It feels fitting to put up this post now. My Uncle who recently passed away was during his better days an exceptionally good cook. One thing he did better than just about anyone I know was cook traditional Hungarian style Goulash. As my memorial to him, I would like to dedicate this blog post to my late Uncle ‘Roby’.
The basis of this article was written my me for the Chefs Special magazine for Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) two years ago for an article called ‘Get into Goulash!’. It is a dish that we cook regularly as a family and it is something which I typically use as a reference point to my own Hungarian heritage. Now, it is also a way in which I remember both my heritage and my recently departed family.
To a Hungarian, the word Goulash or Gulyás in Hungarian refers to the ‘cattle driver’ and simply means cowboy. However, the only place on a Hungarian menu that one would find the word gulyás would be amongst the soups and would be called gulyás leves (soup of the cowboy). However, what is generally known all around the world as ‘Goulash’ is in Hungary known as pörkölt or paprikás.
It has been suggested that the origins of this dish go back to at least the ninth century where shepherds cut meat into cubes and cooked it with onion in a heavy iron kettle known as a bogrács. This stew could either be cooked in a ‘short sauce’ meaning very little liquid which was known as pörkölt which is derived from the Hungarian pörköl which means to slightly burn the surface. If it was extended with more liquid, it was a soup or leves. During these times however, it was much different to what we know today as gulyás as the predominant spices used in the dish were black pepper and ginger. It was not until paprika entered Hungarian cuisine in the late sixteenth century likely via the invading Turkish army, that the dish became more like the version of the dish that we know today.
In addition to the use of paprika, there are a number of other essential ingredients and rules that define gulyás leves such as the use of chopped onions and the use of bacon or lard or both. But just as much as it is defined by what it consists of, it is just as importantly defined by what it does not consist of. The famous food writer, George Lang states that one must ‘Never use any flour. Never use any other spice besides caraway. Never Frenchify it with wine. Never Germanize it with brown sauce. Never put in any other garniture besides diced potatoes or galuska (a small pasta like dumpling)’. Over the years, this dish has established itself as one of the most readily identifiable symbols of the nation of Hungary and its people.
Another reason why this recipe is so good is because it is thrifty and uses the relatively less used shin beef which is perfect for all types of stews and slow cooked dishes. Typically these types of cuts have large amounts of connective tissue which when cooked quickly like for primal cuts such as fillet or rib-eye can be very chewy but when braised or cooked slowly, the connective tissue (primarily consisting of collagen) becomes soft and unctuous and is what makes these dishes so heartwarming and indulgent.
Traditional Hungarian Beef Goulash.
1.2 kg Shin (Gravy) Beef
400g Brown Onion
2 Medium Tomatoes
1 Red Capsicum
2 tbspns Good quality Sweet (Mild) Hungaria Paprika
3 tbspns Lard or Vegetable Oil
Peel and finely chop onions, tomatoes and capsicum, keeping the onions separate. Dice the beef into 2 cm cubes ensuring to remove any thick tendons.
Heat the oil or lard in a saucepan and fry the onions on a moderate heat until golden yellow in colour, ensuring not to burn them. At the same time in a frying pan, seal or lightly brown the meat in small batches. When finished, keep meat aside until ready to use in saucepan.
When the onions are cooked, add the paprika and if necessary turn down the heat a little to ensure that the paprika does not burn (which will give the dish an unpleasant bitter taste). When the onions and paprika start to become fragrant, add the meat to the saucepan and stir a little. Then add the chopped tomatoes and capsicum and stir. Moisture should start to be released and begin the formation of the sauce or gravy for the dish. If it is a little dry, add 3 or 4 tablespoons of water and ensure that it doesn’t ‘catch’ on the bottom of the saucepan.
Now you want to turn down the heat so that the pan is slowly simmering and put a lid on it and leave for an hour or so. Then check it both for seasoning (adding salt and pepper if necessary) and consistency. If the dish is still a little dry, you can add a little water or if it is too thin, you can continue to simmer with the lid off. Now, you just want to continue simmering the dish until the meat is ‘fall off the bone’ tender. The dish is now cooked and keeps well in the fridge or freezer. This dish is traditionally served with Galuska (small pasta like dumplings) and a refreshing Hungarian cucumber salad but goes well with pasta, rice, potatoes or even coarse cous-cous. Those with a taste for the ‘hot-stuff’ can also add a little cayenne pepper or chilli powder and you can also add a little garlic during the cooking phase if you like.