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Paprika (Capsicum annuum L.)

pharm Fructus Capsici
Danish Paprika
Dutch Paprika
English Bell pepper, Pod pepper, Sweet pepper
Esperanto Papriko
Estonian Harilik paprika
Finnish Ruokapaprika, Paprika
French Piment annuel, Piment doux, Paprica de Hongrie, Piment doux d'Espagne
German Paprika
Greek Pipería
Hindi Deghi mirch
Hungarian Paprika, Édes paprika, Piros paprika, Fűszerpaprika
Icelandic Paprikuduft
Italian Peperone, Paprica
Papiamento Promenton, Promčntňn
Portuguese Pimentăo doce
Polish Papryka roczna
Romanian Ardei
Spanish Paprika, Pimiento dulce, Pimiento morrón, Pimentón
Swahili Pilipili hoho
Swedish Paprika
Tibetan Sipen ngonpo, Si pan sngon po
Mexican chile cultivars
A large number of names for different cultivars is used in Latin America, especially México. Fresh and dried chiles are often referred to by different names. The following table lists some of the most common types.
Name fresh Name dried Pungency
Anaheim (California) chile pasado low
Chilaca pasilla (chile negro) low
Jalapeńo mora (morito) chipotle (chile ahumudo, chile meco) medium
New Mexico chile pasado low
Poblano mulato ancho low
Serrano   high


Capsicum annuum: European spicy paprika
A European breed of paprika
Used plant part
Berry fruits. Removal of seeds and veins results in a less pungent and more brightly coloured product.
Plant family
Solanaceae (nightshade family).
Sensoric quality
Sweet and aromatic. Some qualities show no pungency at all, others are fairly hot.
Main constituents
The pungent principle, capsaicin, is contained only in small amounts, as low as 0.001 to 0.005% in "mild" and 0.1% in "hot" cultivars. (see chiles for details on capsaicin). Apart from capsaicin, the taste of paprika is mostly due to essential oil (<1%; with long-chain aliphatic hydrocarbons, fatty acids and their methyl esters); paprika scent is mostly do to a range of alkylmethoxypyrazines (e.g., 3-isobutyl 2-methoxy pyrazine, "earthy" flavour). Ripe paprika contain up to 6% sugar.

Furthermore, paprika contains sizable amounts (0.1%) of vitamin C; this substance was first isolated from ripe paprika pods by the Hungarian chemist Albert Szent-György, who later won the Nobel Prize for this work.

Capsicum annuum: Black Prince
Black Prince, an ornamental breed rich in anthocyanin pigments (tepín- or piquín type).

Paprikas derive their colour from red (capsanthrine, capsorubin and more) and yellow (cucubitene) carotenoids ; their total amount in dried paprika is 0.1 to 0.5%. Cultivars lacking the red pigments appear yellow or orange when ripe. Some varieties of paprika contain pigments of anthocyanin type and develop dark purple, aubergine-coloured or almost black pods; in the last stage of ripening, however, the anthocyanins get decomposed, and the unusual darkness thus gives way to normal orange or red colours.

Since different varieties of bell peppers have been cultivated in America long before the arrival of the Europeans, their native countries cannot be unambiguously determined; South American origin is, however, established for all species of genus Capsicum, which emerged probably in the area bordering Southern Brazil and Bolivia. Thence, the species moved to the North, being dispersed by birds.
Capsicum annuum: Prairiefire
Prairiefire, an ornamental of piquin type.

The three species C. annuum, C. frutescens and C. chinense evolved from a common ancestor which was located in the North of the Amazonas basin (NW-Brazil, Columbia). Further evolution brought C. annuum and C. frutescens to Central America, where they were finally domesticated (in México and Panamá, respectively), whereas C. chinense moved to the West and was first put to cultivation in Peru; (although today it is not much cultivated in South America). Two other species were first cultivated in Western South America: C. baccatum in the Peruvian lowlands and C. pubescens at higher elevations, in the Andes (Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador). See chile for more information about these species.

As paprika plants tolerate nearly every climate, the fruits are produced all over the world. A fairly warm climate is, however, necessary for a strong aroma; therefore, in Europe, Hungarian paprika has best reputation; the best comes from the Kalocsa region. In the Unites States, California and Texas are the main producers.

In many European languages, the name of this spice is somehow derived from the name of pepper, owing to the many confusions of pepper with other spices (for another example, see allspice).

So, in English it is called bell (or pod) pepper (because of shape) or sweet pepper (because of taste; cf. French piment doux or Spanish pimiento dulce); most confusingly, the English plural peppers always seem to imply paprika and never pepper!

Capsicum annuum: Paprika Flower
Flower of C. annuum

For reasons of clarity, the term pepper for Capsicum species will be totally avoided here. Instead, I will use paprika, which is moderately common in English (for the dried spice), more so in other tongues; it was loaned from Serbian pŕprika or Hungarian paprika (both Serbian and Hungarian cuisine make much use of middle-hot Capsicum powder). Ultimately, also paprika derives from the name of pepper (Serbian pŕpapr).

The botanical species name Capsicum is a neo-Latin derivation of Greek kápsa "box, capsule" and the refers to the shape of the fruits. There is an alternative, though much less probable, derivation starting from a related verb, káptein, translated "bite". The verb's basic meaning, however, is "seize, grasp"; it may also mean "grab using the teeth; bite", but even from this meaning it's a wide sematic shift to "biting" in the sense of "pungent". The old German name Beißbeere "biting berry" for hot chiles is probably a loan translation.

The genus name annuum means "annual" (Latin annus "year"). This name was chosen most unfortunately, because in the absence of winter frosts, paprika and its relatives can survive several seasons. In its natural habitat, paprika grows into large perennial shrubs.

Capsicum annuum: Chinese five-coloured paprika
Chinese five-coloured paprika cultivar.

The bright red colour of ground paprika is a remaining impression for everyone who has had an opportunity to visit a market in the Near or Middle East (from Morocco via Turkey to Northern India). In these regions, the spice is equally valued for taste as for colour. Its subtle, sweet flavour is compatible with hot and spicy dishes, but also mild stews profit greatly from it. Since paprika contains significant amounts of sugar, it must not be overheated, otherwise the sugar turns bitter. Frying paprika powder in hot oil is therefore critical and must last no longer than a few seconds.

A spice mixture from Central Asia employing paprika is baharat, a fiery composition from the countries around the Gulf of Persia. As many other mixtures from Arabic-influenced cuisines (see grains of paradise on Tunisian gâlat dagga, cubeb pepper on Moroccan ras el hanout and long pepper on Ethiopian berebere), baharat contains both pungent and aromatic spices: black pepper, chiles and paprika provide a pungent background and nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom contribute aromatic flavour; the mixture furthermore contains cumin and coriander fruits, all of which are ground to a fine powder. Baharat is mainly used for mutton dishes; most commonly, the mixture is shortly fried in oil or clarified butter to intensify the fragrance.

In Europe, especially Hungary and the Balkan countries are known for much paprika consumption, less so the Mediterranean countries, although some Spanish cultivars are famed (e.g., romesco). Even in those countries where hot chiles are disliked, mild paprika types are valued as spice and especially popular for stewed or barbecued meat and sausages. Paprika appears very frequently in commercial spice mixtures.

Capsicum annuum: Hungarian cherry pepper
Hungarian cherry paprika (cseresznyepaprika)

It is not fully clear how the paprika arrived in Hungary, but there is no doubt that the fruits were brought by the Turks in the 17.th century, who might have encountered them before in Portuguese settlements in Central Asia. Anyway, paprika became quickly naturalized and have since proved an important flavour in Hungarian cuisine. Still, some of the best paprika cultivars in Europe are found in Hungary. An example is the cherry paprika ("cherry pepper", cseresznyepaprika), which has medium pungency (well, enough for most Europeans) but an excellent flavour. This is one of the few non-American paprika cultivars that can rival with Mesoamerican, particularily Mexican, varieties. Cherry paprika can be dried and ground to a rather piquant paprika powder, but in Hungary it is also eaten fresh and served as a kind of table condiment. Lastly, it is very good pickled.

In Hungarian cuisine, different grades of paprika of varying pungency are used. There are four basic grades: különleges (special paprika), csemege (delicatesse paprika), édesnemes (sweet and noble paprika) und rózsa (rose paprika). Other than in México, these grades do not stemm from distinct paprika cultivars; the differences entirely come from the degree of ripeness at harvest time and selection of pods by size; a chief point accounting for the differences in pungency, colour and flavour is the proportion of mesocarp (fruit wall), placenta and seeds which are ground together. Különleges consists only of selected mesocarps of fully ripe harvested, flawless paprika fruits; it has a mild, delicate flavour, no pungency and a bright red colour. In the more common grade csemege, the paprika flavour is stronger, but it is still almost non-pungent. Édes-nemes has a subtle pungency, and rózsa is a piquant product with still good paprika flavour, but markedly reduced colour; for its production, the fruits may be plucked in a partially riped state and be subject to an artificial ripening process. Rózsa is the grade most often available in other countries.

To produce the milder grades, one needs much mesocarp, but only little veins, placenta and seeds. The excess material is then ground to yield a hot paprika powder (cípôs) of orange-brown colour and poor flavour; it is almost as pungent as common chile powders, e.g., cayenne pepper. In some literature, additional grades between rózsa and cípôs are mentioned (gulyás, erôs).

The Hungarian "national dish" is gulyás, which basically means "cattleman", and is also used to name the cattleman's favourite food: a thick and spicy soup made from beef, varying vegetables (potatoes, carrots) and a particular type of pasta. To get the right flavour and colour, chopped onions are lightly fried in pig's lard; when the onions take a pale yellow colour, paprika powder is stirred in and fried for a few more seconds before the remaining ingredients are added. It is the art of goulash making to fry the paprika powder as long as possible (to bring out its flavour), but stop the frying before it turns bitter (which may happen very quickly).

This food has been much copied but also bastardized in the cooking of other European countries; the "internationalized" versions (goulash) are often stews, not soups, made of beef or pork in a thick sauce made from onions and paprika powder. In Austria, often caraway is used for the seasoning. In Hungary, such a dish would be not be called a gulyás but a pörkölt; a pörkölt with sour cream added is a paprikás. Another well-known Hungarian food is lecsó, a tasty stew from nonpungent capsicum vegetable, tomatoes, onions and sometimes smoked bacon. Lecsó is flavoured with hot paprika.

Nunpungent paprika grown as a vegetable (often called bell pepper in English, although they aren't peppery at all) are an Eastern European invention, probably from Bulgaria. They arose quite lately, at the end of the 19.th century, and have become a popular food all over the world since then.

Although chile and paprika do not stem from Central America, the art of their cultivation has reached its highest peak in México. In México, the species Capsicum annuum is grown almost exclusively; it is unique among all Capsicum species because there are both pungent and mild cultivars. See chile for a discussion of the other species.

Capsicum annuum: Chiltecpin, flower and fruit
Chile tepín, flower and ripe fruit

It is often speculated that the variety called tepín or chiltepín (chilctepín, "flea chile", C. annuum var. aviculare or C. annuum var. glabrisculum), which grows wild in the North Mexican desert (Sonora) and also in parts of the US (Texas), might have been put to cultivation by an ancient Mexican people and has, thus, become the actual ancestor of all cultivated C. annuum varieties. By this line of reasoning, the chiltepín would be the ancestor of most of today's chile and paprika cultivars grown on all continents with the sole exception of Southern America, where still today botanically different species dominate (see chile for details). It is, however, difficult to explain (i) how the chiltepín could have travelled from its diversification locus (Amazonas basin) that far into the North without human help, and (ii) why all early records of chile cultivation point to Central and Southern México, never to the North. So the chiltepín is more probably a cultivar that has escaped back into the wild, not an original wild form.

The chiltepín is quite hot and can be fiercingly hot; it is much used for North Mexican cuisine and has quite recently established itself on the US market, fuelled by the large number of Mexican immigrants and the general interest in Mexican and other spicy food. It should be noticed that the tepín is still a wild plant, and all of the crop is collected from the wild. So far, all cultivation attempts have failed.

In México, there exists a continous spectrum of paprika pods, from the very mild to the very hot. Confusingly, all of them are usually referred to as chiles, and indeed they are all one botanical species. To keep things more compatible with other countries (where there is just hot chile and mild paprika, but nothing in between), I will not use the term chile for mild varieties, but stick to the name paprika for all mild to medium hot Mexican chiles.

Capsicum annuum: Chiltepin pods

Chiltepín pods

Capsicum annuum: Piquin fruits

Dried chile piquin

Mexican chiles and paprika are known and identified by their local names. The smallest of these are just one or two centimeter long: Besides the above-mentioned tepín, there is a whole class of cultivars called pequín or piquin with small, elongated and quite hot fruits. On the other side of the spectrum, there are large-fruited varieties with pods larger than 15 centimeters: Anaheim, chilaca, poblano, and New Mexico. Mexican cooks often use several varieties of fresh and/or dried chiles/paprikas for one recipe, because their chief goal in chile usage is not so much heat but flavour, which varies strongly between the different varieties.

Some of the Mexican capsicum cultivars are rather large, thick-fleshed and show only low heat. One of the most popular varieties is the poblano, whose large size (up to 12 cm long and 7 cm broad) and moderate heat make it even possible to use it as a vegetable: The famous recipe chiles rellenos consists of red or green poblanos stuffed with cheese, which are dipped in batter, deep-fried and served with a tomato sauce. Poblanos and other thick-fleshed varieties cannot simply be dried, but must be roasted and peeled or smoked before usage. According to the exact drying procedure, the same capsicum cultivar may be sold under different names; e.g., a dried poblano may be an ancho or a mulato. Dried capsicum mostly stems from ripe fruits, whereas fresh ripe capsicum is often hard to obtain because of short shelf life.

Capsicum annuum: Poblano
Poblanos are large-fruited paprikas with a fruity flavour and a mild, pleasant pungency.
Capsicum annuum: Ancho
The ancho is a dried poblano; it plays an eminent rôle in the cuisines of México.
Capsicum annuum: Chile pasilla

The chile pasilla (also called chile negro) is one of the most common Mexican chiles

Capsicum annuum: Costeno amarillo
The Mexican costeńo amarillo chile, dried


Capsicum annuum: Chilaca

Its fresh form, called chilaca, is dark green, almost black; it is used much more rarely.

Much of the secrets of Mexican cookery lies in the properties of dried capsicum. Roasting enhances the natural aroma of paprika, smoking may add new accents and given the multitude of different cultivars, a Mexican cook has almost unlimited possibilities to make his choice from. Salsas (see long coriander) may be made from either fresh or dried capsicum, or both. For sauces whose preparation involves long simmering periods, dried capsicums are unanimously preferred. Often, the dried capsicums are roasted again and rehydrated in hot (but not boiling) water before usage. This procedure again intensifies the flavour.

Mild varieties (like ancho, mulato and pasilla, which are often referred to as "the holy trinity") are commonly combined with less aromatic, but more pungent cultivars like the de arbol or the smoky chipotle. The results are often phantastic.

Capsicum annuum: Pasilla de Oaxaca

The Mexican pasilla de Oaxaca chile, dried and smoked

Capsicum annuum: Chile pulla

Dried chile pulla from México, Perú

Capsicum annuum: Chipotle

The Mexican chipotle chile is a dried and smoked ripe jalapeńo.

As ripe chiles cannot easily be stored, the Mexican Indians have invented a smoking precedure that yields chiles of unique culinary value. The most common smoked chile, the chipotle, has become an indispensible ingredient in the cooking style of the southwestern US (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona), as it provides a delicious balance of heat and smoky flavour. To use chipotles, they are normally ground or finely shredded befor usage; an exception to this rule are chipotles en adobo, which are whole chipotles stewed in a seasoned tomato sauce. In this form, the chipotles are used either as a snack or garnish for those who can stand it, or more commonly as an ingredient to flavour other foods.

Mexican mole sauces are very complex mixtures of several different capsicum cultivars plus a large variety of other ingredients; preparation takes quite a time, in some cases even days. Most mole call for dried chiles. Oaxaca, a province in Central México, is regarded the home of these sauces: In Oaxaca, seven classical recipes (los siete moles) are traded from generation to generation.

Most moles contain different kinds of nuts and seeds, which add body, furthermore spices like cinnamon and allspice, and aromatic vegetables (tomatoes, tomatillos). Corn flour (masa harina) or dried tortillas are used to thicken. It is essential to select the proper chiles: For example, mole negro ("black mole") needs the costly and rare chilhuacles negros, but mole amarillo ("yellow mole") is prepared with fresh guëros, a more pungent and less aromatic variety. The most famous recipe is mole rojo ("red mole", also known as mole Poblano); see sesame for details. For green mole (mole verde), see Mexican pepper-leaf.