What does goulash have to do with Hungarian gulyás?

August 02. 2022. – 06:46 AM


What does goulash have to do with Hungarian gulyás?
Photo by Bori Ács/Telex


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There are loads of recipes to be found online, and yet someone browsing the web would be at a loss when confronted with the mundane task of finding an authentic recipe for Carbonara in Hungarian or an authentic recipe for pörkölt [a Hungarian meat stew] in English. The same is true for other Hungarian dishes: it is impossible to find such recipes in English that even remotely resemble the actual dishes. The upshot is that if a visitor to Hungary is fortunate enough to try a bowl of good gulyás [a soup of meat and vegetables seasoned with paprika and other spices] during their stay and subsequently wishes to recreate this experience for their friends back home, they are bound to come up short by only relying on a search engine. It seems that foreigners simply can't make heads or tails of our quirky little cuisine.

The problem stems from the fact that, viewed from abroad, Hungarian cuisine looks to be little more than its core of pörkölt, gulyás, and paprikás [a paprika-based dish similar to pörkölt but with added sour cream; it is often referred to as "paprikash" in English]. (We won't get into the history of how Hungarian cuisine got stuck with the label of paprika and onions – we'll just accept that these ingredients represent Hungarian cuisine abroad. And let's leave the question aside as to whether Hungarian herdsmen of yore could have even made gulyás soup, or how ancient a dish it is.)

Disregarding the fact that Hungarians feel that their gastronomy is much richer than this focal point of paprika, they would just be happy if there were simply a good recipe for gulyás available in English. And yet there isn't. I wanted to know what an average cook such as myself would come up with when searching for recipes in English for Hungarian paprikás, pörkölt and gulyás on the internet, so I set out to see how the seemingly reliable online sources prepare our country's dishes.

Hungary's most delicious dishes

If you browse through "top lists" of Hungarian cuisine in English on the web, you might be in for a few surprises: gulyás appears to be presented as some sort of meaty pasta dish, or perhaps something made from squash. Bejgli [a rolled pastry usually having a sweet walnut- or poppy-seed filling] is topped with icing; apparently, we eat mushrooms with our green beans, and we pickle bell peppers. Even in slightly more sensible compilations, we come across such hair-raising touches as smoked ham on rakott krumpli [layered potatoes with smoked sausage and boiled eggs].

Moreover, the idea that rántott sajt [cheese fried in bread crumbs] and krémes [custard slice] are Hungarian specialties would be news to a Hungarian. And while it is a fact that lángos [deep fried flatbread often topped with grated cheese and sour cream] is a culinary phenomenon that is popular all over the world, it loses its original minimalistic essence when it gets stuffed with sausages, slathered with nutella or even made into a burger in Dublin. Kürtős kalács [a sweet cylindrical cake roasted over charcoal] has come a long way as well: in Bombay, for example, there's a place that offers Mexican, cheesy, and a variation that's loaded with all the fixins.

I'm sure many of you remember the various Buzzfeed compilations poking fun at Hungarian cuisine. There's even a video in which people dumbfoundedly giggle at the unpronounceable names and incredibly strange dishes that make up our cuisine. Gulyás is something your grandma makes for you, they say; töltött káposzta ["stuffed cabbage"] is difficult even to eat (let alone to make), and szilvás gombóc ["plum dumplings"] are a bit of a disappointment because they aren't filled with chocolate.

Nigel Slater describes Hungarian cuisine as a hotel bed with too many pillows. According to Kenji López-Alt, all our cooking is done by grandmothers. But in general, most people think that we only use peppers, onions and not much else – except sour cream, which we put on everything. The simplicity is extremely disconcerting to the foreign eye. Maybe that's why they add a lot of things to our dishes that weren't there originally.

The baffling poppy seed pasta

Every Hungarian has a story about how they tried to talk up their native cuisine to friends and acquaintances abroad and were met with incredible shock when describing dishes that we take for granted: stuffed cabbage or, say, mákos tészta ["poppy seed pasta"]. Italians are freaked out by our sweet pasta varieties, such as poppy, semolina [often made with a fruit jam], and cabbage [made with sugar], especially the fact that we eat it as a second course and not as a first. According to one of our readers who works as a tourist guide, foreigners often don't even dare to taste our töpörtyű [pork cracklings]. Further, it seems that the ritual of frying szalonna [smoke-cured cuts of pork fat] is completely incomprehensible to Americans, who are used to barbecues and cooking big, beautiful slabs of meat and burgers. Gulyás, on the other hand, appears to fascinate them.

Photo by Bori Ács/Telex
Photo by Bori Ács/Telex

Foreigners downright confuse gulyás and pörkölt: in most places the term "goulash" is used to describe pörkölt, or more commonly a thick sort of gulyás or a vegetable pörkölt. According to a reader living in Ireland, the most common dishes labeled with this name in the British Isles are those that have been made from leftovers and other odds and ends found in the kitchen. Meats, vegetables, peas and often pasta are incorporated into goulash recipes. Even big shots like Nigel Slater are prone to making modifications such as adding dried mushrooms.

Despite the fondness of foreigners to prepare gulyás as if it were pörkölt and their inability to accept that it is actually a soup, there are plenty of other problems with their creation. Thinking of our simple pörkölt as a sort of French casserole, they begin by browning the meat and only afterward do they prepare the onion base. This deprives the dish of that all-important moment when the flavor of the paprika is released by the fat and immediately transferred to the meat.

All the American recipes add the paprika to the vegetables, which does away with this chemical reaction. Some people take this further and proceed in a manner reminiscent of beef burgundy: they prepare the dish in an iron pot for a long time at a low temperature, rendering it most similar to pincepörkölt [a variation of pörkölt considered to be a combination of pörkölt and paprikás potatoes]. This is also at odds with our stew-pot technique. Nevertheless, Bon Appetit magazine, Gordon Ramsay, and many others use a method similar to this.

The fact that it contains only paprika doesn't seem to have gotten through to foreigners anywhere. According to a Hungarian cookbook from the 1980s, written by American restaurateur George Lang, pörkölt also calls for garlic, cumin seeds and, of course, potatoes. Maybe this is the template that everyone is following. Felicity Cloak, who read all the literature to be found on the matter in English, actually ends up with a rather decent pörkölt. She even clears up the common misunderstanding surrounding the dish. However, even she recommends flour for thickening and, for some reason, lemon juice to be added at the end.

With that said, how Jamie Oliver's dish of slow-roasted pork shoulder with roasted red peppers, canned tomatoes, and red wine vinegar managed to receive the name "goulash" is beyond us. If anything, it's more reminiscent of pulled pork or taco filling. In any case, there's nothing that links it to Hungary.

The Jewish-Hungarian mix-up

One thing that many Anglo-American recipe writers swear by is that it is customary to cook large dumplings in "gulyás" (i.e. pörkölt) – the kind that used to be added to sólet [a Jewish stew made with kidney beans] towards the end of its preparation, but only if there was not enough meat in it. Even Donal Skehan does this – and he's visited Hungary – but perhaps it's more for his English habits than for the sake of reconstructing the actual recipe. After all, it is quite common for them to cook mashed potatoes, noodles or dumplings in their stews or add them on top.

Interestingly enough, none of the recipes for the Hungarian dishes make use of szalonna, even though bacon is available everywhere, and almost everyone in Hungary puts it in their pörkölts, gulyáses. At most, these foreign chefs try to add a little smoky flavor to their stews with smoked paprika, but this takes the dishes in a completely different direction. Nowhere in these recreated Hungarian dishes do they use smoked meat or szalonna, except in Saveur's recipe for stuffed cabbage. But their recipe gets a little carried away by adding smoked ham and cornmeal to the filling. Apart from that, there is only one authentic cabbage-related recipe in English on the web: The Guardian's layered sauerkraut and minced pork is the legacy of a Hungarian Jewish grandmother and is completely legitimate.

Tulip-red paprikás and chicken paprikás with gelatine

The New York Times paprikás recipe looks so good it may very well be alright. However, visually, it is too red. It's more evocative of Moroccan chicken and tomato stew than chicken paprikás. But just to be sure, we gave it a try, and the recipe slips up in just one respect: the addition of all those tomatoes. Had it not been for them, the dish would basically be good. This misconception is true of all the other Hungarian American recipes: their authors refuse to believe that paprika alone is capable of turning these dishes red. They feel the need to go to extremes and throw in a can or two of tomatoes. Of course, there are many other problems with the NYT's paprikás: the garlic, the smoked paprika, and the large amount of butter added to the sauce.

Photo by Bori Ács/Telex
Photo by Bori Ács/Telex

For lack of a reliable source, Kenji Lopez, one of the most thorough experimental chefs in the world today, completely misses the mark with his method of trying to optimize chicken paprikás, for lack of a reliable source. In fact, Kenji calls his column "The Food Lab" because he experiments with each recipe until he gets it perfect.

But in this particular case, he starts off on the wrong foot: he uses a recipe from "Hungarian oma" Mrs Fritz as his jumping-off point. He admits that the basic recipe is too simple for him, so he had to refine it a little. He soon comes to the conclusion that the most important thing is the quality of the paprika. Then, after much reflection, he realizes that he needs chicken thighs because breasts quickly dry out (the Hungarian reader would likely faint at this point: "Chicken paprikás using breasts! Good lord!").

He reckons that you can't have too many peppery things in paprikás, so he throws some bell peppers into the sauce – something which for Hungarians magically renders the dish to be more like chicken lecsó [a thick Hungarian vegetable ragout made with peppers], but his most serious transgression is yet to come. He rightly recognizes that the sauce must have body and be able to coat one's tongue and palate, and yet, it's unclear as to why he doesn't realize that the easiest way to get this collagen would be to add the skin and cartilage of the chicken. But he eventually achieves the desired effect – the coveted and troublesome gravy-like sauce – using some chicken stock and gelatine.

American Gulyás

500g beef shank
3 tablespoons of paprika
2 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon of flour
1 can of tomatoes
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons of oil
2 onions
3 potatoes
2 carrots

It's always useful to look at things from a different perspective. So, after browsing through all the "gulyás" (i.e. pörkölt) recipes I could find in English, I made the one that is able to carry this title in England and the US – they can think of Hungary when dishing it up. To start off, brown the chunks of meat in a large iron casserole pot, and then take them out and set them aside. Then, sauté the sliced onions, garlic, and spices in the fat remaining in the pot. Next, add the flour and tomatoes and put the meat back in. Add just enough water or stock to cover the ingredients. Cover the pot and simmer at a low temperature (around 140-150°C) until the meat is tender. Then add the diced potatoes, carrots, and a little more stock and cook until everything is tender. And, of course, serve with sour cream.

The translation of this article was made possible by our cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation.