Sunday, December 20, 2009

Memories of Christmas in Prague, Paprika and Nanny's Traveling Adventures

When I was seven years old, my grandparents went on a Christmas trip to Hungary, Turkey and Greece. I couldn't get over the idea that they visited countries named after foods and hunger; really— it took me years.

On her return from that trip Nanny, my grandmother, told me fantastical stories of her journey. I was enthralled with the mythical Christmas celebrations she experienced and foods she ate in those countries. She brought my mother a tin of sweet Hungarian paprika. My family lived in the very middle of Ohio, and although both my mother and father were and are exceptional cooks, paprika just was not a substance used in their 1970's recipe repertoire.

Personally, I always thought of paprika as a sort of decorative spice; never actually used to flavour anything. My experience with it was as extensive as sprinkling it with a flourish over the bowl of Campbell's Cream of Potato Soup that Mrs. Young would give me for lunch, when I was at her house playing with her daughter Lara, my best friend.

And that was as far as I got with paprika for the first 36 years of my life. Then during our first Christmas living abroad, away from our extended family, we decided to go to Prague in the Czech Republic. It was there that I tasted Cesky Gulas (Czech goulash). Hearty chunks of beef flooded in a rich paprika gravy, goulash was nothing like I the generic impression (a sort of murky, mystery stew) I had always imagined.

Although originally Hungarian, goulash has been a staple in Czech home cooking for centuries. Like what clam chowder is to New England or lamb stew to Ireland—the dish touches an emotional chord in Czechs. It carries with it a history, and (this may sound corny, but...) like many traditional foods, if the goulash is prepared with sincere care, you can taste the history.

It was in trying goulash in Prague that I first became an admirer of paprika as a flavouring agent rather than just a dusting of colour. Since then, I’ve been motivated to make goulash whenever it is cold and rainy (which, as I have previously overstated, is often here in England).

Last night I wanted the same paprika flavour (and it does have such a distinct, full flavour), but I had a mess of chicken thighs that I needed to use, and so I devised this recipe for Chicken Paprikash, or Paprika Chicken. It’s not rocket science, it’s nothing extraordinary, it is a simple, satisfying chicken dish with a lovely, rich sauce that, when made with love, evokes memories of Christmas in Prague, my first real taste of paprika and the adventures in travel my grandmother shared with me so many years ago.

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