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 am a big fan of paprika, or colorau. There is nothing like a turkey leg baked in the oven with a paste made of red wine, paprika, lots of crushed garlic, bay leaves and salt. Actually it was our dinner last night. Also love love a good pork loin with paprika.

    I must say I am surprised in Iowa people would use paprika. I lived in Iowa for 4 years, and people, even though I must admit are VERY open to trying different foods, their daily meals were pretty blend. Love love Pulpo a la Gallega!

    1. Pleased to hear you love the pulpo, Sofia. I have to say, what I loved most about the food in Iowa is that it was quite simple in a good way. But this only does justice to garden-fresh ingredients. It’s when this tactic is applied to less-than-worthy ingredients that this manner of cooking becomes, as you’ve experienced, rather troubling. At any rate, I know some home cooks in those parts who don’t stand for bland, so I’m going to demure on saying any more on the topic…

      1. Renee,

        You are very right. I have amazing memories of IA, their people, the quality of produce and pork, of course. Also, I must admit Des Moines has an amazing selection of restaurants, from traditional midwestern food to Thai, Ethiopian, etc. I was also very lucky to live near a farm where they did sustainable agriculture and non-hormone-fed animals. There is no better corn than Iowa’s!!! And indeed there are many home cooks that do not stand for bland, hence I believe their acceptance of my cooking that always has strong tastes in cilantro, onions, garlic, paprika, and so on.

  2. David, you have solved a decade-long mystery for my husband and me. When we visited our dear friend’s family in Fall River, MA (yes, they’re Portuguese; yes, they have two kitchens), we couldn’t help but notice that EVERYTHING his mother cooked–and she made a million things in the kitchen in the basement–had a reddish orange hue. We couldn’t figure out what made her food orange. Besides the make-anyone-moan deliciousness, there was no common thread flavor wise among the various dishes. So paprika, eh? Love it. Oh and the octopus–love that, too!

    1. Chiyo, I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts it was paprika. All the Portuguese cooks use it. And in our basement kitchen (my mother refused to have the one upstairs get used and look worn!), many a tin of paprika was emptied into everything from stuffing, rubs, stews, soups, and braises.

  3. LOVE THE STUFF. am jealously hoarding a can of La Chinata pimenton a la vera, wishing I had asked my friend to score more for me when she went to London. Thanks for posting the pulpo recipe; I’ve been known to scarf a number of entire servings of it at tapas bars here. David, lovely lovely story about your Vovo and her “sheeps”! 😀

    1. Ling, my pleasure. The recipe is wonderful, as were the different versions of pulpo a la Galaga I had in Barcelona. And thanks for the props for vovó Costa. She’s probably sitting like an empress somewhere, smiling.

      1. Oooh – Renee (the first poster) mentioned the Spice House in Chicago – they have a fabulous steak rub called Milwaukee Avenue Seasoning that has hefty amounts of Hungarian paprika! *excited* Am putting in another order when colleagues head over to Chi-town in October!

  4. Sorry, Renee, I’m in David’s camp on this one. I have three varieties of paprika in my pantry right now. Especially love using the sweet smoked paprika, Pimenton el Angel by Hijo de Angel Rodriguesz Rivas from Caceres, Spain.

    1. No apology necessary, Deborah. Contrary to appearances, I’m a big believer in to each their own. I just don’t like to be told what to believe! But tell me, how do you prefer the sweet smoked? If you could only use it in one fashion from now on, what would it be?

Have something to say?

Then tell us. Have a picture you'd like to add to your comment? Attach it below. And as always, please take a gander at our comment policy before posting.

Upload a picture of your dish