One cool summer evening in 2005, I found myself sitting by a small campfire and holding a thin metal rod with a forked end. Skewered onto the prongs was a hunk of slab bacon scored at intervals down to the rind and heavily coated with paprika. My charge was simple: Hold the bacon over the fire until its fat started to render, dab the fat onto a thick slice of country bread, and repeat. Eventually, the bacon turned crispy and the bread became saturated. I then topped my bread with slices of raw onion, radish, and the crispy bacon. To my mind, it was—and still is—the world's finest open-faced sandwich.
Making it took a while, and that was just the point. As I pressed the sizzling bacon into the bread, flooding its dense crumb with paprika-stained fat, I chatted with neighbors to my left and right. They, too, were plying porky tridents; as we talked, our nostrils became replete with the scents of pork fat and smoke. This was my introduction to szalonnasütés, a Hungarian warm-weather tradition that I enjoyed just as much for the campfire ritual and camaraderie as I did for the sandwich itself. It was also an introduction to my new life as an English teacher in Kétsoprony, Hungary.
I'd end up spending a year in this small farming village located in the southeast corner of the country's massive, impressively flat Great Plain. During that time, I'd learn that my love for food and cooking was a powerful way to connect with just about anyone—and that I had completely misunderstood and underestimated paprika.
I'd always known that paprika was fundamental to Hungarian cooking, but I didn't fully understand its import before arriving in Kétsoprony. More than just a seasoning, paprika is the foundation of countless Hungarian braises, stews, casseroles, and both fresh and dry-cured sausages. It pairs just as well with chicken, pork, and beef as it does with fish, eggs, potatoes, and cabbage. If the Hungarians can grow, raise, or catch it, paprika can season it.
During my first trip to the market, I marveled at the massive open burlap sacks of the rust-red powder. They were arranged in pairs, one brimming with sweet (mild) paprika and the other with hot. I saw the same parity in home kitchens, too, where cooks would blend the two types of paprika into dishes by muscle memory, deftly feeling their way to the right balance of heat and fruity chile flavor.
Compared to the stuff I'd grown up sprinkling on deviled eggs and lobster rolls, this paprika was far more aromatic and flavorful—but it wasn't as potent. That puzzled me at first, but over time I came to understand that its mildness was actually an asset. It encouraged you to use a lot of the spice, which explains how paprika became the central component of so many dishes—and of an entire cuisine.
It's summertime again, and while I'm far from Kétsoprony, I hope I'll find my way to a few more campfires. You never know who you might meet, what new rituals you might discover, or what you might realize you've always underestimated.
Editor in Chief