As a little girl, I was a very picky eater, wary, suspicious and precise in my preferences, which have not changed all that much. Sweet watermelon, backyard tomatoes, Dungeness crab and rare meat remain among my favorite foods today, just as they were when I first discovered the pleasures they conveyed.
There have been changes, though, some that came from within as my palate matured and some that came when what was available simply got better. Paprika is a good example.
My mother sprinkled it on deviled eggs and cottage cheese and when I protested she told me it was just for color, that it had no taste. It did have a taste, I insisted, but it was more like dust than food. I didn't see the point and scraped it off when I could.
This was the paprika Americans knew for decades and it was, for the most part, used to add color atop pale foods.
Now we have a huge array of flavorful paprikas and other similar ground chilies. There are local ones in our farmers markets. Some markets now have spice vendors, too, who import high-quality organic spices and ground chilies.
Excellent Hungarian paprika is readily available in almost any good supermarket and specialty shop. Penzeys Spices has two varieties of Hungarian paprika and one California paprika, which is sweet and mild.
Stores like the Spanish Table have excellent Spanish pimenton, available both online (spanishtable.com) and at their stores, two of which are in the Bay Area, one in Berkeley and one in Mill Valley.
Now that we have good paprika, let's take a minute to consider what it actually is.
It is not, as many believe, simply a kind of chili; it is a seasoning made in a range of different chili blends. Hungarian paprika is probably the most universally recognized and over centuries farmers there have perfected several dozen varieties that provide the unique flavor they want. Yet the name itself does not refer to any fresh chili but to the ground version, which has a place on tables in Hungary alongside salt and pepper.
"Paprika" comes from the Hungarian "paparka," a variation of the Bulgarian "piperka." Trace it back a bit further, and you end up with "piper," the Latin term for pepper.
How exactly did a chili, a New World plant, end up being a signature spice in Eastern Europe? There is much speculation -#8212; some researchers say it was introduced by Turks, others name Italians as the source -#8212; and books have been written on the topic. It is an intriguing trail to explore if you are interested in culinary history.
If you simply love the range of flavors of paprika and other dried and ground chilies, it may be enough to know that they are now easily available, though I say this with one proviso. The last time I was in Spain, I brought home Campeador pimenton, a brand I found in a small shop somewhere west of Barcelona. Both the sweet and the hot versions have a depth of flavor I've not found in other brands, but so far I've not found a domestic source for it.
Traditional Hungarian paprikash is served with dumplings. But I prefer something lighter, roasted new potatoes, perhaps, or tender fresh pappardelle. For full flavor, you must use the very best Hungarian paprika or Spanish pimenton available.