Paprikas csirke: “Paprika Chicken”

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Chicken is invariably the cheapest meat in my neighborhood supermarket. This means the bird in some form often ends up on our dinner table: roast chicken, fried chicken, chicken soup, white stew chicken, to name a few.

To avoid a “Not chicken again, Pop!” remark from one of my sons, I’ve taken to using spices as camouflage—thus homemade chicken curry, Moroccan chicken tagine, and most recently when I cracked open a 25-year-old Hungarian cookbook, Paprikas csirke “paprika chicken.”

This Hungarian recipe calls for lard, chicken fat, and the labor intensive practice of cutting up a 3-pound chicken. After looking at half a dozen recipes in other cookbooks and on the Internet, I put together a recipe that is easy, quick, inexpensive, relatively low fat, and adapted for ingredients found readily in Japanese supermarkets.

Testing out my new recipe , I used Spanish paprika, and the meal was very good. However, I wanted to try the real deal. So, I spent a long afternoon on subways and JR lines traversing the city in search of the elusive Hungarian spice, inquiring at seven supermarkets and three gourmet food shops, including a famous New York City-based delicatessen where one young female clerk told me, “We don’t stock many spices anymore. Japanese don’t cook with spices.”

You could have knocked me over with a saffron stamen.

Spice racks abound in every Tokyo supermarket. Paprika is always between freeze-dried parsley and pepper. But all that red powder comes from Spain.

In desperation, I called the Hungarian embassy in Tokyo and was told that Hungarian paprika is no longer imported into Japan. Serendipitously, however, Japan was celebrating Hungarian Weeks, a new Hungarian restaurant had opened in Ginza, and food and wine events were taking place in Tokyo and Osaka. And the chef at the embassy generously blessed me with a small packet of the delicate, noble sweet édesnemes quality paprika.

Seek out this wonderful spice. It is available via the Internet. Hungarian paprika has a deeper, more floral fragrance than its Spanish cousin, and a richer, more complex taste. Spanish paprika though, especially the sweet, pimenton dulce, is a very good substitute.

Ingredients:

• 900 grams rough-cut boneless chicken thigh

• 400 grams rough-cut chicken breast

• 2 medium onions

• two large ripe tomatoes or one 14-oz. can diced tomatoes

• one large sweet red pepper, 2-3 green peppers (or more depending on size)

• two tablespoons vegetable oil

• two tablespoons best paprika (preferably Hungarian)

• pinch of ground clove

• one teaspoon salt

• 100ml water

• two tablespoons heavy cream

To thicken the sauce:

• two tablespoons sour cream

• one tablespoon all-purpose flour

• one teaspoon water

The noodles:

• 250 grams fettucini egg noodles prepared as per package instructions

• a little sweet butter to finish the noodles

Use the heaviest lidded casserole or pot you have. You’ll be simmering the chicken in its juices at the lowest possible heat, and you don’t want it to burn.

First, get the chicken ready. Using the “mizutaki” chicken is a cinch because it’s already cut into boneless chunks. To make this a more “low fat” dish, I remove the skin remaining on the meat. A five minute task. Sometimes you’ll have to resort to a knife, but usually all it takes is a firm tug to remove the skin. The “sasami,” breast meat, chicken pieces should be cut roughly into 3-centimeter long pieces too. This takes about a minute.

When in season, use two large ripe tomatoes, the best you can find. Skin and dice them. However, when those sad supermarket objects labeled tomatoes are barely pink and about as edible as tennis balls, a can of diced tomatoes is the ticket.

Dice two medium onions. Heat two tablespoons of vegetable oil in the casserole, add the diced onions and let them sweat on low heat for 5-10 minutes covered until the onions become soft and translucent, but not browned. Stir occasionally.

Now add the chicken chunks and the diced tomatoes. Stir to coat everything with the softened onions. Cover and let simmer again for ten minutes.

Stir in two heaping tablespoons of paprika, one teaspoon of salt, one pinch of ground clove (optional), and 100ml of water. The earliest published recipe for Paprika Chicken appeared in 1829 and included a pinch of clove. Modern cookbooks neglect this spice, so I’ve added it back in for old time’s sake. Cover again and let everything simmer for 30 minutes on the lowest possible heat. Stir occasionally.

Now cut up the peppers. The green peppers sold in supermarkets in Japan are fairly puny—usually four or five to the package. I use all of them. Cut, remove the seeds, the white membrane, and the stems. Chop the flesh roughly into chunks. Repeat with the sweet red pepper. I’ve added this vegetable for its color, and to complement the powdered red pepper of the paprika.

Combine two tablespoons of sour cream with one tablespoon of all-purpose flour and one teaspoon of water. Mix thoroughly until smooth and creamy.

Once the chicken, tomato, and onions have simmered for 20 minutes, stir in the chopped green and red peppers. Cover and simmer for another ten minutes until the peppers have softened.

With a slotted spoon, remove the chicken pieces and peppers from the casserole to a large bowl. You’ll have about two cups of rich sauce remaining in the pot. Turn up the heat and reduce the sauce for a few minutes until it thickens. It shouldn’t be watery.

Turn down the heat to low and stir the sour cream/flour/water mixture into the sauce. Whisk the sauce until very smooth. Return the chicken and peppers to the pot, stir to coat evenly. Cover and let everything simmer over low heat for 5-10 minutes.

Turn off the heat, pour in two tablespoons of heavy cream. Stir thoroughly. Serve with buttered fettuccine egg noodles.

What did my sons think of another meal of chicken? They asked for seconds. And at the end of the meal, the table was noisy with spoons scraping against plates, gathering up every last bit of sauce.

“Can’t waste a drop,” said Nick. I’ll chalk that remark up to the authentic Hungarian  édesnemes paprika.