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In 1937 the Nobel prize for "Physiology or Medicine" was awarded to Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Szeged in Hungary. For the first time, he and some colleagues, including the American Joseph Svirbely from the University of Pittsburgh, were able to isolate Vitamin C, ascorbic acid. (1) Notwithstanding Linus Pauling (another Nobel prize laureate) and Szent-Gyorgyi himself, vitamin C may not cure or prevent the common cold, but it certainly cures the vitamin deficiency known as scurvy or scorbutus (hence "ascorbic" acid) which plagued English (and other) sailors of yore, who were deprived of fresh fruit and vegetables during their long voyages. Vitamin C is also a major anti-oxydant.

It took Szent-Gyorgyi a while to find the most economical raw material for his experiments and for producing the vitamin, until he hit upon the idea of using the product, or produce, for which the Szeged region of southern Hungary is so famous, namely paprika, or red pepper. (2)

Paprika (capsicum annuum), our topic, can be approached from various angles. (3) In Korea, the spicy paste prepared from red chili pepper is called gochujang (known as gochugaru in powder form) often added to bibimbap. Paprika or chili is also the key ingredient in kimchi, which in turn is a key dish in the Korean diet. Instead of a trip to Japan or Hong Kong, taken by most of my comrades in the military, I remember spending my R and R (Rest and Recuperation) on a beach on the Eastern coast of the Korean peninsula. Our hotel room was a cabin with an outhouse, and our meals consisted of rice for breakfast, rice for lunch, and rice for dinner. The same was true of the diet of most Koreans in those days, preceding the boom of the South Korean economy. What made the fare palatable, balanced, and nutritious, what relieved the monotony of white rice, was precisely kimchi--in other words, paprika.

Similar circumstances affect the diet in many African countries. When financial circumstance permits, West Africans allow themselves the luxury of goat pepper soup or fish pepper soup, based on chili peppers. On the other side of the continent, in Ethiopia, a common dish is dora wat, the main ingredients of which are chicken and hot red pepper, served on injera flat-bread. Capsicums, including the capsicum annuum, is commonly referred to as "African pepper," "African red pepper," or "Guinea pepper"--Guinea being a traditional geographic term from the times of the Transatlantic trade, denoting the African continent in general. (4)

In fact, chilis or hot peppers are one common denominator in the diet of peoples living in tropical regions around the world. There appears to be a positive correlation between the heat of the climate and the hotness of the cooking forming the local diet.

We could also broach our subject from the point of view of cinema, in particular the prizewinning Japanese animation film titled Paprika, directed by Satoshi Kon, released in 2006, and based on a Japanese novel by the same title. The film has a science-fiction plot, about a research therapist whose fearless alter ego is an 18-year old "dream detective," able to penetrate the dreams or the unconscious of others; she plays the title role and Paprika is her name. The film is not about food or cuisine, but the reference is obvious. The heroine of the story is red, or at least has flaming red hair, and her disposition is "spicy"--active, positive, fearless, no trace of wimpiness. (5) There are other peppers on the markets in Japan, such as the togarashi, described as small and very hot, available in ground form under the name ichimi. (6) Yet these words did not become the title of a Japanese film. Thus, while ground paprika itself may not be a major ingredient in Japanese cuisine, the novel and the film are indication enough that it is recognized in the country, and around the world, widely enough.


The subject of this essay is paprika. This may give rise to all sorts of confusion. Although the botanical term is capsicum annuum, a designation which includes chilis and most peppers other than black pepper (piper negro), the word itself is of Hungarian and Serbian or Serbo-Croat derivation. In Hungary, the word refers to any fruit (i.e., vegetable) that belongs to the Capsicum family, as well as to the finely-ground powder derived from that fruit, while outside of Hungary, the word is applied more strictly to the powder. Hungary is recognized as the best source of this spice, but it is grown and ground in other lands as well, including Spain, Portugal, Malawi, and the United States (California). Thus, while tropical nations around the globe make use of chilis in their cuisine, the production of paprika is rather more limited.

There are several varieties of capsicum -albeit all of them originated somewhere in South America, even the one identified as Capsicum chinense--but they may be used in combination. (7) A couple of examples of mixtures may suffice: the "Louisiana hot sauce" surrounding my canned fish includes both paprika oleoresin (capsicum annuum) and cayenne pepper (capsicum frutescens). The curry powder we use at home to prepare Indian or West Indian dishes includes both "black pepper" and "red pepper." The "Tabasco pepper" or cayenne pepper for which Louisiana is famous was acclimatized only as late as mid-19th century. (8)

We identify paprika, the word and the spice, primarily with Hungary. (9) It is the spice with which many (but certainly not all) Hungarian dishes are seasoned. It is the distinguishing feature of gulyds, szekelygulyds, bogrdcsgulyds, haldszle (fish-soup), paprikds csirke (chicken), porkolt chicken (unlike the former, the latter does not make use of sour-cream as an ingredient), and other famous or not-so-famous Hungarian dishes. Somewhere in his reminiscences, General Bela Kiraly writes about his group escape from a Soviet P.O.W. transport train; crossing the Carpathians into Transylvania under cover of darkness, they happened upon an encampment of shepherds who "offered us gulyds soup, still warm in the cauldron. Indeed, the food was the best I ever tasted, or at least that was my feeling at the moment." (10) Each of those dishes I listed above has a history of its own, but not a very long history, since pepper or paprika was introduced into Hungary, and Europe in general, as late as the 16th century.

Gulyds, as well-traveled teachers and students know, is a soup. It was originally cooked in a cauldron by cattlemen and shepherds in the field. Bogrdcsgulyds and plain gulyds may have a variety of ingredients, but the constant elements, often the only ones, are beef, onion and, of course, paprika. The internet lists varieties of paprika that are sold as spice, in powder form, but the most common are sweet (edesnemes, literally, sweet and noble) and hot (eros, strong). Hungarian cooks, cowboys or not, tend to use both, in varying proportions. Another variety of gulyds is szekelygulyds, -named after a creative chef named Szekely, rather than the Szekely people of Transylvania--which is not a soup, but sauerkraut with some meat (usually pork), sourcream, and paprika. Since these dishes include meat, they were mostly part of middle-class or petty nobility fare; they are "pseudo-peasant" dishes more than true country fare, for the East-Central European peasant of yore, and once again the peasant of today, cannot afford meat on a daily basis. On the other hand, Paprikds krumpli, or potatoes cooked with onions and paprika, are indeed an affordable, common fare.

Paprika is also a basic ingredient in sausage (kolbdsz, especially of the Gyulai and Csabai variety) as well as salami or szaldmi, for which Hungary is famous. To be sure, the chorizos from Spain and Portugal, and even the kielbasa from Poland, are also among my favorite dishes, and they too depend on paprika. Hungarian cuisine makes wide use of peppers, including green or bell pepper (as in stuffed pepper), but the dishes tend to be mild rather than hot. In fact, Hungarians have some difficulty adjusting to hot Asian foods, such as Vindaloo-style cuisine from India, Szechuan Chinese, or kimchi from Korea.

Paprika was unknown in the Old World before the Columbian exchange (of course, the same goes for potato, corn/maize, tomato, chocolate, cassava/manioc, and dozens of other staples of modern Eurasian and even African diet). The mistakes of the leader of the expedition, Admiral Cristoforo Colombo (Christopher Columbus), hardly need recounting: the Indians he met were in fact Native Americans, the Indies he "discovered" were actually the islands of the Caribbean, half way around the globe from India, and the peppers he may have brought back to Europe were not piper (black pepper) and had nothing to do with Asia, or with the black and white ground varieties placed on our table at restaurants. (11) True, Columbus would not have referred to these as "peppers" (the English pronunciation), but possibly as pimiento, pimenton, or piper.

Suffice to say, Columbus or one of his companions named chili, capsicum annuum and all other varieties, piper, because he was vaguely familiar with the source of piper negro or black pepper, which indeed originated from India and the Spice Islands (Indonesia), and which is also pungent; he assumed he had reached the outlying areas of that region. In fact, the lucrative spice trade in black pepper and other spices is what had attracted European merchants from Italy, Portugal and elsewhere. To quote from Columbus' Journal (15 January 1493) the pepper from the islands "is worth more than our pepper, and none of the people eat without it as it is found to be very salutary...." (12) Zoltan Halasz gives credit to Chanca, the surgeon who traveled with Columbus, who mentioned the new spice as "chilli" and as "aji." (13) Although black (or white, grey) pepper, and red (or green, yellow, etc.) are not botanically related, they ended up bearing the same name in English.

Red pepper was cultivated in Spain already in the 16th century, (14) and spread to Hungary as well, definitely by 1567. (15) It was used across all strata of society by 1775. (16) It took much longer for paprika, the powder, to get tamed. Experimentation, beginning in 1918, led to hybridization of different strains, until the farmers were able to grow a sweet paprika that had the aroma, color and other attributes of chillis, but not the heat (pungency). For the most part, this is the kind of paprika grown today in southern Hungary and ground by a complicated process into the powder that gives paprika dishes its special flavor. (17) There is a vast literature, mainly in Hungarian, on the cultivation, botanical properties, and processing of red paprika. At the end of each of his chapters Somos includes a bibliography listing hundreds of titles pertaining to paprika, green or red. (18)

Just when or how chili pepper came to Hungary and was first ground into a powder is not clear. The novelist Geza Gardonyi related a scene, in his most famous novel Egri Csillagok [Stars of Eger] published in 1901, in which a Turkish janissary orders one of his Hungarian prisoners to cook up some lamb gulyas, with "onions followed by plenty of paprika." It turned out too hot for the Turk (19) even though the Turks are credited with bringing pepper and paprika to Hungary.

According to another version, paprika was not mass produced in Hungary until the Napoleonic wars, when black pepper had become scarce and expensive--similar to what happened with the sugar processed from sugarcane vs. that processed from sugarbeets. In other words, it was a case of import substitution.

Dictionaries and encyclopedias derive the word paprika from the Hungarian. (20) This is not necessarily the case in other languages. For instance, the French refer to paprika as paprika or piment, but to black pepper as poivre. Paprika has a different name in Arabic and Hebrew, peperone in Italian, bansho in Japanese, ardei in Romanian, pimiento in Spanish. In fact, it may be possible to follow the trail of paprika from the Western Hemisphere to Hungary (21) and beyond, by noting the earliest occurrence of the term paprika or some similar-sounding cognomen. (22)

Paprika or red pepper derives its kick from a substance called capsaicin which, according to the online journal Happy Living, can be "used for everything from cooking, to self-defense, to pain relief." (23) There is even the Scoville scale, in which Scoville Units are applied to any chili, red pepper, or pepper derivative, measuring the amount of capsaicin the pepper contains. Pure capsaicin--450,000 units on that scale--may cause severe burns. It is not soluble in water, but will dissolve in alcohol, fat, or oil, which may explain why the latter two bring out the flavor in paprika.

Chili peppers, especially cayenne, have been credited with all sorts of health benefits, as a cure for allergies, angina, anorexia, arthritis, asthma, blood pressure (high or low), cancer (especially prostate cancer), the common cold, delirium tremens, diabetes, frostbite, gout, heart attacks, heat strokes, hemorrhage, hemorrhoids, malaria, multiple sclerosis, paralysis, senility, sore throat, stomach or peptic ulcers, even death (24): "when a 90-year-old man in Oregon had a severe heart attack, his daughter was able to get Cayenne extract into his mouth. He was pronounced dead by the medics, but within a few minutes regained consciousness ..." (25) Unfortunately, many of these benefits do not apply to the most famous paprika from Hungary, since Hungarian sweet paprika has a near zero Scoville index, and practically no capsaicin, hence no heat. Some paprikas, however, are hot: apparently, the consumption of paprika mitigates to some extent the ill-effects of the pure lard Hungarians used to consume in huge quantities (szalonna in its smoked form).

In fact, peppers, including so-called "Hungarian pepper," are now widely consumed in the United States; the time when paprika was used merely to add color, as a fancy decoration on finger-food, is in the past. Nowadays there is even a National Pepper Conference, held every other year, at locations known for their cultivation of pepper, such as Texas, Louisiana, California, New Mexico, even Maryland.

In 2004, Hungary experienced a paprika crisis. A batch of paprika containing high levels of the carcinogenic substance aflatoxin had to be recalled from grocery stores at home and abroad. (26) It was assumed that the contaminated paprika had been imported from South America, since the toxin, we are told, does not survive under the Hungarian climate. (27) Thus, while on the one hand genuine Hungarian paprika was off the hook since it remained safe, the Hungarian paprika industry had its reputation severely compromised, since it turned out that the paprika it peddled was not strictly Hungarian.

The crisis was a blow to the Hungarian economy and to Hungarian restaurants, which have yet to recover. Not too long ago, all categories of restaurants in Hungary would provide salt-, pepper-, and paprika-shakers at every table. Although the crisis is over by now, on my last visit to Hungary I had difficulty getting paprika at the table in most restaurants, even upon request. I assume--but this is mere guesswork on my part--that the uncontaminated paprika produced in the Szeged and Kalocsa regions is barely sufficient for export, let alone home consumption. Presumably, some of the paprika--possibly the contaminated paprika--had been imported to make up for the shortfall.



Allison, Heidi. The Chili Pepper Diet: The Natural Way to Control Cravings, Boost Metabolism and Lose Weight. Health Communications, 2002.

Benedek, Laszlo et al., A magyar fuszerpaprika [Hungarian Paprika for Seasoning], Budapest: Elelmiszeripari Lapkiado Vallalat, 1954.

Biser, Sam. Curing with Cayenne. Charlottesville, University of Natural Healing, 1997.

Bosland, P.W. "Capsicums: Innovative Uses of an Ancient Crop," in J. Janick, ed. Progress in New Crops. Arlington, VA: ASHS Press, 1996.

Chikan, Attila, Czako Erzsebet, and Zita Zoltay-Paprika, National Competitiveness in Global Economy, Budapest: Akademiai, 2002.

Crosby, Alfred. The Columbian Exchange; Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1972.

Fiftieth Anniversary Symposium of the Nobel-Prize of Albert Szent-Gyorgyi. Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1988.

Finaly, Istvan, A magyar pirospaprika [Hungarian red pepper], Budapest: Muvelt Nep, 1955.

Halasz, Zoltan. Hungarian Paprika through the Ages. Budapest: Corvina Press, 1963.

Jarvis, D.C. "The Health Benefits of Cayenne." Dr. Jarvis' Unpublished Notebook.

Kiraly, Bela K. Wars, Revolutions and Regime Changes in Hungary, 1912-2004; Reminiscences of an Eye-Witness. Translated by Mario D. Fenyo. New York: Columbia U. Press, 2005.

Krishna, De Amit. Capsicum: the Genus Capsicum. London: Taylor and Francis, 2003.

Midgley, John. The Goodness of Peppers. New York: Random House, 1993.

Norman, Jill. Spices; Roots & Fruits. Toronto: Bantam books, 1989.

Penzes, Istvan. A Magyar fuszerpaprika; termesztesenek termeszeti es gazdasdgi foldrajzi alapjai [Hungarian Paprika for Seasoning; The Geographic Foundations for Its Cultivation and Economics], Budapest: Akademiai, 1067.

Somos, Andras. The Paprika. Budapest: Akademiai, 1984.

Szent-Gyorgyi, Albert. Szent-Gyorgyi Albert: dokumentumok, riportok, [Documents and reports pertaining to Szent-Gyorgyi]. Budapest: Akademiai Kiado, 1989

Thacher, John Boyd. Christopher Columbus. His Life, his Work, his Remains, 3 vols. New York: AMS Press, 1967.

Mario Fenyo

Bowie State University

* I owe thanks to Dr. Joonseong Lee and Ms. Fusako Ito for their help in preparing this essay, especially the linguistics aspects of it.


(1) Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, "Oxydation, energy transfer, and vitamins," Nobel lecture, December 11, 1937.

(2) The Albert Szent-Gyorgyi Papers, Profiles in Science/National Library of Medicine. WG/Views/Exhibit/narrative/szeged.html

(3) D. C. Jarvis, "The Health Benefits of Cayenne." Dr. Jarvis' Unpublished Notebook., 1-48.

(4) Jarvis, 5


(6) Jill Norman, Spices: Roots & Fruits. (Toronto: Bantam books), 11.



(9) Andras Somos, The Paprika (Budapest: Akademiai Kiado, 1984), 11.

(10) Bela K. Kiraly, Wars, Revolutions and Regime Changes in Hungary, 1912-2004. (New York: Columbia U. Press, 2005), 181.

(11) Somos, 13.

(12) John Boyd Thacher, Christopher Columbus. His Life, his Work, his Remains. 3 vols. (New York: AMS Press, 1967), Vol. I, 646.

(13) Zoltan Halasz, Hungarian Paprika through the Ages, (Budapest: Corvina Press, 1963), 14.

(14) Halasz, 18.

(15) Margit Szechy's correspondence, quoted in Halasz, 24.

(16) Jozsef Csapo, mentioned in Halasz, 30-31.

(17) Halasz, "From the Pepper-Pot to Hungarian Sweet Paprika" in Hungarian Paprika ..., 34 ff. See also "Hungarian Paprika" in Budapest Tourist Guide., 1-7.

(18) Somos, Paprika, passim.

(19) Geza Gardonyi, Egri csillagok (Budapest: Holnap, 2005, 1st ed. 1901), Part I, 68.

(20) For instance,

(21) See maps in Somos, 14.

(22), 1-23.


(24) See Jarvis and also Heidi Allison, The Chili Pepper Diet, (HCI, 2002).

(25) Jarvis, 35.


(27) Also,
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Title Annotation:WHB Issue Focus "Food in World History"
Author:Fenyo, Mario
Publication:World History Bulletin
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:4EXHU
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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