Has it ever occurred to you that food you are used to might look totally different when you order it in Europe? Or you might not even get it? Just mentioning the concept of “biscuit and gravy”, which in England would probably cause your restaurant staff a frown if not an outright “blech”. Because a biscuit over there is a sweet cookie. Imagine what they must imagine you eat! There are other dishes that carry the same name here and there – yes, it happens! – and look utterly different once you have crossed the Atlantic Ocean. In today’s case I’m talking goulash.
Every once in a while, on Facebook, American food magazines describe a preparation that causes a groan of comfort with born Americans and a storm of protest with European immigrants and/or their descendants. Because to the latter it looks like an Italian dish called Pasta Asciutta or Pasta Bolognese and uses mostly smallish pasta and … ground beef. So, let’s look at the reason for the protest and at some fun facts about goulash over in Europe – you might want to know if you ever get to travel there.
The Hungarian word “gulyás” means cowboy and is not the description of the actual dish but rather of its eaters. Imagine Hungarian cowboys in the wide, wild steppe called Puszta back in the dark Middle Ages; they dehydrated beef in the sun until it could be stored in their saddle bags and then took it out portion by portion to cook it into a stew. Do you find a meat grinder in that concept? Hardly. They will have chopped the meat as best as they could and added whatever was at hand. The original would have been something like onions, leeks, garlic, and maybe mushrooms, even carrots, depending on the season. Bell peppers came only way after the discovery of the Americas. So, even today’s European goulash is an abominated version of the original if you will. Because today, no Hungarian goulash is imaginable without bell peppers.
Invading Ottomans introduced paprika as additional spice to the Hungarian cowboys in the 16th century. Legend has it that around that time a Hungarian regiment was deployed to the gates of Vienna, Austria – and the Viennese pretty quickly caught up on the stew the fragrance of which was probably pervading the camps. From Vienna, the Hungarian goulash spread all over the world and was changed up according to the whims of every single cook.
Fun fact on the side: The German nickname for a field kitchen is “Gulaschkanone” (pronounce ‘goo-lush-kuh’no-nah), goulash cannon. This is probably because of the bulkiness of a kettle on wheels. Today, at open-air events the German Bundeswehr caters to the public, a meal from the goulash cannon is not necessarily goulash. Field kitchens have developed to modern kitchen appliances with ovens even. But the nickname has stuck.
Goulash is made from all kinds of meats, by the way, and sometimes even from vegetables only. One of my favorite dishes is the thinned down version, goulash soup, that is a welcome small meal on almost any German menu and often served as a midnight dish at celebrations that last into the wee hours. Have some roll or baguette on the side, and the meal is complete.
You are probably curious by now how I make my goulash. Well, you can always look it up among the recipes in the back of my novel “Delicate Dreams” (https://www.amazon.com/Delicate-Dreams-Novel-Susanne-Bacon/dp/1504949641). Just a short overview: I use beef stew meat, onions, cloves of garlic, red and green bell peppers, bay leaves, juniper berries, paprika, marjoram, and salt. Sometimes I add a chopped tomato or two. Mushroom lovers may add any kind of mushroom that stands reheating, such as button mushrooms or black trumpets (because, trust me, you will love to have left-overs). Add some sour cream if you like. Serve over spaetzle or potato dumplings.
Of course, this is just my personal version. One of the most famous variations is the Szegedin Goulash, made with pork and served over sauerkraut. To fully enjoy this incredible experience, please, invest in a can of German sauerkraut – it’s far less sour and less salty than the American variety (which I, personally, find almost inedible). Debrecin goulash is made with sliced Debrecin sausages; if you cannot get those, a kielbasa variety will do, too.
Whichever you choose: Chop, don’t grind if you want a true European goulash experience. Or simply order one the next time you travel to the European continent. Jó étvágyat or, as Julia Child would say: Bon appétit!