Secret ingredient: Paprika

16:00, Jan 07 2013
paprika
HOT STUFF (SOMETIMES): Paprika comes in several varieties.

Paprika used to be a dusty red spice Nana put in her 'Hungarian goulash' but these days it's very hip. Can you tell the difference between the Spanish and Hungarian versions?

WHAT IS PAPRIKA?
Good quality paprika comes from a type of sweet red pepper - sometimes known as the paprika pepper (Capsicum annum). The seeds are removed from the fruit and the peppers are then dried and subsequently ground down into a deep red powder.

However, because there is quite a variety of the seeds themselves grown in different parts of the world, not all the resulting spice is created equal. The three main paprika-producing regions are Spain, California and Hungary and experts are quick to say that it is the Hungarian paprika that has the richer, more robust taste.

Despite this claim, Spanish paprika is very popular in New Zealand and is available smoked sweet (dulce), smoked bitter-sweet (agridulce) and smoked hot (picante).

WHAT DOES IT TASTE LIKE?
Unlike cayenne pepper, paprika is not necessarily a hot spice, but be aware that some varieties can add a little heat to a dish. The colour can be a good indicator of this, with lighter paprika offering quite a spicy taste while the red variety tends to be a lot more mellow.

WHERE CAN I FIND IT?
Everyday-style ground paprika is freely available in the supermarket and some Asian spice shops, but you'll probably have to visit a specialist food store for the more interesting varieties. It doesn't have a very long shelf life, so it pays to buy small quantities at a time. Keep paprika in airtight packaging in a cool dark place for up to six months.

WHAT CAN I USE INSTEAD?
A little turmeric mixed with just a tad of chilli powder will do the trick, unless you're attempting to create authentic Hungarian and Spanish dishes - in which case make the effort to track down the real thing.

GOT ANY GOOD RECIPES USING IT?
Good quality paprika will enhance many dishes; it can also be used as a garnish but it pays to remember that best results are obtained by cooking it first. However, it can be quite difficult to estimate the length of time required because if it's cooked for too long or at too high a temperature it can quickly turn bitter; but then the longer it's cooked, the more flavour is released. Just remember to taste, taste, taste!

Hungarian goulash is one of the most well-known recipes to utilise paprika but it's also great with fried eggs, chicken, fish and even pork.

Renée Lang is the editor of the New Zealand Guild of Food Writers' bi-monthly newsletter Pen & Palate. She also edits and publishes cookbooks under the Renaissance Publishing imprint.

Is there an ingredient you're confused by? Send us an email - be sure to put Secret Ingredient in the subject line - and we'll investigate it for you.


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