Paprika is not a seasoning. Or rather, it’s not merely a seasoning.

Of this, Zsófia Mautner is adamant. Some Hungarian dishes—actually, many of them—exist solely to flex the paprika muscle, using tender dumplings or meat or chicken or even—in the case of the dish she was teaching me—more peppers, all of which serve almost as carriers for a richly vibrant sauce built from onions, fat and as much paprika as you can handle.

“You think you use it as a spice, but actually you use it as the base of the sauce, of everything,” said Mautner, a former Hungarian diplomat who turned a food blog hobby into a career that now spans television series and more than a dozen cookbooks. “So you can be quite generous with the paprika.”

Zsófia Mautner says some dishes exist solely to showcase the paprika.
Zsófia Mautner says some dishes exist solely to showcase the paprika.

Indeed, she was. We were at her sister’s apartment in Budapest and she was teaching me lecsó, a dish she described as the Hungarian version of ratatouille or shakshuka, albeit simpler and deliciously saturated with paprika.

As with so many Hungarian dishes, lecsó begins with onions, oil and paprika. Then a bit of tomato. Then come the peppers. All manner of peppers. Anything goes, though large, yellow banana peppers are common. Much debate is had over how to slice the peppers. Lengthwise into planks or crosswise into rounds. She favors the latter for ease of eating.

“This is not a tomato sauce or stew, but rather peppers cooked with tomatoes. And paprika,” she said.

Some people add bacon for smoky-­meaty flavor, though if that’s the sensation Mautner is craving, she said she’s more likely to add smoked paprika. Of course. Sliced pork sausage, however, is almost a must (though vegetarian versions abound).

The result is a tangle of tender peppers, hunks of sausage, juicy tomatoes and lightly caramelized onions, all bathed in a sauce that builds itself—rich, piquant and vibrantly red. Served with bread or nokedli, Spätzle-like Hungarian dumplings, the finished dish is equally sweet and savory. And it clearly is all about the paprika. So much more than a seasoning.