Paprika beyond Hungary and Spain

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A recent post on Hungarian paprika hinted at the possibilities of paprika’s use expands beyond the political confines of Hungary.  The bright red colour of ground paprika leaves a lasting impression for anyone visiting the spice markets from Morocco to Turkey to Iraq to Northern India. In these regions, the spice is prized as much for its taste as its colour. Its subtle, sweet flavour is compatible with hot and spicy dishes, but with its addition, even mild stews benefit.

Paprika can be found in spice mixtures famous in these regions.


A spice mixture from Central Asia incorporating paprika is baharat, a fiery composition from the countries around the Gulf of Persia. The Arabic word baharat means “the spices” so the baharat blend is simply  a spice mixture.  Like other mixtures from Arabic-influenced cuisines, baharat contains both pungent and aromatic spices.  Baharat is mainly used for mutton dishes.  The most common application requires that the mixture is briefly fried in oil, or clarified butter (ghee), to intensify the fragrance. In the Eastern Mediterranean, a simpler baharat mixture is used that consists mainly of black pepper and allspice.

Typical baharat ingredients may include:

Black peppercorns
Cardamom seeds
Cassia bark
Coriander seeds
Cumin seeds

This is a spice mix that is customized to suite local tasted; Turkish baharat incorporates mint as a special ingredient. While in Tunisia, bharat is simply a mixture of dried rosebuds and ground cinnamon, often mixed with black pepper. In the Gulf States, loomi (dried black lime) and saffron may be added for the kebsa spice mixture, and can be distinguished by the name: “Gulf baharat”, and in Syria, baharat or bahar is a spice mixture primarily consisting of allspice.

The mixture can be rubbed into meat or mixed with olive oil and lime juice as a marinade.  It is often fried in butter prior to use.

Ras el hanout

A popular blend of herbs and spices used across the Middle East and North Africa. The name means “head of the shop” in Arabic, and indicates that this mixture contains the shopkeeper’s best spices.  No definitive combination of spices that makes up Ras el hanout. Each shop, company, person has their own secret combination containing over a dozen spices, but might include cardamom, clove, cinnamon, paprika, coriander, cumin, mace, nutmeg, peppercorn, and turmeric.  Some recipes include over one hundred ingredients, and some less common ingredients may include ash berries, chufa, Grains of Paradise, orris root, Monk’s pepper, cubebs, and dried rosebud.  The mixture is typically made by toasting all the ingredients, and then grinding them together. Individual recipes are often improvised.

Ras el hanout is used in pastilla, the Moroccan squab/young pigeon and almond pastry, is sometimes rubbed on meats, and stirred into couscous or rice. Some swear it has aphrodisiac properties.

I’m not sure about ras el hanout as an aphrodisiac, but it was love at first taste with that initial bite of pastilla.  Some Moroccan friends made me pastilla, and can I just say, this is an incredible dish?  If you’ve never tried it, I urge you to either make it yourself, or if you have a Moroccan restaurant near by to book a table now.  Pastilla (pronounced “bastiyya”‎), or also known as bastilla, bisteeya, b’stilla or bstilla, is an elaborate meat pie traditionally made of squab.  Given that squabs can be difficult to come by, shredded chicken is more common, and fish can also be used as a filling.  It is a pie which combines sweet and salty flavours; a combination of crisp layers of the crêpe-like warka dough similar but thinner than phyllo dough, savory meat slow-cooked and shredded, and a crunchy layer of toasted and ground almonds, cinnamon, and sugar.  Most recipes I’ve seen and followed, use phyllo dough, so do not worry about substituting.  I confess to being skeptical about my pastilla when they told me it was meat with powdered sugar, but like I said after that first bite I was transported to another place.  A better place.

Chicken Pastilla

recipe adopted from Joyce Goldstein’s book Saffron Shores, serves 10-12 for appetizer size.

According to Joyce, the origins of this dish are hotly contested.  Was it a dish that the Arabs brought to Spain, or vise versa – a Hispanic-Arabic dish brought from the Andalusia to Morocco?  I’d be happy to sit and debate the merits of each argument all day as long as I had a plate of this wonderful dish in front of me.

Ingredients for poultry filling

4 # chicken breast
¼ c vegetable oil
salt + pepper
1 ½ c chopped onion
¼c chopped fresh cilantro
2 T chopped flat leaf parsley
½ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp saffron, crushed
1 tsp ground cumin
½ tsp cayenne pepper
½ tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground ginger
1 c water

2 T fresh lemon juice (optional)

8 eggs, beaten

Ingredients for almond filling

4T vegetable oil
1 ½ c slivered almonds
2 T granulated sugar
½ tsp cinnamon

8 T butter
1 # phyllo dough
3 T confectioner’s sugar
1 T cinnamon
almonds for garnish (optional)


For filling:  Sprinkle breasts with salt and pepper,  In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat and brown breasts evenly.  Transfer to a platter.  Add ions to skillet and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes.  Add herbs, spices, and water.  Bring to a boil and return breast to the pan, and reduce heat to low and simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the breasts are tender.  Remove from pan and cool to touch.  Debone and shred to strips.

Cook the liquid on high until it is reduced to about 1 3/4 c.  Add the lemon juice.  Reduce to low.  Stir eggs into pan liquids and cook, stiffing constantly over low head until very soft curds form.  Seas with salt and pepper.  Drain the egg mixture in a strainer and set aside.

To make the almond mixture, in a large saute pan, heat the oil over low heat and fry the almonds for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden brown.  Drain on paper towels, and coarsely chop.  Toss with sugar and cinnamon.  Set aside.

To Assemble:

Brush a 12″ pie plat with butter.  Add 6 sheets of phyllo brushing each with butter, and arranging them like to spokes of a wheel and overlapping them so that the pan is covered and part of the phyllo overhang the sides.  Sprinkle half of the almond mixture into a 10′ found area in the center.  Spoon half of the almond mixture over the almonds.  Spoon the rest of the egg mixture, then the rest of the almonds.  Fold the overhanging phyllo over the eggs and almonds.  Add 6 to 8 more sheets of phyllo dough and then tuck the overhanging pieces under the pastilla.

Preheat the over to 350 o F  and bake until the pie is golden on top about 20 minutes.  Drain any excess oil.  Flip the pie over into another pan and bake for an additional 10-15 minutes.  Turn one last time and bake for 5 minutes.  Slide the pie onto a serving platter.  Combine the confectioner’s sugar and cinnamon, and sprinkle with mixture.  Cut into wedges and enjoy.

And another idea, lamb tanjia, using ras en hanout by one of my favorite San Francisco chefs, Mourad Lahlou of Aziza, and graciously provided by Carolyn Jung of Foodgal.

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17 comments for “Paprika beyond Hungary and Spain

  1. August 20, 2009 at 8:44 AM

    Pastilla keeps coming to my attention lately, and I keep thinking about how I’d love to try making it. Such a delicious combination.

  2. August 20, 2009 at 8:51 AM

    I’ve tried Pastilla only once before (with shredded chicken) and it was so dark in the restaurant I couldn’t see what I was eating. I really enjoyed the sweet/savory flavors with the delicious pastry. When I finally looked at the photos the next day, I was SHOCKED to see how much powdered sugar was on top – it looked like a dessert! I’ve heard of Ras el hanout on shows like Top Chef and I’ve always been so curious about it, one of the contestants used it as his secret weapon. But I guess I must like it since it’s an ingredient in Pastilla 🙂

  3. sippitysup
    August 20, 2009 at 9:12 AM

    Pastilla with chicken it sounds so exotic. I think I have had it before. You version looks great. GREG

  4. August 20, 2009 at 11:38 AM

    Yes, Paprika!! Yum pastillas. I saw this once, but I wasn’t able to try it. It looks really good though. I’d love to try making this one day.

  5. August 20, 2009 at 5:54 PM

    Chicken pastilla. 🙂 We can smell it. Sweet and savory is always a fave.

  6. August 20, 2009 at 8:52 PM

    I love pastilla. Have you ever had the one at Aziza in San Francisco? Truly magnificent.

  7. August 21, 2009 at 6:10 AM

    I love paprika!That chicken pastilla recipe sounds delicious!

  8. August 21, 2009 at 6:47 AM

    I don’t think I’ve ever had pastilla! The Chicken Pastilla looks delicious, can’t wait to try!

  9. admin
    August 21, 2009 at 2:58 PM

    Lisa – I think you’d love this flavorful combo – its one of my favorites.

    Phyllis – I was shocked too, but ultimately in a good way! =)

    Sippity – it is exotic and delish – I can vouch for this recipe, always makes me look good.

    Jenn – love to see what sort of creative spin you could do

    Duo – totally agree

    Carolyn – I have had the on in Aziza – I’m spoiled Aziza is a neighborhood restaurant for me.

    Erica – it is delish and I can only think that you would live it.

    Natasha – I’m shocked you have not added this one to your repertoire yet =) I’d love to see you work your magic on it.

  10. August 21, 2009 at 6:10 PM

    I’ve not had the opportunity to have pastilla, but if it arises I will certainly try it. It sounds great! I haven’t explored paprika beyond Hungary where I discovered the hot variety.

  11. August 23, 2009 at 2:43 PM

    Paprika is one of the main ingredients in our kitchen. I love to add it in so many dishes from a simple omelette to any kind of kofte. And we can’t marinade meat or chicken without paprika. It’s so interesting that baharat means a mixture of spices. We have the word baharat in Turkish, too with the meaning of spice in English.
    Never had pastilla before, but it looks so intriguing.

  12. admin
    August 23, 2009 at 3:26 PM

    Lori and Zerrin – if you’ve never had pastilla, you got to give it a try, the combination of ingredients are unlike a lot we’re familiar with and I’m sure you’d be very pleasantly surprised at how good it tastes. Like I said, I approached my first pastilla with some hesitation but was quickly won over after the first bite.

  13. August 24, 2009 at 7:44 AM

    Love it, love the recipe and the info! How I missed reading your blog! got some catching up to do now! YES!!! 🙂

  14. August 26, 2009 at 1:13 AM

    I don’t use paprika often in my Chinese cooking. Yet, whenever I bake chicken, I’ll think of it. Ha..

  15. August 26, 2009 at 5:52 AM

    Hi there, there is an award waiting for you on my blog 🙂

  16. August 26, 2009 at 4:06 PM

    LouAnn you know that I’m crazy about paprika (the last place I haven’t added yet is in desserts..but why not?)
    Interesting info about the pastilla always learning!



  17. August 26, 2009 at 10:40 PM

    YAY I can get to your blog again! I wonder what was wrong before? Hmm…
    And omg…that pastilla is CRAZY! I can’t get over the fact that it’s almost like a dessert with that awesome almond filling! Wow!

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