Paprika – A spice that defines a country

photo from   

photo from

I defy you not to think of Hungary when you think of paprika.  That country and spice are like Siamese Twins; inexorably linked, and for me, Hungary is a country where some things just come in pairs.  Now I know that Spain is justly famous for their smoked Paprika, but that’s a topic for another post.  

Many people consider paprika bland, but I suspect that what they had tried was stale, pale versions that had lost their potency.  Its unfortunate that for a lot of people paprika has little use beyond a coloring agent; that dash of color to potato salad or deviled eggs.  Good, fresh paprika has so much more to offer.

History of Hungarian Paprika

During the 150 years of Turkish rule they introduced the pepper plant to the Hungarians in the 16th-17th centuries.  Initially, there was little excitement over this new spice – maybe a nice decorative plant in the garden, but gradually the shepherds and herdsmen who had the most contact with the Turks were converted and started to add the spice to their their meals.  Then the peasants wised up to the spice into their cooking repertoire, and finally the aristocrats found they liked the peasant foods flavored with the red spice very tasty and slowly they too took to using paprika.  By the 19th century paprika was the dominant spice in Hungarian kitchens and restaurants.  The French chef, Escoffier, spread the love farther when he introduced the spice to western European cuisine.   

Production of Hungarian Paprika

Cherry Pepper (photo from

Cherry Pepper (photo from

Due to the favourable climate and geographical conditions Hungarian paprika has a bright red colour and a distinctive rich flavour that allowed Hungary to became one of the leading paprika producers in the world.

Kalocsa and Szeged in the southern part of Hungary are the heart of paprika production in Hungary. These regions have the highest amount of sunny hours a year and paprika plants need lots of sunshine to get ripe and sweet.  Each city claiming supremacy for their paprika.  The harvesting proves a colorful spectacle as the towns are adorned with bright red, threaded paprika strings, hung from the fences and porches.  Those chilies are destined for homemade versions of this spice.  

The commercial farmers also used to hang the paprika string in rainproof areas, and let them desiccate first by the sunshine, and  then finishing the process in earthenware ovens.  Today the fresh peppers are dried in ovens.  Peppers in Hungary are air dried, or cured, for up to 25 days before grinding, as opposed to the United States where they are dried in about 30 hours. 

The dried pods were first crushed by foot then ground into a fine powder using a mortar and a pestle, to be replaced by water mills and later steam-powered mills towards the end of he 19th century.

During the first decades of paprika production the pungency of the powder couldn’t be controlled.  The reason is that the pepper’s veins and seeds contain the capsaicin responsible for its pungency and had to be manually removed prior to grinding; a very labor intensive and mind-numbing activity if ever there was one.  Given that not all the capsaicin was removed, it is impossible to predict the heat of the final product.

In the mid 1800’s the Palfy brothers from Szeged invented an efficient way to remove the veins and seeds thus enabling mass-market production of the sweet Hungarian paprika that has always been more popular than the hot types.  Ferenc Horváth and Jenő Obermayer form Kalocsa developed the first non-pungent pepper variety in the world through cross-breeding, and best of all, because it was naturally sweet there is no need to remove the veins and seeds.

Types of Hungarian paprika

These eight varieties you can expect to encounter in your search for Hungarian paprika:

  • Special quality (Különleges) – this is the mildest of all paprikas and has the most vibrant red color
  • Delicate (csípősmentes csemege)-mild paprika with rich flavor,
  • Exquisite delicate (csemege paprika) –slightly more pungent than the Delicate,
  • Pungent Excuisite delicate (csípős csemege), even more pungent
  • Noble sweet (édesnemes) – the most common type, slightly pungent with bright red color,
  • Half-sweet (félédes) – a medium-pungent paprika
  • Rose (rózsa) – light red colour, mildly pungent
  • Hot (erős) – the hottest of all paprikas, light brown-orange color (guaranteed to make you cry)
good souvenirs

good souvenirs

The varieties mentioned above can be further consolidated into four basic grades: különleges (special paprika), csemege (delicatesse paprika), édesnemes (sweet and noble paprika) and rózsa (rose paprika). These grades do not distinguish the paprika cultivars, the differences lie in the degree of ripeness at harvest time and selection of pods by size; a chief point adetermining 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. Édesnemes has a subtle pungency, and rózsa is a piquant product with good paprika flavour, but markedly reduced colour; for its production, the plucked fruit are only partially ripened. Rózsa is the grade most commonly exported and the one most often encountered at the grocer.


  1. Paprika has a short shelf life, so this is not a spice to stock up on.  It should be stored in a cool, dry place, in an airtight container away from sunlight and heat.
  2. To release the full flavour and aroma of the paprika you have to add it to hot oil, but do not get distracted, as it burns easily because of its high sugar content.  To be on the safe side turn the heat under the pan to the lowest level or remove the pan from the heat while you add the paprika to the hot oil and stir the mixture continuously.

Other forms and uses of Hungarian paprika:

Dry, whole pepper  – can be added to many stews and casseroles.

Fresh peppers are used in salads and it’s the main ingredient of lecsó (pepper-tomato stew).,

Fresh peppers can be pickled.

Pálinka (brandy) is made from paprika.

Paprika can also be found in a paste and it is a great addition to any sauces that you make, or as a condiment on the side.  The sauce comes in small bottles under the brands Erős Pista (hot) and Édes Anna (sweet), or in tubes under the name Piros Arany (meaning Red Gold).

If the peppers are canned or bottled we know them as pimento.

Hungarian Goulash

goulash (photo from

goulash (photo from

In Hungary, goulash is called Gulyás. Gulyásleves is prepared as a soup (leves = “soup”). The dish Gulyás was traditionally a thick stew, made by herdsmen. The goulash can still be prepared both like a soup and a stew. The traditional Hungarian stews: Goulash, Pörkölt and Paprikas, sharing the same origin, as herdsmens stews, are considered to be the national dishes of Hungary.

Hungarian goulash varieties

Gulyás à la Szeged – Reduce the amount of potatoes and substitute vegetables.

Gulyás Hungarian Plain Style. Omit the home made soup pasta (csipetke) and add vegetables.

Mock Gulyás. Substitute the meat with beef bones and add vegetables. Also called Hamisgulyás, (Fake Goulash or Gypsy goulash).

Bean Gulyás. Omit the potatoes and the caraway seeds. Use kidney beans instead.

Csángó Gulyás. Add sauerkraut and rice replace pasta and potatoes.

Betyár Gulyás. Use smoked beef or smoked pork for meat.

Likócsi Pork Gulyás. Use pork and thin vermicelli in the goulash instead of potato and soup pasta. Flavour with lemon juice.

Mutton Gulyás or Birkagulyás. Made with mutton. Add red wine for flavour.

A thicker and richer goulash, similar to a stew, originally made with three kinds of meat, is called Székely gulyás was named after writer, journalist and archivist József Székely. 

The options are vasts, with opinions aplenty; some cookbooks suggest using roux with flour to thicken the goulash, which produces a starchy texture and a blander taste.  Others suggest using a large quantities of tomatoes for color and taste.  But the original goulash is a paprika-based dish and if tomatoes are added, their taste should not be discernible. Many Hungarian chefs consider tomatoes as abolition in goulash and they also feel that if they cook a stew instead of a soup, it should only be thickened by finely chopped potatoes, which must be simmered along with the meat.

Hungarian Goulash (4 servings):

recipe for Budapest Blogger Chillies & Vanilia

1 kg beef, cubed
3-4 large onions, finely chopped
4-5 T peanut oil
3-4 T Hungarian sweet paprika
salt, pepper
1 green pepper, sliced (she recommends a mild pepper other than bell peppers)
1 fresh tomato (optional)

Heat oil in a saucepan. Add the finely chopped onions and cook until translucent. Now comes an important secret step: remove the saucepan from the heat and now add the paprika – this is very important as if you would do this step still on the heat, the paprika could burn from the sudden heat and get bitter. Put it back, add beef cubes and stir so that the spicy onion mix evenly covers the meat.  Cover with about 100-150ml water so that the liquid doesn’t completely cover the meat. Add the sliced green pepper, the whole tomato (later will be removed at the end), salt, pepper. Simmer covered on very low heat for about 1-1½ hours. After 1 hour, check, add a litle more water if necessary, so the stew doesn’t burn. Depending on the thickness of the sauce, cook for 10-15 minutes uncovered so that all the liquid reduces and all what you get is a spicy, thick sauce which covers the meat. It tastes even better reheated, so feel free to make it a day ahead of time.

A Hungarian proverb: One man may yearn for fame, another for wealth, but everyone yearns for paprika goulash.


Budapest is a two for one deal – it is really two cities in one Buda on the West side of the Danube River and Pest on the other side.  It is the capital of Hungary and divided into 23 districts, all given a Roman numerals for reference.  But if that is too complicated, think of it this way:

  • Buda – The hilly West side of the Danube (Districts I-III, XI-XII, XXII).
  •  Castle Hill – District I of Buda, the oldest part of the city containing the eponymous Castle and many of Budapest’s best-known attractions.
  •  Pest – The flat East side of the Danube, covering the modern commercial core of the city (Districts IV-IX).

I visited these cities in the dead of winter, not the best time, but certainly a good time to miss the tourists and get a real sense of the cities.  I was traveling with my brother and we had no firm plans, and in fact we took rooms advertised as we got off the train.  By advertised, I mean a woman stood near the trains as we got off and had a photo album with some pictures of her apartment.  She drove us back and we stayed at her place, definitely nothing fancy but it gave us a glimpse into the apartment of ordinary Hungarians.  I remember that my room came to the equivalent of $5 US per night, and they also offered the use of their washing machine for the same price.  In the US, I doubt you would ever find a hotel costing the same amount as a load of laundry, it would usually be a factor of at least 15x higher.  Hmm – load of laundry or one night’s stay in a foreign city.

Another advantage for traveling at this time of the year, is the food of Hungary is on the heavy side, at least for a salad loving Californian and the hearty soups, stews and meat dishes felt just right on those cold, blustery days.


photo from

photo from

Budapest first appeared on the world scene when the Romans founded the town of Aquincum around 89 AD, and it soon became the capital of the province of Lower Pannonia, and the Romans even founded a proto-Pest known as Contra Aquincum on the other side of the river.

The Magyars replaced the Romans around 900, who founded the kingdom of Hungary. The Mongols proved uninvited house guests in 1241, but the Magyars restored their control and built the Royal Castle that still today dominates Buda in 1427.

In 1541, Buda and Pest fell to the Ottomans and stayed in the hands of the Turks until 1686, when the Austrian Habsburgs conquered the town. Now at peace, both sides of the river boomed, and after an abortive Hungarian revolution in 1848–49, the great Compromise of 1867 made Budapest the united capital of the Hungarian half of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.

After World War II, the city recovered, and in 1956 was the site of the Hungarian uprising against unpopular policies such as collectivisation. The revolution against communist rule ended when the Soviets sent in the tanks as they felt Hungary slipping from their grip. Today’s Budapest is the wealthiest and most cosmopolitan city in Hungary. 

photo from

photo from

Buda Castle (Budai Vár) is the historical castle of the Hungarian kings in Budapest, Hungary, first completed in 1265.  Built on the southern tip of Castle Hill, next to the old Castle District (Várnegyed), it is famous for its medieval, Baroque and 19th century houses and public buildings. It is linked to Adam Clark Square and the Széchenyi Chain Bridge by the Castle Hill Funicular.  I remember walking around with it being very chilly and the sky was gloomy and foreboding with the biggest snowflakes I had ever seen, slowly drifting down.  I turned a corner and saw this gate, very fitting in the atmospheric setting and I thought it was one of the coolest things I had ever seen, definitely out of place with the architecture, but certainly not afraid to make a statement.

Buda Castle was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, as were many other sections around Budapest.

Orientation is not a problem in Budapest, the visitor just needs to figure out where she is relative to the River Danube that dividess the city in two: Buda and Pest. Aside from the very center, the city’s structure is quite logical. Landmarks on the hill in Buda such as the Royal Castle or Citadella Castle serve as a guide. Besides the Danube itself, the best reference points for orienting yourself are the bridges crossing the river. From North to South, they are:

Árpád Bridge (Árpád híd), A modern bridge linking to Northern Margaret Island. The longest bridge in Budapest at 973 meters.

Margaret Bridge (Margit híd), Easily identified thanks to its distinctive shape: it makes an approximately 35° turn half way across, at the southern tip of Margaret Island. 

Chain Bridge (Széchenyi lánchíd), Completed in 1849, the oldest, and most photographed of Budapest’s bridges, floodlit at night.

Elisabeth Bridge (Erzsébet híd), Completed in 1903. Its original chain structure was destroyed in World War II, and was rebuilt as a cable bridge in 1964.

Liberty Bridge (Szabadság híd), Elegant but simple, opened in 1896; it connects the Gellért Baths (Gellért fürdő) in Buda with the Great Market Hall (Nagyvásárcsarnok) in Pest. 

Petőfi Bridge (Petőfi híd), Links the inner ring road (Nagykörút) of Pest with Buda.

Lágymányosi Bridge (Lágymányosi híd), The newest bridge in Budapest, with modern architecture and a spectacular lighting system where mirrors reflect the light beams of the floodlights.

Most of Budapest’s famous sights are concentrated on Castle Hill on the Buda side, in downtown Pest and along the riverside walkways.

The main sights on Castle Hill are:

The Royal Palace (Királyi palota). The most popular attraction on the hill. Home to the:

National Gallery (Nemzeti Galéria).  The Royal Palace houses an astounding collection of paintings.

The Fisherman’s Bastion and lookout terrace (Halászbástya), and offers impressive views across the Danube to Pest.

Matthias Church (Mátyás templom, aka Church of Our Lady). Dominant neogothic church crowning Budapest’s cityscape.

Downtown (Belváros) Pest is the business center of Budapest. The main sights here are:

The Parliament Building (Országház). A neogothic jewel, beautifully situated overlooking the Danube.  This building is huge!

St. Stephen Cathedral (Szent István Bazilika). The main church of Budapest is an important example of neoclassical architecture.

Great Synagogue and the Jewish Museum (Dohány utcai Zsinagóga) is the biggest Synagogue in Europe, and very impressive.  

The Andrássy út boulevard in Pest stretches from Downtown (Belváros) to the City Park (Városliget). It is listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and has some important sights along it.

On Buda side there are:

Aquincum was a city in the Roman times, what is left is now a wonderful outdoor museum. It is located in the Óbuda district of northern Buda.

Gül Baba Türbéje is the shrine where Gül Baba (literally Rose Father) lies. He was a rich Turkish merchant in the Ottoman empire.  The shrine offers good views, and the little street which leads down the hill containing more houses that won the “House of the Year” award.  This is a fun walk and a great way to check out a section of the city.

Kassák Museum at the Zichy Castle shows works of the modern Hungarian artists as well as modern Hungarian art.

Statue Park – Rather than smash the statues of the Communist era, the Hungarians ironically arranged them in this park to the south of Buda.

Buda Hill Labyrinth. The Labyrinths are accessible by two points on the Buda hills. Original formed from hot water springs and then during WW2, they were linked with some of the cellars on the hill to create an air raid shelter for up to 10,000 people and a military hospital. The labyrinth is now a popular tourist attraction.


Budapest is a famous spa city, so go “bathing”. The baths are a reminder of the Turkish culture in Budapest, left from their occupation of the city. Budapest does not have a large Turkish culture the way a city like Berlin or Munich does; instead the Hungarians have modified this tradition into their own.  All baths are built around hot springs, and their central part is one or several thermal pools.  Just note that for those of you that are not used to this sort of bathing it can be a bit disconcerting. Modesty does not enter the picture.

  Great Market Hall

photo from

photo from

The Great Market Hall started in 1894 opened in 1897, and was considered one of the most modern indoor markets of its time, with up-to-date lighting and refrigeration.  I have to say, this was one of my favorite stops of the trip, and my brother was very patient with me.  We, well me, stocked up on treasures to take back to the US.   

The array of scents coupled with the vivid colors of the products displayed in the stalls hit you when you enter.  Strings of red paprika and garlic, Hungarian salamis, sausages, hams and other meat products, fresh pastries, dairy products, Hungarian wines pálinka, dried mushrooms, and honey just to get started. Walking the rows is a culinary tour of Hungary – my kind of tour.

Of the three levels the ground floor is the busiest, just inside the main entrance are fruits and vegetables from around the world. Hungarian paprika powder and other authentic Hungarian food stuffs such salami, dried fruits, and tokaji aszú. As you advance to the outer rows, the prices drop.  However, if you are like me in these kind of places, this is the start of an endless loop, that only a strong willed sibling can help break.    

The basement is where the supermarket, fishmongers, spice markets and delicatessens are located.

The upper floor attract tourists because of the rich selection of Hungarian embroidery, white peasant shirts and other art and craft products.  This is the place to grab tasty and cheap Hungarian food – atmosphere is not a consideration.  I got some beautiful table clothes and ceramics here with some unique designs.

 What you might grab at the food stalls: 

  • fried sausages
  • black pudding,
  • lángos (deep-fried disk-shaped pastry, with garlic, sour cream and grated cheese on top)
  • pancakes

Budapest is a wonderful place to explore, and if you have never considered it give it a change.  If like me, you stumbled first into Pest and were less than enthusiastic about the Communist era buildings, just keep walking because what will be unearthed is worth the price of admission, plus as it is not as popular as some of Europe’s other capitals, it is also cheaper.

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25 comments for “Paprika – A spice that defines a country

  1. June 15, 2009 at 8:07 AM

    Great post! Love it! Thanks for all the info. My favorite part of traveling to another country is always eating at the food stalls. I think you get a real slice of life that way. Cheers!

  2. June 15, 2009 at 10:08 AM

    I was an exchange student when I was 16 and my host country was Hungary. This post makes me miss my host family and friends there, and of coz, the Hungarian food. Apart from paprika, magyar sütemény (Hungarian pastries)& wine are extremely heavenly as well! Thank you very much for sharing!

  3. June 15, 2009 at 10:18 AM

    Hey Oyster – I was away for the weekend so not sure when you got your new digs but it looks great!

    I love smoky Hungarian paprika. So true about paprika and it being bland when its a little old – when you have it fresh its so vibrant and delicious.

  4. greg
    June 15, 2009 at 10:25 AM

    Love the new look and the same attention to great and informative posts. I feel like I went on vacation. GREG

  5. June 15, 2009 at 10:36 AM

    I love paprika! I didn’t know that you needed to add it to hot oil. And who knew there were so many varieties of goulash!? I want to try them all! I like your new site!

  6. June 15, 2009 at 12:22 PM

    We don’t use it as much as we should really, but paprika is great for flavor and color. Love it on our deviled eggs. 🙂

  7. June 15, 2009 at 12:28 PM

    I LOOOOOOVE paprika. It’s the one thing I have to have in my spice rack. I would love to try authentic Hungarian paprika. Know anyone from Hungry that can ship some over? =)

  8. June 15, 2009 at 4:55 PM

    When I was growing up, I remember paprika as just something added to deviled eggs and twice-baked potatoes for a dash of color. Your post is a good reminder that this valuable pepper actually does have a wonderful, complex taste when it’s fresh. We should all throw out our old containers that have been in our pantries for ages, and buy a new, fresh jar for endless inspiration.

  9. June 15, 2009 at 7:34 PM

    Wow, I had no idea paprika is so highly-esteemed! i don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting real good paprika, though 🙁

  10. June 15, 2009 at 7:36 PM

    I love to use paprika in my cooking and been especially using the smoky one a lot lately. I love Hungarian goulash too, my mom makes a good one.

  11. admin
    June 15, 2009 at 8:19 PM

    Amber – thanks, and I agree trying the “street” food is a great way to get a feel for a country’s food and culture. One of my favorite ways to explore?

    Kenny T – how awesome that you spent a great amount of time there and got to explore the food and culture. I came away so impressed by my visit and hope to make it back soon.

    Gastro – totally agree, the smokey variety adds such a nice depth to the food, love it.

    GREG – Thanks, that’s what you’re suppose to feel like =) I do all the heavy lifting for you.

    Reni – there are far more goulashes than I mentioned here, I only touched on some of the Hungarian varieties. Its a bit overwhelming.

    Duo – with your creativity, I expect to see a post of some incredible food here soon.

    B+B – I totally expected you to say to took second place to some incredible spice from the Philippines. Don’t have a good source at the present, but am happy to share. My suggestion is to find an ethnic store, here’s one in Burbank: Let me know what you think. Oops just remembered about Penzy’s too.

    Carolyn – I sense a trip to Penzy’s in your future.

    Sophia – now’s a great opportunity. I can imagine the wonderful creative ways you’ll treat it. You gotta go for the good stuff, there is no comparison.

    Natasha – I can only imagine the treatment paprika receives in your house – its probably elevated to another level =)

  12. June 16, 2009 at 7:35 AM

    Ah, Lángos in the Great Market Hall … (sigh)

    I agree with the Hungarian proverb. I know I yearn for goulash all the time, especially in the winter. However, the best goulash I’ve ever had is the Czech version (ironically, the worst goulash I’ve ever had is also at restaurant in Czech Republic). It’s made by a Czech friend’s mother who later revealed she’d been using an instant goulash mix to make it. No family heirloom recipe or anything like that. There goes my romantic fantasy.

  13. June 16, 2009 at 7:38 AM

    Now I want to do a taste test to compare different paprikas! I’ve never seen the eros type, but I’d love to try that.

  14. June 16, 2009 at 7:45 AM

    Smokey paprika is delicious and complex… I use it but not all the time. When I do I’m reminded of how much I love the flavor!

  15. admin
    June 16, 2009 at 8:11 AM

    Leela – sounds like some fond memories for you. I was stunned at the varity of different goulashes, and I even have some of that instant goulash mix at home, I did an entire post of Knox bouillon cubes.

    Lisa – me too, some enterprising person should put together a sampler pack. Wait, maybe I’ll do that =)

    Lisa, nothing beats smokey paprika it adds an extra umph to foods.

  16. June 16, 2009 at 10:55 AM

    Anything that goes by the name “Pungent Exquisite Delicate” gets my attention! I have had plenty of bland/old paprika in my time, but I now have some fine smoked paprika gracing my cupboards and it’s lovely stuff indeed.

  17. June 16, 2009 at 1:02 PM

    Another brilliant post full of useful information! We use paprika a lot at home. And of course my favourite crisps (as in potato chips) are paprika flavoured, from Germany! That was the only flavour available there when I lived there as a child, and it’s the best…

  18. June 17, 2009 at 1:03 PM

    Great post! It explains why overseas I’ve had paprika flavored potato chips but was confused why they were spicy. I had no idea there were so many varieties. Is the hot variety also smokey? I’d love to get my hands on some =)

  19. admin
    June 17, 2009 at 4:45 PM

    Daily Spud – they cover a lot of territory with that name, and its hard to argue with that one.

    Helen – thanks for the compliment. I agree that some of the best chips I ever had were paprika flavored and surprisingly spicy. We’ve just been given inferior product all this time.

    Michele – Thanks funny how the best chips seem to be made from paprika?

  20. June 17, 2009 at 8:50 PM

    I never found the name ‘goulash’ very appealing – that is, until I made it and found it to be quite delicious. To be honest, every time I see or hear ‘paprika’, it reminds me of an early Rosie O’Donnell routine about bridal shower gifts of spice racks with individually-wrapped spices: “Ooooo – paapriiikaaa!”

  21. June 18, 2009 at 3:00 PM

    This is all great but I preder Pimentón de la Vera! It is the real stuf!! It comes in 2 variaties, the dulce ( sweet ) version & the picanté version.
    The paprika powder has an earthen & smoked flavour. You can buy them in Spain food shops. You must defenitly try it!

    You can’t compair it with ordinary Hongarian sweet papprika!

  22. admin
    June 19, 2009 at 4:23 PM

    TN – I remember my bridal shower gift from Pensey’s and I’m struggling to recall if I said “Ooooo – paapriiikaaa!” I knew I was thinking of all the wonderful goodies I could make.

    Sophie – I love the Spanish paprika as well, and intend to make it a subject of an upcoming post.

  23. July 1, 2009 at 8:09 AM

    Fabulous post! Thank you for sharing your wonderful trip to Budapest. I’m hoping hubby will want to connect with his heritage one day (he’s 1/4 Hungarian)so I can visit the Great Market Hall. And you’ve just reminded me that I need to replace my paprika 🙂

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