In 1969 goulash was one of America’s five favourite meals. These days some recipes still involve a slop of beef, mixed with macaroni in a tomato sauce. Many include “Italian seasoning”, some call for soy sauce and a few include such oddities as alphabet soup. All would turn its Hungarian creators as fiery red as the paprika that defines the dish’s flavour.
The history of goulash is coloured by nationalism, industrialisation – and paprika. Gulyás were sturdy cattle drovers. Any cow unlucky enough to collapse would make its way into a large cauldron to be stewed into gulyás hús, or herdsmen’s meat.
Nationalists, resentful of Habsburg rule, romanticised such humble traditions and goulash moved from the cowboy trail to fine dining tables. By 1879 Auguste Escoffier, the French chef, had put it on the menu at Monte Carlo’s Grand Hotel.
Originally closer to a soup, the herdsmen cooked their beef with black pepper. When Napoleonic trade embargoes made it unaffordable, Hungarians ground dried chilli peppers to make paprika, which they used to infuse goulash with its rusty warmth.
As Hungarian troops schlepped goulash around, other variations emerged: the Czech version is spicier and may include sauerkraut; the Viennese variety – thicker and richer – was reimported back to Hungary. The American goulash recipe was not.
To make a stew to satisfy a Hungarian, brown chunks of beef dusted with flour in melted lard, then remove from the pan. Sauté onions and green peppers, then extract the peppers and stir in large quantities of paprika, garlic and caraway seeds. Reunite the beef with the mix, cover with water and cook in a low oven for a couple of hours. Return the peppers to the mix along with a chopped tomato, season and simmer until tender.