When I took my guy to Barcelona’s only Hungarian restaurant, Hungaryto, a few months back he made very clear his favorite dish of the meal: Harcsapaprikás túróscsuszával. This is catfish cooked in a creamy paprika sauce, served with a side of pasta turned in Hungarian sour cream (tejföl), ewe milk curd (juhtúró) and crispy pieces of smoked fatback (szalonna). He learned the Hungarian name for the dish and, what’s most impressive, remembered this name for months. Since then he’s insisted we try to make it at home, but I’ve been reluctant to do so. Although I’ve watched my mother and grandmothers prepare the Hungarian classics on countless occasions, I haven’t had much practice myself. So while in theory I know the difference between the rántás and habarás styles of roux, I don’t really have the confidence to tackle a traditional recipe; and especially not a paprikás, reserved for festive meals and Sunday lunches with family. That’s grandma territory…
A loved one’s appetite and a rapidly approaching trip to Budapest was motivation enough, however, to finally make a move. Luckily, there’s a Hungarian specialty store by the name of Paprika Gourmet not too far (near the Sagrada Familia) and they happen to carry many of the ingredients necessary for this dish. Among a variety of imported sausages, they offer smoked pork fatback (szalonna), which is needed both as a cooking fat and a topping for túróscsusza, the pasta side. They have ewe curd (juhtúró) and highly perishable (and thus quite risky to import) Hungarian sour cream (tejföl), a single spoon of which sent me whirling nostalgically back into my childhood. These ingredients simply cannot be replaced by local Spanish products. Paprika Gourmet has a nice selection of Hungarian beers and wines, out of which we chose a Soproni beer with lemon to cool us down while cooking and a Kadarka red to sip, chilled, with our meal. Most importantly, we found a good smoked paprika powder from the town of Kalocsa. Good paprika is absolutely crucial for the successful execution of pretty much any Hungarian recipe.
Perhaps the greatest challenge in hunting down ingredients for our harcsapaprikás was finding the fish itself. Most Hungarian fish dishes call for lake or river fish, such as catfish, carp, perch or pike. These have a very characteristic muddy, murky, slightly unclean flavor to them that the paprika, onion and smoked pork fat balance out beautifully. Saltwater fish all lack this unique “sludge” quality. In the coastal, Mediterranean, seafood-obsessed city of Barcelona it can prove difficult to find the humble pescado de lago (lake fish) needed for this meal. My partner in crime managed to bag the only carp that the Boqueria Market’s fish department had to offer, and for the competitive price of $8 euros for the entire thing. The dish is most often made with catfish (the “harcsa” in harcsapaprikás) but carp is an adequate substitute. So, in this case pontypaprikás.
Here’s the breakdown of the recipe we used: 1) Finely chop one green pepper and one tomato and set aside. Finely chop a red onion and set aside separately. 2) Slice smoked pork fatback into slivers and add to hot pan to render the out the fat. 3) Remove solid pieces of fatback from liquid fat and set aside on a paper towel to crisp up. 4) Salt and flour both sides of the carp filets and add these to melted pork fat. Fry on both sides briefly. Take out fish and set aside. 5) Into the pork fat add chopped onions and sauté until they become translucent but before they turn brown. 6) Remove the pan from the heat and add a generous sprinkling of paprika powder. (Important to remove from the flame, as paprika tends to burn easily). Mix into onions to form a paste. Add a bit of water until the roux is diluted to a sauce. 7) Add fish back into the paprika and onion sauce. Add chopped peppers and tomato over the top. Cover pan and steam for 20 minutes, carefully flipping the fish half way through. 8) While the fish cooks, boil the pasta. 9) After 20 minutes remove fish filets and set aside. Add 2 heaping spoons on sour cream and a sprinkling of flour to the paprika sauce and cooked vegetables. Mix in until sauce thickens and becomes creamy. 10) Add fish back into sauce and cook for another 5 minutes. 11) Drain pasta and mix in a few spoonfuls of Hungarian sour cream. Sprinkle ewe’s curd and crispy bits of fatback over the top. 12) Serve hot with a side of pickles.
For our first attempt, the dish came out surprisingly delicious. The fish, drenched in creamy sauce, was packed with the most familiar flavors of my childhood: the clean, cool and slightly tart sour cream; the freshwater funk of carp; the incredible depth of smoked paprika powder, which combined with the sweat of the onion and melted pork fatback to produce that distinctive red grease so typical of almost every traditional Hungarian dish. The flavors harmonized exactly as they should, with the peppers and onions slowly draining their veggie essence as they steamed atop the carp and adding extra layers of flavor to the sauce. The fish cooked to a creamy, soft texture, the flesh melting in the mouth and leaving behind several thin fishbones to spit out. The pasta was ok too, although a broader, shorter noodle would’ve been preferable to the semolina pappardelle that we ended up using to substitute. The long strings stuck together, while the sour cream couldn’t adhere and coat the stuff as it should have. The pieces of pork fatback (szalonna) did not become quite crispy enough even after the majority of the fat had been rendered out, though the smoky flavor was on point, and absolutely wonderful. I’ll be making this dish again before the summer is over and next time I’ll be pairing it to some pickled cabbage or Hungarian cucumber salad (uborkasaláta).
Our technique still has a long way to go to measure up to the Harcsapaprikás I had at A Szűcs Fogadója in Gödöllő last summer, but we’re definitely on the right track.