Paprika. “This is a spice that every Hungarian takes really seriously,” says Valeria Varga. And she should know. Aside from her uncanny resemblance to one of those famous Gabor sisters, Valeria is a senior lecturer in Indiana University’s Hungarian Studies Program at the Department of Central Eurasian Studies in the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. She notes with pride that IU is one of the few universities in the United States that offers Hungarian language instruction, and the only one with master’s and Ph.D. levels in Hungarian studies.
Valeria was at IU from 1995 to 1998 and again from 2005 until today, but most summers she makes a pilgrimage back to her homeland, where her parents and brother still live. She has endured Hungary’s political upheavals and volatile governments, the sharp brutality, and the sweet beauty of the country of her birth.
How emblematic, then, is its renowned paprika?
“There is nothing like the aroma and the color of paprika, as it melts into a sauté of hot onions in oil,” sighs Valeria. Unlike our delicate sprinkling of it on top of deviled eggs or maybe a bit more boldly in a goulash, Hungarians use large quantities of the stuff to both flavor and thicken their regional dishes. Scorning store bought tins and jars, many families establish a bond with vendors to obtain what they consider “real” paprika. Valeria covets her connection with a lady at the farmers market in Balatonfüred.
So integral is this paprika experience to the culture that Valeria infuses her classes with conversation about cuisine. Cooking demonstrations are an essential part of the summer courses she teaches. Also, the Hungarian department hosts two formal dinner receptions every year where Hungarian food is the star.
Lucky for her students and daughters (and friends!), Valeria thrives in the kitchen. “I am a good cook, no joke,” she says. “I do not just preserve my family’s recipes … but also focus on the best quality and healthy ingredients. Extra virgin olive oil, fresh spices, organic meat, veggies, and dairy products.”
Here is one of Valeria’s homages to glorious paprika.
Hungarian Bean Soup
1 cup dried lima beans (large or small) or 1 cup lentils
1 large celery root, also known as celeriac
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 carrots, peeled and cut into coins
3-5 minced garlic cloves
2 bay leaves
5 teaspoons Hungarian paprika (Note: There are two varieties, sweet and half sharp. Choose one or combine them, to taste.)
5 cups water or broth
Salt to taste
1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
Optional add-ins and -ons:
Hungarian smoked sausage
Dumplings (see recipe below)
Fresh lemon juice
Soak lima beans overnight. If using lentils, no need to pre-soak. Drain. Place lima beans or lentils in a pot with enough water to cover, plus another inch or so. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until beans soften, about one hour for the limas, less for the lentils. Drain and set aside.
Chop off green celery tops and reserve. Peel and slice root into chunks.
Heat olive oil in a soup pot. Add celery root, carrots, garlic, and bay leaves. Sauté for 5 minutes. Add paprika. Stir to coat vegetables. Add broth or water. Heat to a boil and simmer, uncovered, until vegetables soften, about 15–20 minutes. Add 3/4 of the beans or lentils. Take the remaining amount and purée in a food processor (use a bit of the soup to get it going) to form a dip-like consistency with a bit of texture. Add to soup to thicken. Remove bay leaves. Salt generously to taste. Chop celery greens and add to pot along with the parsley.
Serve as is, or consider these optional enhancements:
Add sausage. Five minutes before removing pot from heat, cut up smoked sausage (available at Bloomingfoods or World Foods Market, formerly Sahara Mart) and add to pot.
Make dumplings. Whisk an egg. Add enough flour and a bit of salt for a dough to form. It should have a mashed-potato–like consistency. For a richer dumpling, consider substituting a bit of grated parmesan cheese for some of the flour. Bring soup to a boil. Using a teaspoon, drop little dollops (about 1/2 teaspoon size) of dumpling dough into the pot. Turn off heat and cover pot for 10 minutes. Dumplings will float to the top of the soup.
Mix in a bit of lemon juice for a bright finish.
Sour cream, the final Hungarian touch!