Paprika: A History

When it comes to Romanian cuisine, paprika is a staple spice.

However, paprika and the plant that it is derived from, is not indigenous to the region, or the continent of Europe.

So how does a spice from another country become a cultural staple? The plant family that the chillies that Paprika derive from (Capsicum annuum) are native to North and South America.

The chili pepper, in its various colors, sizes and heat have been used in the Americas (North, Central and South) cuisine since 7500 BC.

The introduction of the spice to Europe happened in the early 1500's by Spain and Portugal.

Over the course of this post I will look at the connection that would bring a plant that originated in North and South America come to grow in Spain and Hungary, in turn be introduced into Romanian cuisine.

The original expedition that Christopher Columbus took in 1492 he was looking for a way to Asia for the spice trade. The Silk Road had become too dangerous after the Ottoman Turks invaded Constantinople. They looked to the sea to sail around all the danger on land.

In 1493 Christopher Columbus encountered chilies when he landed in the Caribbean. Columbus was also the first to use the term "peppers" as they were similarly used like black and white pepper from Europe.

However it was Columbus' physician Diego Álvarez Chanca, that brought the plant to the Old World and studied their medicinal purposes. Columbus returned to Spain in 1504.

Chilies plants were brought to various monasteries and were grown in monastery gardens throughout Spain and Portugal as curiosities. It was the monks that experimented with the chilis and found that they could be a substitute for black peppercorns that were exceedingly costly.

map dated 1519
map c. 1500s
When the chilies spread from Spain and Portugal, they made their way through to India where there was a large population of Portuguese in the region of Goan. It was from Goan that the chilies made there way through Asia, Turkey and into Hungary.

Once Hungary started growing their own plants, paprika was added to their culinary soups, stews and meat dishes.

With Hungary and Romania having had poor relations since the middle ages, the food and the spice spread with the invading parties.

With the Ottoman wars in the 1500's battling over land, Hungary and Transylvania, borders have been drawn and redrawn for 150 years. With the land dispute and the insurgence of Hungary into Transylvania and Romania, this brings paprika into the Transylvanian and Romanian dishes that are a part of their culture.

The cultural food of Romania is influenced by Hungarian, German, Serbian and Bulgarian, not only brought in from conflict but from their common borders that they share.

With time, paprika evolved. Modern day paprika is sweet, but it wasn't always so. The chillies had a spicy taste and heat, that is associated with chilies, to them until 1920.

A farmer in Szeged, Hungary found that one of his plants produced sweet chillies. This lead to the sweeter, and more recognized, and wider used paprika today.

Paprika does still come in various heat levels. But when looking at traditional Romanian dishes (Papricaş, a goulash dish served with rice and Piftie, usually an appetizer, a gelatinous like form that is made with meat and seasonings as examples) will let you know how spicy or sweet that the paprika needs to be for the dish to stay authentic.

Today, with the surge of home cooking back in style, websites and cookbooks are now looking back to cultural and heritage dishes being made once again.

For example, 70 Classic Recipes From Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia & Slovenia by Lesley Chamberlain and Trish Davies range in price from $11.99 on to $13.99 on was just released in 2014.

There is even apps for recipes, Recipes of Romania Pro for Android is free and RomCook on the App Store is a full color, interactive app that not only had recipes but traditional folk music to listen to. There is a cost to RomCook, it's $1.19, but if you are trying your hand at a family favorite for the first time, getting an app would be fast, easy to use and little monetary investment.

Gătit fericit! (Happy cooking)