Paprika: Just a Pile of Dust?

She Said:

I’ve been making up excuses for not going to Barcelona for quite a long time.

See, years ago, when my husband, E, always the wanderlust, initially suggested we take off to Barcelona for a long weekend, I was all for it. Culture. Nightlife. Beach.

Then he started regaling me with tales of how he wanted us to go from bar to bar ordering pulpo a la Gallega, octopus tossed with olive oil and sprinkled with paprika. Two octopus-eating fools in love.

Let’s be clear about a couple things. I love pulpo. I loathe paprika.

And I’ve been stalling ever since.

I’ve never understood paprika. When I was a kid, it was the most commonly reached-for Schilling’s spice tin in my mom’s pantry—unless you counted granulated garlic or dehydrated onion flakes. The container, with its mounds of powder that had accumulated like rust-colored snow drifts around the slightly raised holes on its lid, was a constant presence in her cooking. Nothing, it seemed to her, fancied up something like a little—or a lot—of paprika.

I can still see her tipping the dented tin and tapping it in measured fashion with her fingertip. And I can still hear that relentless dull thud as it echoed in my ears. Each time I’d cringe inwardly. Casseroles. Tap. Tap. Tap. Baked potatoes. Tap. Tap. Tap. Not even corn on the cob was safe from the slightly spicy dust that made me sneeze. Tap. Tap. Tap.

Paprika has never seemed exotic to me in the same way as Aleppo or Szechuan peppercorns, which rightfully inspire comparisons to frankincense and myrrh in terms of value. Paprika seemed the kitchen incarnation of our similarly colored shag carpeting in the living room, which I confess I also loathed. Actually, the spice sort of tasted like I imagined that carpeting would, too, with something of a stale stuffiness that, to me, seemed dusty. And pointless.

A couple of decades of life experience beyond that farmhouse kitchen with the faded linoleum haven’t persuaded me to the contrary. Ignoring paprika’s existence proved to be of little consequence for quite some time and, I’d assumed, for the rest of my years. And then E came along. Back when the dollar was being trounced by the euro, my excuse for staying stateside was easy. But lately I’ve been running out of reasons. And because life—and marriage—is full of compromise, Barcelona is currently situated squarely at the top of our travel list. I can’t imagine going to Barcelona and being the sort of annoying American who orders octopus, hold the paprika. Yet I may not be above politely asking for pulpo a la Gallega, sin pimentón, por favor. 

renee Schettler Rossi's signature

He Said:

Renee, Renee, Renee (shaking head). Paprika is mother’s milk to me. There’s nary a dish my mother, grandmother, and aunts have made that didn’t contain anywhere from a pinch to a punch of the ruddy-red spice. And in honor of you, the very first dish I ordered at Miguelitos, a tapas bar here in Barcelona, was pulpo a la Gallega. The One and I clinked forks then dug in, and we loved it.

Now granted, paprika—especially the sweet kind—isn’t jam-packed with flavor. No, it doesn’t deliver the musky wallop of cumin or the fiery heat of the look-alike spice, cayenne. But my grandmother always considered paprika to be the “lipstick of the dish.” It adds a bit color to anything it touches. Avó Costa used to make a chicken and rice soup that had just a tinge of pink to it—pink being her favorite color. To this day, none of us can figure out exactly how she got the soup to blush. (So in love with the color was she, that she had a straight-sided hat covered with the tiniest pink rosebuds knotted out of straw. And she wore that to church every Sunday—looking as if she had a marvelous pink-frosted cake on her head.)

But Vovó didn’t just paint with paprika, she understood its subtleties. She knew that besides the traditional sweet and hot paprika that we all find in dusty tins on the supermarket shelf, there was an entire spectrum of the spice, from barely there to piquant. And she knew how to coax the flavor—and color—out of each type.

For example, when I was a kid, she’d fry up my aunt’s chouriço—pork sausage my aunt would pack with garlic and paprika—in oil. She’d strain the used oil into a large bottle she kept under the sink until she had enough. Then she’d ceremoniously slice up a pile of potatoes into fat fries and dump them in the orange oil. As the fries spat at her, she’d call upstairs to my cousins Barry and Wayne and me, “Sheeps! Sheeps!”—her accent mangling the word chips. We bolted into her apartment and scraped her kitchen chairs into place while she heaped the fries onto our plates. There we sat, all four of us, we three devouring the luscious, fat, rusty-colored fries, and Vovó, her chin cupped in her palm watching, smiling.

If that’s not an argument for the proliferation and preservation of this quiet, shy spice, nothing is.

While here in gorgeous Barcelona, I’ve of course enjoyed pimentón—smoked paprika—another of Iberia’s greatest gifts (along with Avó Costa). One look at the love affair we Americans have been having with pimentón the past decade is all it takes. Back home, I’ve had it sprinkled on everything from apricot purée (a revelation) to chocolate (not such a revelation). Bottom line: we love paprika.

So buck up and face your fears. Book passage to Barcelona and begin an indiscriminate, torrid affair. I’m sure E wouldn’t mind.

David Leite's signature

What about you, darlings? Where are you on the paprika spectrum?

Are you a paprika lover or loather? Let us know in the comments below.

Comments

  1. I’d have to agree with David’s comment about paprika being “common” however my mother only seemed to use it on deviled eggs. Why, I have no idea, but her favorite spice seemed to be garlic..and salt. It wasn’t until I was on my own and tired of the “same old dishes” that I became aware of the cornucopia that herbs and spices bring to the table. (yes, pun intended…lol)

    Upon reading everyone’s comments about paprika though…I believe a reevaluation of this beautifully colored spice is long overdue. Thanks everyone for sharing!

  2. I always had a plain-Jane container of paprika in my spice collection. Growing up, Mom only used it to “color” white fish fillets that she broiled in butter. Then I got busy creating in my own kitchen and eventually graduated to hot Hungarian and sweet paprikas. Loved both of them and had to replenish them often. But the day I brought home the tin of smoked Spanish paprika was the day my cooking was set free! LOVE IT! There’s really nothing like it, for everything from paella to creating custom rubs for grilling.

    1. I know those colored fish fillets well, Carol, with the rust sprinkles becoming smudged and slightly streaky as the fish baked. Appreciate how you explain your cooking being set free by the smoked Spanish stuff. Inspiring, indeed…

  3. I guess I have only had the “decorative” kind (aka what’s found on deviled eggs). It reminds me of the 70’s, but I’m willing to give it a second look.

      1. Smoked sweet paprika is an obsession of mine. Whenever I travel I pick some up so I have quite a collection. David, your Amped-Up Red Pepper Paste is incredible. I just made another batch and am using it on roasted potatoes this evening. It makes me happy to see the jar in the fridge and even happier to devour it. Truly amazing stuff! Cannot wait to try it on roast chicken this weekend as you recommend.

  4. Gee, Renee… Looks like you might be going to Barcelona “CON pimentón” in the not-too-distant future, if David and those who have commented so far have any influence. But to toss in a few words of support… I love your sensory memories of the (clearly inferior and ubiquitous) boxed version of paprika you grew up with. If we had paprika in our kitchen when I was a kid (and we usually did not) it was the same exact type—and I never got it, either.

    But happily, as David and others point out, I don’t have to get it; there are clearly many other, more seductive varieties. This article is inspiring me to trash the tired container of paprika currently in my cupboard, and go in search of something fresher, smokier, and more alive.

  5. I Love Hungarian Chicken Paprikas! I remember there used to be a Hungarian Store in NYC called Paprikas Weiss on Second ave and Eighty Second street that carried So Many great varieties of Paprika. The Stuff from Szeged was the Best! I know there are few other Hungarian shops in that area that have a good variety.

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