Red, Delicious: How Paprika Became Jews’ Favorite Hungarian Spice
Sweet or hot, stewed in goulash or rubbed on chicken, this versatile spice is a staple of the Jewish-American kitchen
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.
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