The Glory of Goulash

If you stay in that beautiful capital on the Danube, Budapest, or wander from one remote corner of Hungary to the other, you won’t get a straight answer asking if goulash is really a soup or a stew. We’ve begun to suspect it is neither, or perhaps it is both. All we really know is that it’s amazing.

So-called Hungarian goulash (“guyas” in the original language, but ending with an “sh” sound) has to be one of Central Europe’s two greatest contributions to world culture. This dish from Hungary and Count Dracula from the Transylvanian portion of Romania are arguably the most profound touchpoints this rich overlay of military conquest and religious conversion has given us. And goulash is a whole lot safer to keep around the house.

On the one hand, beef goulash is beef stew, and every culture that eats beef at all has one or more to its credit. We are especially enamored of Boeuf Bourguignon, drawing lots of its flavor from the pinot noir-based wines of France’s Burgundy region. In fact, while most beef stews involve considerable amounts of wine, we gather from Hungarians that the absence of wine in goulash is anything but an accident.

As with the Dracula legend, goulash comes from one culture’s domination by another, in this case Hungary being overrun for centuries by Turks of the Ottoman Empire. The Turks had a tendency to keep the lands they conquered, usually with some conversion to Islam, a Koran-inspired non-use of wine and other alcohol, and a lot of “conversion” to cooking with spices. Constantinople sat at the crossroads of the ancient Spice Route, creating a Turkish cuisine that never failed to use the things that were passing through.

Hungarians are a fascinating people, start to finish. They supposedly came to this land from the east, possibly part of a large tribe that split in two, some traveling far to the north into today’s Finland and others going south into today’s Hungary. The latter love to call themselves Magyars (a proud tribal name, not the later “national” name Hungarians), and they speak an impenetrable language similar to no other – except, argue some linguists, the equally impenetrable Finnish.

Without the Turkish conquest that ended not far away on the outskirts of Vienna (where the crescent on the Turkish flag inspired the croissant to celebrate the city’s defense), food in Hungary would have been pretty boring. But the Turks, despised by everyone to this day who’s the least bit Hungarian, brought in sack after sack of ground spices. One of these – paprika – became so “Hungarian” that it pains the locals to admit it arrived with the enemy during their people’s darkest hour.

Dried and ground red bell pepper, paprika is the sole signature flavor of Hungarian cuisine, from goulash to chicken paprikash. Yet wonder of wonders, the pepper itself hailed from Mexico, entering the Arab, Islamic and ultimately Turkish world by way of Moorish Spain. It’s bad enough reminding Hungarians their most famous dishes are all Turkish. We don’t want to try telling them they are actually cooking Mexican food. Do you? 

BLISTERED PEPPER BEEF GOULASH

As a soup, this recipe works well as is. To make it a more filling stew, you may either add boiled new potatoes to the pot or serve the stew over cooked egg noodles. Both ways are wonderful, and both ways are traditional in Hungary.  A rich, full-bodied Hungarian red wine, such as Egri Bikaver (Bull’s Blood of Egri), would be the perfect pairing.   

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 pounds beef stew meat, cut into bite-sized cubes

Salt and pepper

1 teaspoon lemon pepper

1 (16-ounce) bag multi-colored mini sweet peppers

3 carrots, peeled and chopped

1 small onion, chopped

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 cups beef broth

2 cups Mom’s brand Special Marinara

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

4 springs fresh thyme

3-4 tablespoons paprika

Heat about ½ the oil in a deep soup pot or Dutch oven with a lid and brown the cubes of beef over high heat, seeking maximum caramelization. Season with salt, black pepper and lemon pepper. Remove the meat from the pot. Cut the stem ends off the peppers and slice them in half lengthwise. Add the remaining olive oil and cook the peppers, carrot and onion until peppers are blistered. Stir in the garlic for only 1 minute.

Add the broth, the tomato sauce and the vinegar, stirring to combine. Season with thyme and paprika (as much paprika as you like), then to taste with additional salt, pepper and lemon pepper. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and cook covered until beef is tender and liquid has thickened, about 1 hour. Add more beef broth or water if you like it “soupier.” Garnish with additional thyme sprigs. Serves 6-8.

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