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Before the empire and after, grandmother made paprikas

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By Sheryl Julian
Globe Staff / April 19, 2009
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BUDAPEST -- We are sitting in a lively restaurant high above the Danube in the city's Castle District, where some buildings date to the Middle Ages. A violinist, who can play any song if you hum the first few bars, has just finished "If I Were a Rich Man" and moves seamlessly into Marlene Dietrich's "Lili Marlene."

In front of me is a perfect dish of chicken paprikas (pronounced pah-pree-kahsh): small pieces of the bird coated with a pleasingly hot, coral-colored sauce. This dish turns out to be the first of many we find made with fiery hot or sweet paprika. And the spice is everywhere: stirred into gulyás (goulash), many soups, and all stews. In fact, paprika is so important to Hungarian cuisine that corner grocery stores carry several brands and the big indoor central market, Nagycsarnok, boasts half a dozen stands stocked almost entirely with the red powder. You can also find plump bell peppers, slender sweet light green peppers, and dried hot chili peppers, all of which make their appearance in paprikas dishes.

At this Castle Hill restaurant, Fekete Holló Étterem (an étterem is a restaurant with a broad menu), which calls itself Black Raven, the chicken has just enough paprikas sauce to flavor the pieces, which come nestled in a bed of spaetzle and topped with a spoonful of gloriously thick sour cream. You could say that this dish and its many variations define Hungarian cooking. It's farmhouse fare, the cooking of grandmothers. It doesn't seem fancy or elegant enough for a tourist restaurant in this famous district. But it's hearty, filling food in sizable portions.

Like all spices that give a dish its character, the quality of paprika is important and cooks here use freshly ground batches. Paprika comes in a regular (sweet) version and in a hot powder, which doesn't have the kind of heat chili powder has, but rather a subtle warmth. The sweet spice, often combined with fresh bell peppers or mildly hot peppers (sometimes slices of raw pepper garnish a dish) lends a sauce depth and adds fragrance to meaty juices.

Peppers for paprika have been grown in this region since the 16th century, chiefly because they were more flavorful, sometimes just as spicy, and far less expensive, than black pepper, writes the late Hungarian-born George Lang, a celebrated American restaurateur, in "The Cuisine of Hungary." Black peppercorns weren't grown in Europe and were far too exotic for ordinary people. Paprika was first used in the peasant kitchen, where simmering pots contained only a little bony meat and root vegetables, along with potatoes and Hungary's ubiquitous cabbage.

Dishes that seem straight from those old kitchens form the backbone of Budapest menus. The Raven serves a gulyás soup with bits of carrots, potatoes, and tomatoes (gulyás is both a soup and a stew here). In other restaurants, these deep, nourishing bowls seem cobbled together from last night's dinner and all are enormously appealing and typically cost a few dollars. Some contain a few shreds of beef, generous ladles of beefy stock, and paprika as the sole flavoring. Many are mostly broth - you can taste the delicious sediment scraped from the roasting pan of yesterday's chicken and tipped into the pot - and all contain at least potatoes. The make-do element of the old farmhouse cuisine is thriving here.

Buda's historical district is much more touristy than Pest, the city below. In Pest, however, popular establishments are also serving home-style food to their neighborhood clientele. One bustling spot is Paprika Étterem, near Heroes' Square, where a series of monuments to leaders throughout Hungary's history stand in front of a city park. The historic homes, which date to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, are very grand; many are offices now and some are being renovated into luxury condominiums.

The restaurant is so crowded that as soon as one table of diners leaves, another sits down. In this friendly spot, we find one of the peasant soups: a bowl of long-simmered meaty broth with root vegetables and paprika. For a main course, we order seared pork loin slices with a very modern touch: They're still pink in the center (what would grandmother say about that?), sitting on a bed of sweet and hot peppers sauteed with paprika, covered with the characteristic rosy sauce, and garnished with a slice of crisp green pepper. You get warm, hot, crunchy, creamy, caramelized tastes and textures all in each glorious bite.

Perhaps the best example of home cooking is the cafeteria Fakanál, upstairs at the Nagycsarnok. The man behind the hot buffet, in chef's whites, takes great care serving this food. Big bundles of stuffed cabbage are filled with meat and rice. They come on a bed of onions and cabbage with a paprika-flavored sauce and a big spoonful of sour cream. The chef directs me to help myself to bowls filled with slices of mildly hot peppers and a dark red hot-pepper paste. The cabbage has elements of more refined paprikas dishes, but it is certainly workers' fare. Everything about it is ordinary, until you taste the uncommon blend of creamy, hot, and beefy.

Haxen Király Étterem is the last place we expect to see a paprikas dish. This Bavarian-style beer house in Pest, established in 1893, is known for enormous pork knuckles you pay for by the kilo. They're cooked beside an open fire and you need a good appetite to appreciate this succulent, fatty cut.

We've come for the knuckle, but on a whim, I order a dish translated as "veal with gnocchi." I suspect there's no gnocchi here and I take a gamble that they've done something interesting with the veal. Have they ever! There's paprikas in the creamy sauce, which also has a mildly smoky aroma - which of course might have been the smell of cigarettes, since it's overwhelming in this and every other restaurant in the city, even with so-called no-smoking sections. Tender morsels of veal are spooned over spaetzle; a fiery hot red-pepper paste is the perfect accompaniment.

It might as well have been cooked by a Hungarian grandmother.

Sheryl Julian can be reached at julian@globe.com.

If You Go

Fakanál

Upstairs at Nagycsarnok (Central Market)

Vámház Boulevard 1-3

011-36-06-1-217-7860

www.fakanaletterem.hu

(click flag for English)

Fekete Holló Étterem

Országház utca 10

011-36-06-1-356-2367

www.feketehollovendeglo.hu

(not in English)

Haxen Kiraly Étterem

Király utca 100

011-36-06-1-351-6793

www.haxen.hu

(English flag)

Paprika Étterem

Dózsa György ut 72

011-36-70-574-6508

www.paprikavendeglo.hu

(English flag)