Hungarian goulash, or gulyas if you happen to be Hungarian, deserves better than it gets from the recipes piled upon each other on the internet. Some carry the authenticity kiss of death by self-introducing as “American goulash” (one slow-cooker version subtitles itself “American Chop Suey,” of all things). But virtually all overlook the tangles of history that make Hungary unique and gulyas, well, even uniquer.
A very old dish of the people who call themselves Magyars, in honor of the mysterious tribe that settled this land surrounding the river we know as Danube, gulyas does share with many other iconic dishes the fine art of being a catch-all. Ancient cultures had what they had, and usually tossed it into the same pot. I guess that’s where the “chop suey” reference sneaks in, but I won’t mention it again. So-called “American goulash” typically features macaroni noodles and plenty of cheese, as do many other things declared American. Neither ingredient is at all likely to appear in the gulyas served in Hungary. A quick note to nitpickers: in Hungarian, the final “s” is pronounced “sh.”
On either side of the Danube, one side traditionally called Buda and of course the other called Pest (peshed), gulyas is most similar to beef stew. And like all the world’s beloved beef stews, it can vary from stew to soup from kitchen to kitchen to kitchen. Other than beef itself, the most important element is paprika, the powdered red spice that in the United States appears most frequently as garnish on deviled eggs. Here a mere garnish, there it is the signature flavor of the Hungarian people. But wouldn’t you just know, history is waiting to pile irony on there too.
Linguists have what I think is a fascinating theory of the language now known as Hungarian. They say a brave, warlike, freedom-loving tribe came into the Danube Valley centuries ago only after splitting in two – no one can say why with any certainly. One tribe took a northern route west across Europe, ending up in Finland, while the other headed south to the Danube. This is why, scholars surmise, the impenetrable languages of Finland and Hungary today have little in common with any other European tongue but more than a few words in common with each other. Both Finns and Hungarians are traditionally proud of their independence.
Still, there’s no way of knowing what Hungarians would be eating today if one of history’s cataclysms had not occurred to them: conquest by the Turks. After Turkish occupation from 1541 to 1699, the people of the Danube valley had traded their plain, unchanging diet for something relying on the many spices Turkish soldiers and administrators brought with them. In a very real sense, modern Hungarian cuisine was born of occupation by people who did not share their origin, language, culture or religion, and who were eternally despised. When visitors visit Hungary (as we hope to do again someday), the most likely souvenir is a bag, bottle or box of savory bright paprika.
Like a surprising number of things we think of as European or Asian, the sweet red bell pepper dried or smoked to make paprika came originally from the Americas, meaning the first overseas places it touched were Spain and Portugal. However, by the time of the Ottoman conquest, these peppers were being cultivated by Turks at home and abroad. Once dried or smoked, the peppers are ground into powder – the spice we know as paprika.
Yes, there are variations on paprika from sweet to hot. If you go shopping at Budapest’s sprawling and lively Central Market, you can pick up any and all varieties. Ironies of history aside, it is the truest taste of Hungary.
You can make gulyas (or goulash, as Americans say it) with any paprika you like – though I prefer the regular mild sweet over the smoked or hot. This also might be the only “beef stew” we know that doesn’t include red wine. Certainly, it couldn’t hurt (think: beef bourguignon with paprika) but the wine wouldn’t be authentic and would definitely taste less unique to Hungarian cuisine.
3 slices thick-cut bacon, chopped
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, or butter
2 medium onions, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
2 tablespoons minced garlic
4 tablespoons paprika
1 ½ pounds stewing beef, trimmed of fat and cut into 1-inch cubes
3 cups beef broth
2 cups diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 large baking potato, peeled and cubed
Salt and pepper
Cook the bacon in the olive oil or butter in a large pot or Dutch oven until crisp, rendering the fat. Drain the bacon on a paper towel. Add the onion and carrot, caramelizing until golden, then briefly stir in the caraway seeds, garlic and ½ the paprika. Lightly coat the beef cubes in the flower and add to the pot. Stir over medium-high heat until the beef and flour have.
Add the beef broth and tomatoes, using the liquid to help scrape flour sticking to the bottom. Add the parsley and potato, season to taste with salt and pepper, plus the remaining paprika. Add more paprika if you like, tasting as you go. Bring to a boil, cover the pot with a lid and cook until the beef is tender, about 1 ½ hours. Add water if you prefer more of a soup than a stew – goulash can happily go either way. Serves 6-8.