resorts, they began to take on specific Jewish resonance. “As with many other Hungarian foods in America, paprikash made its way into the general Ashkenazic kitchen and then into the American mainstream,” Marks writes. By the time Sally (and I) first fell in love with Harry’s paprikash line in the late 1980s, the transmission was complete.
Today paprika remains a staple of the Jewish-American kitchen. Along with salt, pepper, and garlic powder, it is one of the few spices used with any regularity (think brisket, cholent, egg salad) in traditional Ashkenazic cooking. Many contemporary Jewish cooks, who are more adventurous with flavors and ingredients, specifically source imported Hungarian paprika, which is far redder, sweeter, and more robustly flavored than the average bottle of McCormick.
While eating my way around Budapest, I discovered that paprika—and Jewish Hungarian cuisine more broadly—is being celebrated in its home country’s capital like never before. Restaurants like Rosenstein and Macesz Huszár are leading the charge, enticing diners young and old, Jewish and otherwise with their traditional and improvisational takes on Jewish classics. As Rosenstein told me, “Because of the Holocaust and the decades of Communist rule that followed, lots of people forgot and lost gems from their childhood. Now there’s a revival of people bringing some of these dishes back.” As a lover of all things red, fiery, and sweet, I will gladly raise my paprika shaker to that.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.