The fact that paprikas is Hungary's national dish became important to me for the most understandable of sentimental reasons. The bride that my brother brought home not long ago had come from the castled hills above the Bodrog River, from the baronial town of Satoraljaujhely in northeast Hungary. She had spent her childhood in the hospitable region of the Tokay vineyards, where the vintagers revive themselves with paprika dishes after gathering the winy harvests.
It was in celebration of her American citizenship that Marta cooked the meal that I shall remember best, but there were numerous times before, when she asked me to quiz her in preparation for her naturalization tests, that we talked in the kitchen while she kept an eye on a savory pot. "It seems that some Americans," she said once, "are as wary of paprika as they are of Mexican pepper. How sad that is. We Hungarians don't use paprika that is hot or bitter. The flavor should be only piquant. In all good paprika there is some sugar, and that means that it must not be overheated or cooked too fast, because the sugar content turns to caramel and spoils both the color and the taste."
Paprika (which means simply pepper in Hungarian) is a pungent flavoring as well as a dusty adornment. Though various types are grown in other parts of the world, the essence of Hungarian dishes, according to my sister-in-law, can be achieved only with paprika produced in Hungary. It can be sharp or sweet, to be sure, but the best of the imported varieties is a blend called rose paprika that is richest in color and flavor. Both red and green peppers are common in many parts of Hungary, and the largest area of commercial paprika-growing is along the southern border, where the light soil and the warm, dry summers furnish an added piquancy. "Sometimes I dream of the aroma of paprika drying on outdoor racks in the bright fall days," Marta said as she cooked the meal that has become my favorite. "There is the same tangy smell when you open a package and see that rich orange powder. It reminds me of the kitchen in my parents' house where I used to watch the cook making tarhonya to serve with a paprika dish."
I guessed at the meaning of this new word. "Some kind of noodles?" I asked. She smiled before answering.
"A very strange noodle," she said. "Tarhonya also comes from eggs and flour, but it looks more like hominy. Nowadays the factories make it, but in our old-fashioned kitchen each kernel of dough was shaped by hand. How good they were, served with a goulash made from beef—the kind of beef that isn't any more, raised only on sugar beets." She wheeled from the stove, wooden spoon in hand. "Or like tonight—with chicken, with paprika and with sour cream."
All kinds of noodles are good (rice, too) with paprika dishes, because they are the ideal foil for Hungarian sauces. Failing the easy availability of tarhonya, broad noodles serve admirably, especially when the meat upon which the paprikas is based is a good, plump broiler. For paprikascsirke—chicken paprika in plain American-here is the recipe as it was made for the photograph on the opposite page.
CHICKEN PAPRIKA (for four)
1 2½-pound broiler
4 good-size onions, chopped
4 tablespoons butter or chicken fat
2 tablespoons Hungarian rose paprika
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon flour
½ pint sour cream
Have the chicken cut in serving pieces; put these in a bowl and cover with cold water. Melt the fat in a Dutch oven or an iron pot with a close-fitting cover. Sauté the onions in this very slowly until they are transparent but not brown. Sprinkle in the paprika and stir well, mixing it thoroughly with the onions and the fat.
Drain the chicken, but don't dry it. The water clinging to it will combine with the chicken juices to make a sauce. Put the chicken in the pot, spooning the paprika-onion mixture over it. Add salt and cover tightly. Cook very slowly for half an hour. Because some chickens produce more natural juices than others, check the pot at the end of the half hour and add 2 or 3 tablespoons of chicken bouillon only if it seems dry. Continue slow cooking at least one hour more, or until the chicken is very tender.
At the last moment, in a separate saucepan heat the sour cream but don't let it boil, and mix in the flour. Now place the chicken on a warm platter. Pour the hot cream mixture into the paprika sauce, blending it well and letting it simmer a moment so that the flour is thoroughly cooked. Spoon sauce over chicken and sprinkle lightly with paprika to heighten the color. As an accompaniment: noodles with crumbled bacon.