A friend said, “I feel like Hungarian goulash” and here we are, with the subject of Hungarian Goulash. And although it is not strictly a winter dish, it seems to be a great dish to see us through the remaining days of winter.
It is the national dish of Hungary, so maybe it’s appropriate that we never say just “goulash,” we always say Hungarian goulash, even though it predates Hungary as a country and was from a much larger area than Hungary. But we shall see the reason why near the end of this post.
The romance of this dish comes from the place of its origin, as the daily meal of the itinerant ” gulyás,” which means herdsman or shepherd in English. In groups of five or six, they roamed the vast area of the Great Hungarian Plain, which incorporated the area of what is now Hungary, Serbia, Slovakia, Ukraine and Romania. It was “bewitching in its vastness. Uninterrupted by hills and with scarcely a tree to be seen, it seems to have neither beginning nor end. To the poet, Sándor Petőfi (1823-49), it was ‘boundless as the ocean’ and almost as empty.” Out there, under the stars, the shepherds would gather for their evening meal, the goulash. It’s very romantic thinking of clear star-filled nights and sleeping in the open. I choose not to contemplate the rainy nights!
By the 9th century, the “gulyás” would prepare a supply of meat before they left home to sustain them. They cooked seasoned meat and onion with water in an iron pot over an open fire until the liquid had evaporated and it was dried out. They then stored this product in bags to sustain them and carried these in their saddlebags. For a meal, they would simply boil water and add the contents, essentially reconstituting it, making a stew. If they came across a wild pig or an animal that died, they would add it to the mixture. This was simple, unadorned eating, with no herbs, fresh vegetables, or seasonings other than possibly cracked pepper.
When they attended fairs or markets in town, they shared this simple stew with their friends and some townsfolk adopted it. Its simplicity made it easy for people of different places and of different religions to to adapt it. But it remained a poor man’s dish and became associated with the rural peasants throughout East-Central Europe who began to be subjected to their landlords and serfdom. And here we have some class snobbery – Ottoman scholars suggested that the name came from the Turkish “kul aşı”, meaning “servant’s food.”
The addition of paprika
In the 1500s, peppers were brought from North America and arrived in Hungary via the Ottomans. When dried and crushed, it became an extremely hot “paprika” which gave the goulash a pleasant colour and a warming taste. It eventually replaced black pepper in the recipe.
How it became the national dish of Hungary
Credit the Habsburgs and the Austrian Empire for goulash becoming the national dish of Hungary. During the 19th century, Hungary was an equal but unequal part of the Habsburg empire and eventually revolted against the oppression of the Austrian side of this “partnership.” To distinguish themselves as separate from their Austrian oppressors, Hungarians cultivated “a distinct sense of the Magyar identity, rooted in language, in landscape and in culture.” Goulash became a culinary expression of their revolution and declared the national dish of Hungary.
The recipe changes
Two major changes happened. In 1920, a Hungarian grower created a paprika that was not as hot but more flavourful.
And around the same time, tomatoes were added, make goulash slightly richer and smoother, with a hint of tartness, which could be appreciated without the overpowering heat of the original paprika.
Hungarian goulash is typically made with cubed meat and served with thickly sliced dumplings or egg noodles.
And to finish on its romantic note, let’s remember that, “rooted in the restless wandering of medieval stockmen, it has always been a dish without borders, a food for sharing, a taste of freedom. And thus it should remain.” (https://www.historytoday.com/archive/historians-cookbook/goulash)
Recipe: Traditional Hungarian Goulash (Gulyás)
The recipe below makes about 4 servings. Use authentic Hungarian paprika and be generous with it! Serve with egg noodles.
Though this is a stovetop method, I would typically put it into the oven at a low temp, maybe 250 F, and let it cook for another 1-2 hours, making the meat more tender and the whole thing more flavourful. Plus, I love to smell it all that time! Don’t thicken with flour. Of course, you can make variations on this, such as adding tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, caraway seeds, mushrooms) turning it into a beef stew, or you can keep it simple like the original shepherds.
Serve over egg noodles. If it is hot/spicy, top with a dollop of sour cream.
2 pounds beef stew meat
1 large yellow onion
3-4 tablespoons sweet Hungarian paprika (or more to taste)
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tsp sea salt
½ tsp black pepper
lard (or olive oil)
water (or beef broth)
Chop onion. Cut stew meat into smaller chunks.
In soup pot sauté onion in a little oil. Add paprika, garlic and meat and sear the sides of the meat.
Add salt. Pour enough water (or broth) in to cover the meat.
Bring to a boil.
Cover and turn heat to low and simmer for 1 – 1 and ½ hours until meat is tender.
Option: put into over at 250F for 1 -2 hours
If juice gets low while cooking top with a little water as needed.
Serve with egg noodles. Have sour cream ready to dollop on top if it is too hot.
Photo credit: https://thymeandtarragon.com/traditional-hungarian-goulash/