Paprika – the travelling spice’s story

Paprika Peppers

Food and travel are inseparable. Recently I made one of my favourite dishes of the moment – paprika pork chops, this got me wondering about this incredible spice with it’s aromatic flavour and deep, rich colour – a spice synonymous with Hungary. Where does it come from? How did it end up in my kitchen and in my food? Here is a retracing of its journey.

Bell Peppers – the hollow fruit from the New World

Central AmericaFrom my reading it seems that this spice brought a massive awakening in cooking styles and flavours to Europe around the 1700’s, previously one could expect local herbs and at most salt and pepper added to food to add some interest. When Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, Europeans became unwilling or unable to reach India via the old spice and silk routes which went via that city. New routes had to be found, starting with voyages round the Cape of Good Hope and ultimately West (the other way round) towards India which led to Christopher Columbus discovering America which he mistook for being the East Indies. Long story short, Europeans pillaged and eventually colonised all of Central and South America, home to a bizarre-looking air-filled fruit, capsicum annuum – the bell pepper.

The misnomer of pepper and a problem of geography

Europe Spain HungaryThese peppers, as we know today, have a massive range in shapes, colours and ultimately, flavours. They first made their way back to Spain with Columbus who referred to them as pimiento, Spanish for the common spice made from ground peppercorns, they were used to decorate European gardens. Eventually the flavoursome nature of the spice, still grown today in Spain, became known and added new dimensions to European cooking for centuries to come. But how on Earth did it get to Hungary? One would think that it made its way over through trade with Spain, the problem is, Hungary had never been a seafaring nation, landlocked in central Europe, it never had any way to connect with Spain.

Help from the East

Europe TradeThe answer is rather bizarre, the spice didn’t come to Hungary from the West, but from the East – the Ottoman Empire. This vast and ancient empire controlled most of the Middle East and Eastern Europe at one point or another, but more importantly, it controlled trade routes. Not content with controlling traffic merely via the land routes through former Contantinople, they traded with almost every country in Europe including Germany, Britain and Sweden, almost every country I say, because they did not trade with Spain. Spain and the Ottoman Empire did not see eye to eye on many things, especially issues like religious tolerance for which the Ottomans were well known to be champions of and the Spanish, quite the opposite, actively persecuting, torturing and murdering religious minorities.

Paprika invades

But I digress. The fact of the matter is that the Ottoman court held good relations with many European monarchies over time, who in turn had relations with Spain. They traded amongst other things, decorative plants, like tulips to the Netherlands and no doubt must have picked up a paprika plant or two from royal courts on the continent during trade expeditions. These, it brought back to Turkey to be grown there and must surely have noticed it’s value as a spice, even if the Central Europeans hadn’t. So taken aback by this spice were they, the Ottomans took it wherever they went to season their food, they used it particularly when invading Europe – countries like Bulgaria, Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia and most importantly, Hungary.

The poor, the patrons of spice

During the times in which the Ottoman Empire occupied these Eastern European countries, much of the population became accustomed to Turkish culture, from religion, to language, to hygiene and to Turkish food. The majority of this was taken on by those least able to sustain themselves or resist, the countries’ poor, the ruling monarchies of Hungary were killed or fled the country to neighbouring Austria. When eventually the Ottomans were defeated, the Austrian monarchies returned to govern Hungary in the Kingdom of Austria-Hungary, bringing with them, their boring food.

The rich, the proprietors of spice

Somewhere along the line, the local rich and elite must have noticed that peasant food (for example goulash) tasted much better than the boring food they had become accustomed to in their courts. Eventually land owners cultivated the Paprika bell-pepper and began adding it to their own dishes. Soon Hungarian food became synonymous with flavoursome, rich and delicious dishes across Europe, with recipes and ingredients finding their way into ordinary households which in turn emigrated to new world countries and colonies ensuring my little bottle of Paprika spice was sprinkled on my pork chops last night. This has to be one of the most travelled spices on Earth and goes to prove, food and travel are inseparable!

What a journey! Check out the video recipe for Hungarian Goulash!

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Our Readers Comments

  1. What a great story nic

    Coming from a half hungrian background where we had paprika in bloody everything i thought i knew all about the red gold. But litle did i know.
    Thanks for sharing

  2. Who would have though that something, as simple as that little bottle of paprika in your pantry, would have such a rich history.

    Keep the food and travel stories coming

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