Hungarian spices reflect Hungary’s love of flavorful foods and the diverse influences that created its unique food culture. The nature of Hungarian cuisine has been influenced indirectly by countries as far away as Mexico and more directly by nearer ones like Turkey. Here are some of the most popular spices used in Hungary today.
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The word paprika comes from the Hungarian word for pepper, which is papar. The spice is made from grinding dried red chili peppers. No one spice is more strongly associated with a nation’s food culture than paprika is with Hungarian food. It is the common thread that runs through many Hungarian recipes.
Paprika made its way to Hungary from Mexico via the Spaniards and the Turks. One interesting fact about paprika in Hungary is that it has been in Europe since the 16th century and was introduced to Hungary during the period of Turkish rule from the 16th to 17th centuries; however, it was not a staple in Hungarian cuisine until the 19th century.
It is best known for its roles in the world-famous stew called goulash and in chicken paprikash but it also shows up in dishes that are virtually unknown outside of Hungary like halaszle, which is fisherman’s soup. Halaszle is considered one of the hottest native European dishes. Hungarian paprika is intensely flavored and comes in different varieties, including smoky, sweet, and hot.
Native to the Mediterranean region, bay leaves have been used in Hungary since ancient times. Their flavor is woody with a savory bitterness and notes of camphor. Bay leaves can be intense, and Hungarian cooks use it sparingly in foods that must be cooked for long periods.
Bay leaves are a key ingredient in Hungarian stuffed cabbage leaves (called toltott kaposzta) but are more often used for braised dishes. Bay leaves are important for the deep braised flavor of the bean soup called jokai bableves.
A member of the carrot family, the caraway plant that provides caraway seeds grows all over Europe but mainly in the Balkans next door to Hungary. Caraway seeds provide a flavor similar to anise and are widely used throughout Hungarian cuisine. The spice appears in favorites like goulash, the vegetable stew called fozelek, and the caraway seed soup köménymagos leves.
A versatile Mediterranean herb, marjoram appears in many recipes from Central Europe, including some from Hungary. Marjoram has a sweeter flavor than oregano and thyme, both of which belong to the same family. One of the most popular Hungarian applications that use marjoram is the peppered steak dish known as tokany. Marjoram is also used in some goulash recipes.
The garlic flavor is popular in almost every part of the world. It is almost as popular as salt and pepper. It shows up in most savory Hungarian dishes. It came to Hungary in the 1400s, and (like chili peppers) it grows well in the warmer parts of the country. It is essential for goulash, Hungarian stuffed cabbage leaves, and the steak dish brassoi apropecsenye.
Garlic is also essential for the tomato and pepper stew that Hungarians called lecso, but that shows up under other names throughout Central Europe.
While cumin does not show up in as many Hungarian dishes as other spices on this list, it is essential for a very popular dish: stuffed cabbage leaves.
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