All about Goulash

Hungarian Goulash


The awe-inspiring beauty of the Great Hungarian Plain (Alföld) is truly remarkable! Stretching from the Carpathians in the north and east to the Dinaric Alps in the south, its vastness is simply overwhelming. Here, hills and trees are nowhere to be found, creating an endless expanse that seems to extend indefinitely. Renowned Hungarian poet Sándor Petőfi (1823–49) once described it as boundless as the ocean, yet almost devoid of life. But to him, this was its allure. It was a place where he felt the utmost freedom, allowing his imagination to roam freely and his spirit to soar like an eagle.

Great Hungarian Plain (Alföld), where Goulash, most beloved Hungarian dish, was born

Great Hungarian Plain (Alföld)

Goulash, a beloved dish countless individuals enjoy, originated in the expansive plains of Hungary, Serbia, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Romania. Although the precise origins and the specific time of its creation remain unknown, it is believed that during the ninth century, groups of cowherds, consisting of five or six individuals, would prepare a basic version of goulash while tending to their herds of long-horned steppe cattle. These cowherds led a simple existence, sleeping beneath the stars and cooking their meals in a cast-iron cauldron over an open fire called “bogracs.” They utilized long-lasting ingredients such as onions, cured bacon, lard, and millet to concoct a soup-like dish. Whenever they stumbled upon a wild pig or one of their animals became too feeble to continue, they would include its meat in the pot. The dish was modestly seasoned with coarse black pepper, yet it proved to be hearty and ideal for a chilly winter evening.

The beginnings of Goulash: cast-iron cauldron over an open fire called “bogracs.”

The beginnings of Goulash: cast-iron cauldron over an open fire called “bogracs.”

Simple soups were commonly enjoyed around the world, but in the region between the Tisza and the Upper Danube rivers, a unique variation emerged with its minimalist approach. This particular soup relied on only basic ingredients, devoid of any herbs or fresh vegetables, setting it apart from the more intricate soups favored by settled communities. While it was occasionally found in towns, it was primarily shared among stockmen during fairs and became closely associated with the nomadic lifestyle of the plains. Its name, gulyás, is derived from the herdsmen who prepared it. Gradually, some urban dwellers adopted the dish and created their own versions, yet the simplicity of its composition and rustic flavors continued to evoke the spirit of the nomadic way of life.
Over time, this uncomplicated dish gradually spread beyond the Alföld region of Hungary to various other areas like Debrecen, Szeged, Hódmezővásárhely, Bratislava, Vienna, and Prague. Its simplicity and flexible ingredients made it adaptable to local preferences, contributing to its popularity among individuals of various religious backgrounds, including Catholics, Orthodox believers, and Muslims. As agriculture expanded across larger parts of the plain, the dish found its way into the kitchens of farmers, small landowners, and even the tables of the lower nobility during difficult times. Despite its growing acceptance, it continued to be associated with poverty and the plight of serfs, with some scholars even proposing a negative origin for its name. Rather than originating from the Hungarian term “gulyás,” Ottoman scholars suggested that the word ‘goulash’ was derived from the Turkish phrase “kul aşı,” meaning food for servants.

During the early 1500s, explorers brought hot and spicy peppers from Central Mexico to Spain

During the early 1500s, explorers brought hot and spicy peppers from Central Mexico to Spain

During the early 1500s, explorers brought hot and spicy peppers from Central Mexico to Spain. These peppers quickly gained popularity and were then traded extensively throughout the Mediterranean region. As they gradually spread along the coast of North Africa, they eventually found their way to the Balkans and were warmly embraced in the Great Hungarian Plain. This introduction of new ingredients significantly impacted the traditional Hungarian dish known as goulash.

For centuries, peppers have been utilized in cooking. Initially, they were consumed raw, but it was soon discovered that they could be dried, crushed, and transformed into a fiery powder known as paprika. While the paprika of the past had a much spicier kick compared to its modern version, it gained popularity as an addition to goulash, giving the soup an appealing red hue and a delightful, warming taste.

Crushed red peppers, Hungarian favorite spice

Crushed red peppers, Hungarian favorite spice

With the increasing demand for paprika, a vital ingredient in goulash, the cultivation of peppers expanded and became more innovative. In 1920, shortly after the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a grower in Szeged stumbled upon a paprika variety that boasted a much sweeter taste compared to any other type. By grafting this unique variety onto other plants, the grower successfully produced a milder and more flavorful paprika. Over the following decades, this newfound variety gained immense popularity, gradually replacing the previously dominant, spicier type. Simultaneously, the recipe for goulash underwent a transformation as tomatoes were introduced. This adaptation was influenced by evolving farming techniques in the Hungarian plains and driven by changing taste preferences. As the intensity of paprika diminished, individuals began to appreciate a subtler and smoother flavor profile with a tangy hint.

Goulash offers a delectable and gratifying dining experience

Hungarian Goulash offers a delectable and gratifying dining experience

Goulash, a robust stew that has its roots in Hungarian cuisine, is traditionally prepared using beef, onions, paprika, and a medley of spices. This dish has become a culinary staple in Hungary and is commonly enjoyed alongside thickly sliced dumplings or small egg noodles known as csipetke. As the Second World War unfolded, goulash gained immense popularity and could be found in homes, cafes, and restaurants across the country. Although closely associated with Hungarian cuisine, goulash also enjoyed widespread recognition in various parts of Europe. It held a significant place in the national gastronomy of countries like Ukraine, Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, albeit with subtle variations in its preparation methods. Goulash, despite its adaptations, continues to hold a special place in the hearts of many individuals, both in Hungary and across the globe. Whether savored alongside traditional accompaniments or with a contemporary twist, goulash offers a delectable and gratifying dining experience that is guaranteed to satisfy even the most discerning palates.