Great Goulashes!

Although goulash originated in Hungary, this popular dish later spread beyond its borders, first to the Austrian Empire, Germany, and the Balkans, and finally around the world.

Classic Hungarian goulash at a restaurant on Hungary’s Great Plain

By Sharon Hudgins
Photos by the author

Everyone loves a good goulash. But ask a dozen people what a goulash is—and you’ll get a dozen different answers: a soup, a stew, a meat dish served on a plate; brown, red, mild, hot-spicy; made with beef, pork, mutton, game, even vegetarian.

Although goulash originated in Hungary, this popular dish later spread beyond its borders, first to the Austrian Empire, Germany, and the Balkans, and finally around the world. That’s why there are so many versions of goulash today.

Hungary is the birthplace of goulash

Hungarian goulash traces its roots back to nomadic Magyar herdsmen in the ninth century. Shepherds cut meat into cubes and slowly stewed them in a heavy iron kettle over an open fire until the liquid evaporated. Then they spread the meat out in a single layer to further dry in the sun. This dried meat, an early convenience food, could be carried with them as they followed their flocks across the vast expanse of Hungary’s Great Plain. To reconstitute the meat they simply added water and heated it—sometimes with other ingredients, too—in a pot over a fire. If a lot of liquid was added, the dish was called goulash soup. With less liquid, it was simply goulash meat. In both cases it was eaten with spoons dipped into the communal cooking pot.

Goulash got its name from those early herdsmen, who were called gulyás in Hungarian. But goulash as we know it today did not develop until the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th, with the widespread cultivation of peppers in Hungary and the use of paprika as a popular spice. Originally it was considered peasant food, eaten primarily by country folk—farmers, shepherds, cowboys, and swineherds. With the rise of Hungarian nationalism in the second half of the 19th century, paprika-seasoned goulash moved from the campsites and farmhouses to the tables of middle class and wealthy city dwellers, to the menus of fashionable restaurants and eventually across the globe.

More goulash
An Austrian version of goulash.

Goulash is now the Hungarian dish most widely known abroad. But in many parts of the world, dishes called “goulash” bear little resemblance to the gulyás that originated in Hungary and is eaten there today. In Hungary, gulyás is a meat dish halfway between a soup and a stew, made with small cubes of meat (usually beef), no more than 3/4-inch in size, and flavored with bacon or lard, onions and paprika. Gulyás is traditionally served in a bowl and eaten with a spoon.

Red peppers
Hungarian paprika is an essential ingredient in classic goulash.

Over time, Hungarian cooks also developed many variations on this theme, using such ingredients as garlic, tomatoes, mild banana peppers and hot cherry peppers, caraway seeds, root vegetables, cabbage, beans and tiny egg dumplings, as well as pork, mutton, venison and boar meat. Regional recipes abound, with each cook claiming his or her own version of goulash to be the best and most authentic.

Germans adapted the basic Hungarian goulash recipe to their own tastes, producing the Gulaschsuppe (goulash soup) that is now so popular throughout Germany, where it’s traditionally served with a slice of rye bread and a mug of beer. Germans and Austrians also make a variety of thick, paprika-flavored meat stews called Gulasch, served on a plate and accompanied by boiled potatoes, egg noodles or dumplings. (The Hungarians, however, would call this kind of stew a pörkölt, not a goulash.) And Kesselgulasch (kettle goulash)—cooked outdoors in a pot suspended by an iron tripod over an open fire—is a Hungarian specialty that many Central Europeans now eat at their own backyard dinner parties and local festivals.

German “Beer Goulash” at brewery beer garden in Erfurt

As part of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Austrians certainly love their own versions of Gulasch. There’s even a Cafe-Restaurant Gulaschmuseum in Vienna, where the menu lists more than a dozen varieties of goulash, including turkey or chicken-liver goulash with potatoes, bean goulash with paprika-seasoned sausage, veal goulash with little spinach dumplings, and even a dessert called Schokogulasch (chocolate goulash) containing cake, chocolate sauce and rum. In Prague I purchased a Czech cookbook devoted entirely to the subject of goulash—including versions identified as German, Austrian, Slovakian, Slovenian, Serbian, Bulgarian, even Chinese and Mexican! And recently in New Mexico I came across a Cajun goulash. What a mixture of geography and culinary cultures! From its humble beginnings on the plains of Hungary more than a thousand years ago, this simple peasant food has now become a truly global dish.

Goulash cannon
An old Swiss “goulash cannon,” military mobile field kitchen.

“Goulash” has also entered several languages as a word meaning more than just “a soup or stew.” In Hungary, “Goulash Communism” was a term for the Hungarians’ attempt in the late 1960s to create their own, more market-oriented, economic system distinct from the Soviet model. In Germany and Switzerland, a “goulash cannon” is military slang for a mobile field kitchen—a big, heavy, black, iron stewpot on wheels, with a cover on the top and a built-in firebox—which is also used for feeding crowds at festivals and other public events. And in the Czech Republic, political parties had a tradition of setting up their own “goulash cannons” in front of polling places at election time, where they dished out free goulash in a blatant attempt to influence voters’ choices on the ballot. As the Czechs said to each other when they headed to the polls to vote, “Have a good goulash!”

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