Paprika (Capsicum annuum L.)

The bright red colour of ground paprika is a remaining impression for everyone who has had an opportunity to visit marketplaces (Arabic suq [سوق], Persian bazar [بازار]) somewhere in the area from Morocco to Turkey to Iraq to Northern India. In these regions, the spice is equally valued for taste as for colour. Its subtle, sweet flavour is compatible with hot and spicy dishes, but also mild stews profit greatly from it. Since paprika contains significant amounts of sugar, it must not be overheated, as the sugar will quickly turn bitter. Frying paprika powder in hot oil is therefore a critical procedure that must last no longer than a few seconds.

A spice mixture from Central Asia employing paprika is baharat, a fiery composition from the countries around the Gulf of Persia. The Arabic word bararat [بهارات] is an archaic plural to bahar [بهار] «spice» and thus means «the spices» so the bararat blend is just «the (canonical) spice mixture». As many other mixtures from Arabic-influenced cuisines (see grains of paradise on Tunisian gâlat dagga, cubeb pepper on Moroccan ras el hanout and long pepper on Ethiopian berbere), baharat contains both pungent and aromatic spices: black pepper, chiles and paprika provide a pungent background and nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom contribute aromatic flavour; the mixture furthermore contains cumin and coriander fruits, all of which are ground to a fine powder. Baharat is mainly used for mutton dishes; most commonly, the mixture is shortly fried in oil or clarified butter to intensify the fragrance.

In Europe, especially Hungary and the Balkan countries are known for much paprika consumption, less so the Mediterranean countries, although some Spanish cultivars are famed (e. g., romesco). Even in those European countries where hot chiles are disliked, mild paprika types are valued as spice and especially popular for stewed or barbecued meat and sausages. Paprika appears very frequently in commercial spice mixtures.

It is not fully clear how the paprika arrived in Hungary, but there is no doubt that the fruits were brought by the Turks in the 17. th century, who might have encountered them before in Portuguese settlements in Central Asia. Anyway, paprika became quickly naturalized and has since proved an important flavour in Hungarian cuisine. Still, some of the best paprika cultivars in Europe are found in Hungary. An example is the cherry paprika («cherry pepper», cseresznyepaprika), which has medium pungency (well, enough for most Europeans) but an excellent flavour. This is one of the few non-American paprika cultivars that can rival with Mesoamerican, particularly Mexican, varieties. Cherry paprika can be dried and ground to a rather piquant paprika powder, but in Hungary it is also eaten fresh and served as a kind of table condiment. Lastly, it is very good pickled.

In Hungarian cuisine, different grades of paprika of varying pungency are used. There are four basic grades: különleges (special paprika), csemege (delicatesse paprika), édesnemes (sweet and noble paprika) and rózsa (rose paprika). Other than in México, these grades do not stem from distinct paprika cultivars. The differences entirely come from the degree of ripeness at harvest time and selection of pods by size; a chief point accounting for the differences in pungency, colour and flavour is the proportion of mesocarp (fruit wall), placenta and seeds which are ground together. Különleges consists only of selected mesocarps of fully ripe harvested, flawless paprika fruits; it has a mild, delicate flavour, no pungency and a bright red colour. In the more common grade csemege, the paprika flavour is stronger, but it is still almost non-pungent. Édes-nemes has a subtle pungency, and rózsa is a piquant product with still good paprika flavour, but markedly reduced colour; for its production, the fruits may be plucked in a partially ripened state and be subject to an artificial ripening process. Rózsa is the grade most often available in other countries.

To produce the milder grades, one needs much mesocarp, but only little veins, placenta and seeds. The excess material is then ground to yield a hot paprika powder (csípős) of orange-brown colour and poor flavour; it is almost as pungent as common chile powders, e. g., cayenne pepper. In some literature, additional grades between rózsa and csípős are mentioned (gulyás, erős).

The Hungarian «national dish» is gulyás, which basically means «cattleman», and is also used to name the cattleman’s favourite food: a thick and spicy soup made from beef, varying vegetables (potatoes, carrots) and a particular type of pasta. To get the right flavour and colour, chopped onions are lightly fried in pig’s lard; when the onions take a pale yellow colour, paprika powder is stirred in and fried for a few more seconds before the remaining ingredients are added. It is the art of goulash making to fry the paprika powder as long as possible (to bring out its flavour), but stop the frying before it turns bitter (which may happen very quickly).

This food has been much copied but also bastardized in the cooking of other European countries; the «internationalized» versions (goulash) are often stews, not soups, made of beef or pork in a thick sauce made from onions and paprika powder. In Austria, often caraway is used for the seasoning. In Hungary, such a dish would not be called a gulyás but a pörkölt; a pörkölt with sour cream added is a paprikás (pronounced paprikash). Another well-known Hungarian food is lecsó, a tasty stew from nonpungent capsicum vegetable, tomatoes, garlic (which has no place in gulyás!) and sometimes smoked bacon. Lecsó is flavoured with hot paprika. A similar vegetable stew in Croatia is called đuveč. Capsicum annuum: European pointed chile variety Eastern European paprika

Nonpungent paprika types grown as a vegetable (often called bell pepper in English, although they aren’t peppery at all) are an Eastern European invention, probably from Bulgaria. They arose quite lately, at the end of the 19. th century, and have become a popular food all over the world since then.

Although chile and paprika do not stem from Central America, the art of their cultivation has reached its highest peak in México. In México, the species Capsicum annuum is grown almost exclusively; it is unique among all Capsicum species because there are both pungent and mild cultivars. See chile for a discussion of the other species.

It is often speculated that the variety called tepín or chiltepín (chilctepín, «flea chile», C. annuum var. aviculare or C. annuum var. glabrisculum), which grows wild in the North Mexican desert (Sonora) and also in parts of the USA (Texas), might have been put to cultivation by an ancient Mexican people and has, thus, become the actual ancestor of all cultivated C. annuum varieties. By this line of reasoning, the chiltepín would be the ancestor of most of today’s chile and paprika cultivars grown on all continents with the sole exception of Southern America, where still today botanically different species dominate (see chile for details).

It is, however, difficult to explain (i) how the chiltepín could have travelled from its diversification locus (Amazon basin) that far into the North without human help, and (ii) why all early records of chile cultivation point to Central and Southern México, never to the North. So the chiltepín is more probably a cultivar that has escaped back into the wild, not an original wild form. The chiltepín is quite hot and can be fiercely hot; it is much used for North Mexican cuisine and has quite recently established itself on the US market, fueled by the large number of Mexican immigrants and the general interest in Mexican and other spicy food. It should be noticed that the tepín is still a wild plant, and the entire crop is collected from the wild. So far, all attempts for cultivation in commercial scale have failed.

In México, there exists a continuous spectrum of paprika pods, from the very mild to the very hot. Confusingly, all of them are usually referred to as chiles, and indeed they are all one botanical species (with the exception of habanero-type chiles in Yucatán, which belong to species Capsicum chinense). This situation contrasts with what is found in other countries, where only hot («chile») and mild («paprika») types are known, but no intermediates. To keep the terminology consistent, I will deviate from established literature and not use the term chile for mild varieties, but stick to the name paprika for all mild to medium hot Mexican chiles. The border between those two terms is somewhat arbitrary: I will fix it just above jalapeño level.

Mexican chiles and paprika are known and identified by their local names. The smallest of these are just one or two centimeters long: Besides the above-mentioned tepín, there is a whole class of cultivars called pequín or piquin with small, elongated and quite hot fruits. Then, there are types with long, pointed fruit which are of biting heat, e. g., the chile de arbol. On the other side of the spectrum, there are large-fruited varieties with pods larger than 15 centimeters: Anaheim, chilaca, poblano, and New Mexico.

Mexican cooks often use several varieties of fresh and/or dried chiles/paprikas for one recipe, because their chief goal in chile usage is not so much heat but flavour, which varies strongly between the different varieties. The resulting flavours are very characteristic and cannot be found in any other cooking style.

Some of the Mexican capsicum cultivars are rather large, thick-fleshed and show only low heat. One of the most popular varieties is the poblano, whose large size (up to 12 cm long and 7 cm broad) and moderate heat make it even possible to use it as a vegetable: The famous recipe chiles rellenos consists of red or green poblanos stuffed with cheese, which are dipped in batter, deep-fried and served with a tomato sauce. Poblanos and other thick-fleshed varieties cannot simply be dried, but must be roasted and peeled or smoked before using. According to the exact drying procedure, the same capsicum cultivar may be sold under different names; e. g., a dried poblano may be an ancho or a mulato. Dried capsicum mostly stems from ripe fruits, whereas fresh ripe capsicum is often hard to obtain because of short shelf life.

Much of the secrets of Mexican cookery lies in the properties of dried capsicum. Roasting enhances the natural aroma of paprika, smoking may add new accents and given the multitude of different cultivars, a Mexican cook has almost unlimited possibilities to make his choice from. Salsas (see long coriander) may be made from either fresh or dried capsicum, or both. For sauces whose preparation involves long simmering periods, dried capsicums are unanimously preferred.

Often, the dried capsicums are roasted again and rehydrated in hot (but not boiling) water before usage. After soaking, the chiles are then ground and fried in oil or lard till they form a thick, dark brown paste with intensive flavour. Though somewhat time- and labour-intensive, this procedure alone brings out the best flavour from the dried paprikas/chiles. In such recipes, mild varieties (like ancho, mulato and pasilla, which are often referred to as «the holy trinity») are commonly combined with less aromatic, but more pungent cultivars like the de arbol or the smoky chipotle. The results are often phantastic.

One of the best known Mexican variety is the jalapeño, named after Jalapa (or Xalapa), the capital of the union state of Veracruz in South Eastern México. Jalapeños don’t have a particularly characteristic taste, but are more pungent than the former-mentioned varieties with large fruits (though still much milder than typical South American or Asian chiles). Jalapeños are usually eaten still unripe (green), and in the fresh state; very often, they are coarsely chopped (optionally deseeded) and used to pep up salsas (see also long coriander) or just sprinkled over foods on the table. They derive their attraction not so much from the taste, which is somehow «green» and immature, or their medium pungency, but rather from their crispy texture which sets interesting accents especially in salsa or guacamole.

The serrano chile is in both shape and flavour similar to the jalapeño, yet it is much smaller and also more pungent, reaching almost the heat level of a green Thai chile. Serranos (the name means «mountain chile») are typical for rural Mexican cooking where they often replace the milder jalapeños.

It is difficult to dry ripe, perishable fruits, especially fleshy ones like jalapeños which rot quicker than they dry. To preserve ripe chiles, Mexican Indians have developed a smoking procedure that yields products of unique culinary value. Dried chiles are a very special flavouring, typical for Central America, and impart an incomparable, warm-spicy-smoky flavour to the foods.

The term chipotle in principle may denote any smoked chile, as Náhuatl poctli just means «smoke». Yet this name has now come to mean smoked jalapeños almost exclusively. To produce chipotles, one starts with ripe red jalapeños and smokes them slowly for up to two days; commonly, pecan or hickory wood are used, though some believe that the best chipotles are made with mesquite smoke. The final smoked chiles combine good paprika aroma, significant heat and intense smoke flavour, all of which make them an indispensable ingredient for the indigenous cuisines of México, especially Central México. Moreover, chipotles have become very popular in the USA and are a key factor for the cooking style of the South West states (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona), as they provide a delicious balance of heat and smoky flavour.

Chipotles may be used in the same way as anchos or mulatos, i. e., rehydrated, puréed and fried, which yields very spicy products. More commonly, they are just steeped in sauces or used in the powdered form. Ground chipotles are an excellent last-minute seasoning. Chipotles en adobo are whole chipotles stewed in a thin, well-seasoned tomato sauce; they may be used as a snack or garnish for those who can stand them, or used as a flavouring for other foods. Together with the adobo liquid, they can be processed into a puree to yield a very flavourful dip.

Mexican mole sauces are very complex mixtures of several different capsicum cultivars plus a large variety of other ingredients; preparation takes quite a time, in some cases even days. Most moles call for dried chiles. Oaxaca, a province in Central México, is regarded the home of these sauces: In Oaxaca, seven classical recipes (los siete moles) are traded from generation to generation.

Most moles contain different kinds of nuts and seeds, which add body, furthermore spices like cinnamon and allspice, dried fruits and aromatic vegetables (tomatoes, tomatillos). Corn flour (masa harina) or dried tortillas are used to thicken. It is essential to select the proper chiles: For example, mole negro («black mole») needs the costly and rare chilhuacle negro, but mole amarillo («yellow mole») is prepared with fresh güero chiles, a pale green and less aromatic variety. The most famous recipe is mole rojo («red mole», also known as mole Poblano) which is flavoured using the «holy trinity», i. e., ancho, mulato and pasilla; see sesame for details. Another concoction, green mole (mole verde), owes its particular flavour to Mexican pepper-leaves and fresh green jalapeño chiles.

by the courtesy of Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages