Seasonal Pantry: The obscure origins of paprika

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.

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