Ever wonder about Paprika? Depending on where you were raised, it’s the red stuff on top of your deviled eggs, the base for a barbecue rub, or a minor ingredient in gumbo.
But, I bet you didn’t know paprika is derived from the red chili pepper. And, that if it were not for a continental blockage to Western Europe during the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) , Europeans would never have considered paprika a spice. So how did one little unknown pepper make such an impact on the culinary and cultural landscape of the world?
Red Peppers, or Chili Peppers, were largely unknown outside the western hemisphere before 1493 when Christopher Columbus mistook the Americas for the direct trade route to India. Originating in Mexico and South American countries, red peppers were mainly grown for ornamental purposes and thought to be indigenous only to India and the Far East.
It wasn’t until Columbus shipped some species of the plant back to Spain and the colonization of the West Indies, Mexico, and Spanish Florida in the mid to late 1500s that this hot little pepper plant became a hit in the New World. Once established, the Spanish Manila-Acapulco galleon trade route was instrumental in transporting the plants and peppers from Mexico to the Far East, thus widening the cultivation and uses of red peppers (Andrews).
Thanks to his attempt to block trade to and from Great Britain during the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon Bonaparte inadvertently introduced paprika as a spice. Since the usual supply of spices into Great Britain was interrupted Europeans turned to the Balkans and Turkey for spice substitutes…one of them being paprika. Paprika is made by grinding dried red pepper varieties into powder form; it is typically mild in taste. However, paprika can also be made from using any of members of the hot pepper family, thus adding to the varieties and intensities of paprika available (Rinzler).
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Andrews, Jean. “Chili Peppers.” Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. Ed. Solomon H. Katz. Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003, 368-378.
Rinzler, Carol Ann. The New Complete Book of Food: a Nutritional, Medical, and Culinary Guide. New York: Facts on File, 2009.