When I close my eyes, I can picture my grandmother in the kitchen. There she is, not much taller than me in her old, shrinking stature, with her dyed blond hair nestled above her earrings.
Much as I regret it now, I’m not in the kitchen with her. It wasn’t until after she passed that I started wanting to know more about our shared heritage — especially the food. Slowly but surely, I’ve been able to mine the memories buried in the recesses of my brain and wiping away the dust. That’s how I rediscovered chicken paprikash, a Hungarian Jewish staple my father remembers her cooking.
Chicken paprikash relies on a simple combination of reliable ingredients, namely onions and garlic. You’ll often find bell peppers and tomatoes added to the mix, but never sour cream, which is what non-Jewish Hungarians add to the sauce. Once the meat is sliding off the bone, you serve it over a plate of fresh spaetzle.
The star of the dish is, as the name suggests, paprika or “paprikash” in Hungarian. The spice made from ground red peppers came to Europe in the 16th century by way of Central Mexico where it had been cultivated for centuries before European settlers arrived. Hungarians had already been using red peppers for medicine, but never as a spice. That all changed when the Turks introduced it to the Balkan Peninsula in the 18th century.
Paprika grew in popularity throughout the 19th century. At that time, there were nearly a million Jews living in Hungary, around a quarter of which were in Budapest. But — according to some estimates — approximately 100,000 Jews left Hungary and immigrated to the United States during the Gilded Age of the late 19th/early 20th centuries. These immigrants, my ancestors among them, brought chicken paprikash with them along with a kitchen’s worth of simple recipes from haluski to aranygaluska.
Today, when I bite into a piece of chicken heavily seasoned with paprika, it’s a familiar flavor. Is this what grandma used to make or am I inventing nostalgia? Whatever the case may be, I hope she knows I tried.
Note: Feel free to combine sweet and smoked paprika in this recipe, and/or add more paprika to taste –– it is the star of the dish, after all. This recipe can easily be doubled, but you may need to sear your chicken in batches, depending on the size of your pot.
- 3 chicken legs or thighs
- 3 Tbsp sweet or smoked paprika (or a combination of the two)
- 1 Tbsp kosher salt
- 1 Tbsp freshly ground pepper
- 1 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 large onion, peeled and diced
- 3 cloves garlic
- 2 green and/or red bell peppers, finely chopped
- 1 bunch parsley
- 1 can (500g) crushed tomatoes
- 2 cups vegetable or chicken broth, or water (enough to almost cover the chicken)
- 500g spaetzle (store-bought is fine)
- Heat a five-liter Dutch oven to medium/medium-high heat with about a Tbsp vegetable oil — just enough to cover the bottom of the pot.
- Combine the paprika, salt, and pepper and season your raw chicken liberally. Give your Dutch oven a splash test (add a little water to make sure it’s sizzling). If so, place your chicken into the Dutch oven and sear it for about 5-7 minutes each side. Pay attention to the heat; you don’t want it to burn.
- Meanwhile, chop up your onion, two bell peppers, and garlic.
- Once your chicken is seared, set aside on a clean plate. Place your chopped onion into the pot and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes. They should be soft and translucent. Then, add the chopped bell peppers and garlic into the pot as well. Cook for about 5 minutes over medium heat.
- Repeat seasoning to taste. I like to season each time I add something to the pot. If that’s you, go ahead and do another round of salt, pepper, and paprika. Once your veggies are ready, add your chicken back in for about five minutes. You’re welcome to season your chicken one more time with salt, pepper, and paprika.
- Next, add your crushed tomatoes and parsley, saving some to sprinkle on top at the end. Use tongs to move the chicken around and give the tomatoes room to move around the pot. Then add your water or broth, which should almost cover the chicken. Taste, adding salt, pepper, and/or paprika if needed.
- Bring the pot to a boil. Once boiling, lower the heat to a simmer and loosely cover the pot. The dish can be ready within 30 minutes but the longer you leave it cooking, the more tender the chicken will be. After 30 minutes, check on it every 15 minutes or so. If your liquid is reducing too much, put the lid on.