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Gulyas is the dish most associated with Hungary, but ask one-hundred Hungarian grandmothers for the original goulash recipe, and you may well end up with one-hundred variations on a theme. The basic principles of a lot of onions cooked for a long time with cubed meat (almost always beef) is fixed. Adding tomato paste and smoked or sweet paprika is pretty standard. Green peppers? Usually, but tell this to the wrong granny and you could end up with a wooden spoon-mark on your head. The details can change, so the recipe remains an elusive quarry.
What is Goulash?
But let’s go back a bit. The Hungarian word for the dish, gulyas, means “herdsman.” So this was originally European cowboy food. A dish men could make while away from home, originating on the Puszta (the Great Hungarian Plain), where cattle grazed before being herded to markets as far-flung as Venice and Vienna.
Cattle-herds and shepherds back in the 9th century Kingdom of Hungary, with the first “recipe,” if we can call it that, involving sun-dried strips of meat that were carried in bags made of sheep’s stomach (imagine a haggis backpack). The sheepskin could be placed in boiling water and cook the meat while rehydrating it, for a handy meal-on-the-go.
By the 19th century this tradition had evolved into several similar stews. Gulyasleves (“goulash soup”), paprikash (featuring chicken) and bogracsgulyas.
The only inauthentic ingredient (at least anachronistic) is tomato, which was not eaten for centuries, as it was believed to be poisonous. The key flavoring element is paprika, an ingredient associated with Hungary but, like so much Balkan cuisine, is of Turkish origin. Turks occupying Buda in 1529 grew it, and the distinctive taste of this powedered, dried red pepper remained a delight, long after they were evicted. But for all that time paprika was synonymous with spiciness.
It was only in the 1920s when a botanist in the Hungarian city of Szeged found a pepper plant that produced sweet fruit—a mutation—and grafted it onto other normal pepper plants, thereby developing what we call “sweet paprika,” the most popular in the world today.
Goulash is one of those dishes that has become so popular, spread to the far reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that it is essentially synonymous with a meat and onion stew. There are versions with sauerkraut and sour cream, with caraway seeds and kidney beans instead of potatoes (which makes it almost like American chili), vermicelli noodles, lemon and pork (instead of beef)—the list goes on. And that’s just in Hungary. German goulash mixed beef and pork, is cooked in beer and served with fist-sized bread dumplings. Slovene veterans of the Second World War proudly eat Partisan Goulash, with almost no meat (it was hard to come by during the war) and many more potatoes. Goulash was a featured dish in the US with the addition of ground beef and “elbow” macaroni and canned tomatoes—half Italian Bolognese, half Hungarian. Czech goulash includes wild boar and is dusted with fresh onions.
How to make Goulash
When it comes to making my own goulash, I must admit that I am something of a veteran. I’ve made the Slovene version many times—I’m a fan of braising (as must any man be), and this is easy and delicious. The key is not to burn the onions, and use the following trick: in oil, brown the cubed beef, careful not to crowd your pan (otherwise it cooks rather than browns). Then remove the beef completely from the pan and sauté the onions.
Once the onions have wilted and goldened, return the beef to the pan, add the spices (and other veggies, if you’re using them). Though it’s not part of the original recipe, I like to add a good measure of liquid to braise for a few hours (the original does not involve added beer or wine, but I like to throw these in, as they offer flavor and a cooking agent). Cover and forget about it for at least two hours.