Not long ago the Hungarian government banned the sale of paprika marketed by three local companies because it was found to have been adulterated with a South American strain of a spice that might prove dangerous. Subsequently, seven senior members of the three companies were indicted.
The resulting scandal demonstrated that in Hungary they take their paprika seriously. Just as seriously as the Italians take their pasta, the Japanese take their rice or the English their tea.
Indeed Hungarians find nothing unusual in the fact that a prominent Hungarian scientist once won the Nobel prize for research on the substance. He discovered, by the way, that it contains more Vitamin C than oranges.
Just how seriously Hungarians take their paprika was driven home to me recently when I stepped into Budapest's vast central market hall located in the heart of the city just up from the banks of the Danube. At every turn there is paprika in just about every form from fresh to dry to powdered. And in almost every kind of packaging from bright colorful tins to ceramic jars to burlap sacks both large and small and in at least a half-dozen different varieties between sweet and hot. It doesn't take long in this environment to realize how important paprika is to Hungarians. It is the defining feature of their cuisine. It is, in fact, their national spice.
The irony is that despite the indelible link between paprika and Hungarian cooking, the spice is not native to Hungary. The red pepper plant from which it is made is actually a New World food unknown in Europe before Columbus made his voyages. The first pepper plants did not even arrive in Hungary until some time in the 17th Century. But once the Hungarians got hold of the stuff, they made it their own. Using it to create the essential technique of Hungarian dishes called goulash and reminding us in the process that paprika can do far more than garnish potato salad or deviled eggs.