Paprika’s Red-Hot History
by Joan Nathan
Among the trendy ingredients today’s chefs are adding to their repertoires, paprika is the latest darling. Cooks either sprinkle the bright red spice—made of dried and ground red chili peppers—on top of their creations or swirl it with oil to add a crimson hue. I call it the Ottolenghi effect, in honor of Yotam Ottolenghi, the British-Israeli chef who set the culinary world aflame with his cookbook Jerusalem and expanded the flavors of the Middle Eastern palate, of which paprika is a crucial component. Whether in sweet or hot form, paprika has become one of the world’s most popular spices. Cooks are buying more than three and a half billion pounds a year, with the numbers rising.
My quest to learn more about this sudden spice starlet, found in cultures the world over, started last October at an Israeli moshav near Ashdod, where I traveled to witness the annual paprika harvest. My first impression was of color. The poppy-red field flush with chili peppers was a dramatic contrast to the tall, drab buildings of the city in the background. The brilliant red fruits (which resemble Anaheim chilis from California in size and shape) were being efficiently plucked by an American-made John Deere combine.
After a short drive from the fields to the Negev Spices factory, I watched the industrial production of sweet paprika. To my surprise, the entire process—from picking the peppers to bringing them to the nearby factory, to mechanically stemming, washing, drying, milling and placing them in barrels in cold storage—took only five hours, thus minimizing mold. (The hot desert climate of the Negev also helps.) If I couldn’t smell the peppers in the field, their fruity, vegetal smell permeated the factory.
Spices have a rich history in the Middle East: Thousands of years ago, not far from the Negev Spices factory, King Solomon built his Temple and sent scouts to search the then-known world by camel caravan and by ship for commodities such as cinnamon, cardamom, cassia and black pepper from the East Indies. These were valued for their fragrance, taste and health benefits such as male potency. Then, and for thousands of years afterwards, the chefs of the Old World added spices such as turmeric and saffron to enliven their food.
The chili pepper—known for its intense scarlet color and its heat—joined this proverbial melting pot with the discovery of the New World. “Indian Pepper is a very attractive ornamental plant, which may prove medically useful,” wrote Diego Álvarez Chanca, later Christopher Columbus’s ship physician, in a letter to a friend in 1484.
By 1650, this “Indian” pepper had journeyed to Spain and Turkey. Jewish traders embraced the pungent new spice along with other New World imports such as tomatoes and potatoes. Among them were the Mendes Benvenistis, a family that had moved to Ottoman Turkey because of the Inquisition. Although some traders were frightened that chilis—members of the nightshade family of flowering plants—were poisonous, Jewish merchants (who often had brothers who were physicians) knew they were edible. Eventually the peppers reached the Balkans, which were under Ottoman rule, and from there, Central Europe. Soon peppers were being cultivated in places such as the Danube Valley of Bulgaria and Hungary.
By the 19th century, New World peppers were fully integrated into the cooking of the Old World: as pimentón, a smoked powder, in Spain; red bell pepper in Turkey and North Africa; and sweet paprika in Hungary. According to the late George Lang, in his classic book, The Cuisine of Hungary, paprika was “a delightful fringe benefit of Columbus’ discovery of America.”
Hungarians, in particular, were drawn to its zesty flavor. In towns such as Kalocsa, Hungary, farmers hung the peppers on strings to dry, then manually ground them. After the Industrial Revolution, the arduous process of turning pepper into paprika was mechanized, and the Hungarian city of Szeged became the center of the industry. Cheaper than black pepper, paprika became a popular ingredient for home cooks.
When Hungarians immigrated to New York, they brought with them, along with their brass candlesticks and mortars and pestles, sacks and tins of paprika. Many—Jewish and gentile—settled in the Yorkville section of New York City, where they opened restaurants and Jewish bakeries such as the legendary Mrs. Herbst’s on Third Avenue. Through these eateries, Hungarians introduced Americans to the delights of Dobos torte sponge cake and cabbage strudels as well as chicken paprikash, goulash and cucumber salads infused with paprika.
Hungarian Jews also moved to Israel, where they literally sprinkled the seeds of their beloved chili peppers. Beny Galim, a farmer at moshav Nir Galim, told me about an immigrant in the 1950s who brought seeds from his hometown to plant so that he could still prepare the foods of his childhood such as leczo, a thick vegetable ragout similar to shakshuka, an originally North African dish of eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, chili peppers and onions.
In the 1970s, Isaac Samuel, a Romanian-born American spice merchant with the Baltimore-based Elite Spice company, went to Israel with his brother Anton to try to help develop an industrial source for oregano, basil and paprika. Working with agronomists and scientists at the Vulcani Institute, they created a variety of paprika called shalhevet, which is sweet and of medium to high color. Together with four kibbutzim, they founded Negev Spices in 1987 to grow dill, spinach, cilantro, parsley and, of course, paprika for export. Thanks to the dry, hot air, good soil and Israeli drip-irrigation technology, the company produces 6,000 tons of sweet paprika annually.
When I left Israel, I lugged a big bag of paprika home to Washington, DC, where at my first opportunity, I made leczo, using hot dogs instead of eggs in the center. My next task as a food historian is to figure out if it is just a coincidence that leczo and shakshuka are so much alike. Certainly, both dishes taste better when sprinkled with paprika.
2 medium onions, chopped
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 large green peppers, chopped
1 tablespoon hot paprika or to taste
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
3 large ripe tomatoes, chopped, or 1 16-ounce can tomatoes with the juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
½ teaspoon caraway seeds (optional)
4 kosher hot dogs or 6 slices kosher salami, diced
2 large eggs (optional)
1. In a large frying pan sauté the onions in the vegetable oil until limp.
2. Add the peppers and sauté, mixing well until softened and the onions are slightly golden.
3. Add the paprika and stir for a few minutes. Add the tomatoes and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for about 10 minutes. Add the salt and pepper plus the caraway seeds.
4. In a saucepan boil the hot dogs in water to cover for 5 minutes. Cool under cold water, slice to ¼-inch rounds, and add to the vegetable mixture.
Return to a simmer and mix well, cooking for about 5 minutes more. You can do this ahead of time.
5. Beat the eggs well. Bring the leczo to a simmer and add the eggs, stirring constantly so that the eggs do not curdle.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings as an appetizer or a main course.