To understand Hungarian cuisine, it is important to understand the travels of Hungary’s largest ethnic group, the historically nomadic Magyars. The Magyar people’s origins have been traced as far back as the year 2000 BCE, when a group of Uralic-speaking people began to split from the rest of their people and occupied the southern Ural Mountains region, in what today is Kazakhstan. Between the fourth and eighth centuries the group moved over the Urals into today’s Ukraine and southwest Russia. Around the beginning of the tenth century they moved into the region that today is called Hungary and have been there ever since.
Hungary quick facts:
- Capital: Budapest
- Population: 9,879,000 (2014 estimate)
- Notable Hungarians: Zsa Zsa Gabor, Eva Gabor, Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre, Erno Rubik (the cube guy), Tibor at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant
All the wandering the Magyars have done over the centuries is reflected in their food. One-pot stews, which can be made in a cauldron hanging over a campfire, featured meat or fish, vegetables when in season, and grains or dumplings. Hungarian food is among the most heavily spiced in Europe, no doubt a result of interaction with Middle Eastern peoples. Ottoman Turks occupied Hungary for much of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, introducing the most important Hungarian spice of all: paprika.
George Lang, author of the preeminent English-language work on Hungarian cookery The Cuisine of Hungary, writes:
There is something about paprika itself that makes it synonymous with “Hungarian.” “Fiery,” “spicy,” “temperamental”–all these adjectives suggest both paprika and the Hungarian national character. Paprika is to the Hungarian cuisine what wit is to its conversation–not just a superficial garnish, but an integral element, a very special and unique flavor instantly recognizable.
Paprika is the defining element of many of Hungary’s most famous dishes, including chicken paprikash (recipe follows) and goulash. Hungary’s climate and soil conditions produce nearly ideal conditions for growing the peppers that end up as paprika, and their products are considered the envy of the paprika industry.
All paprika is made from hot chilies, and the piquancy level of the finished spice is dependent on how much of the interior pith (which contains almost all the capsaicin, the chemical compound responsible for spicy flavor) is left attached to the fruit of the pepper before drying and grinding. Hungarians love the entire paprika spectrum, from fully hot (all the pith left intact) to “sweet,” or mild (with all pith removed). Hot paprika is difficult to find in the United States, but the sweet variety is a part of nearly every home’s spice rack.
Paprikás csirke showcases paprika perhaps more than any other Hungarian dish (there’s a reason it’s called “paprika chicken” and not “chicken with a little bit of paprika”). Chicken pieces are braised in a brick-red sauce made simply from onions, tomatoes, and of course paprika, then finished with a bit of sour cream. Hungarians use lard as a cooking fat almost exclusively, but we opted for the lighter vegetable oil. With the sour cream whisked into the sauce at the end, the lard was not missed. Otherwise we stayed true to George Lang’s version.
adapted from The Cuisine of Hungary by George Lang
- 2 Tbs vegetable oil
- 2 medium yellow onions, diced
- 4 chicken thighs, skin removed
- 2 medium tomatoes, peeled and diced
- 1/4 cup paprika (if that seems like too much, use four tablespoons instead)
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 Anaheim pepper, seeded and sliced thinly
- 1/4 cup sour cream
- 1 Tbs flour
- 2 Tbs heavy cream
- Galuska, Hungarian egg dumplings, for serving (recipe follows). Spaetzle, rice, egg noodles, or boiled potatoes would be decent alternatives.
First, the oil was heated in our Dutch oven over medium-low heat, and once hot we added the onions:
The onions were cooked, stirring occasionally, for about twenty minutes until fully softened and just starting to change color but not yet browned:
Since we had some idle time while the onions cooked, we took the opportunity to peel our tomatoes. Tomato peeling is done with science, not any kind of specialized peeler. First, a saucepan full of water was brought to a boil. While the water was heating up, we prepared our tomatoes, gauging out the stem nub and cutting a crisscross slit in the opposite end with a paring knife:
Once the water was boiling, the tomatoes were dropped in:
…and fished out the moment the skin showed any sign of splitting or blistering, about thirty seconds later:
If we were going to use the tomatoes in a cold, fresh preparation they would now be dunked in an ice bath to halt the cooking process, but since we were using ours in a braise we didn’t need that additional step.
To peel, we grasped one of the corners of our crisscross slits between the edge of the paring knife and our thumb:
…and gently peeled away just the skin, leaving behind all the good tomato pulp:
The whole process took about two minutes (which included photography time), so if you don’t want bits of tomato skin getting stuck between your teeth it is worth the minmal effort required to eliminate them.
Back to our paprikás, after the onions were softened we were ready to add the chicken and tomato:
Everything was stirred together and cooked, covered, for ten minutes, ready for the addition of the paprika, cayenne pepper, one-quarter cup of water, and the salt:
The sauce was stirred together, making sure to coat the chicken pieces completely in the process. The lid was put back on the Dutch oven, the heat turned down to the lowest setting, and the chicken was gently simmered for about thirty minutes:
Our paprikás was ready for the first introduction of sour cream. The flour was stirred into the sour cream until fully combined and no lumps remained:
The chicken pieces were removed to a plate temporarily in order to mix the sour cream and flour into the sauce:
…then returned to their rightful perch, nestled into our rich paprika gravy. The peppers were stirred in at this point:
…and our paprikás was simmered another half hour. The low heat is especially important once the sour cream has been added in order to avoid curdling. Chunks of cheese curds = bad; smooth sauce = good.
Once the chicken was done, we lined a large serving bowl with some freshly made galuska:
…and placed our chicken pieces in the center:
To finally finish our sauce, the cream was stirred in with the pot completely off the heat entirely to avoid curdling:
The sauce was poured over the top of the chicken pieces. Taking a serving suggestion Lang describes as “gilding the lily,” we drizzled some extra sour cream thinned with a little heavy cream over everything:
We aren’t sure if either of us has ever had a dish that more prominently showcased one spice. The paprika’s smokiness and sweetness were highlighted, and the bitterness was tempered by all that cream. The galuskas were a nice canvas on which to present the dish, with a crispy, airy texture and neutral flavor that balanced the in-your-face nature of the paprikás.
adapted from George Lang’s The Cuisine of Hungary
- 1 egg
- 1 Tbs vegetable oil
- 1/3 c water
- 1 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
First, all the ingredients were unceremoniously dumped into a mixing bowl:
…and mixed only until just combined:
While we were preparing the dough a pot of salted water wat brought to a boil. Using a teaspoon, small pieces of dough were broken off:
…and dropped into the boiling water, dipping the end of the spoon in as well to prevent sticking with subsequent galuskas:
Once all the dumplings were made and dropped into the water:
…it was only a matter of a couple of minutes before they were floating at the top and were fully cooked:
The galuskas were immediately set in a strainer to drain and left for about ten minutes:
Phase two of the cooking would be frying. Two more tablespoons of oil were heated in a nonstick pan over medium heat, and once hot the dumplings were added:
Stirring frequently, the galuskas were fried until crispy all over, about five minutes: