with the recipe for goulash, Vienna’s paprika beef stew
“Goulash seems to be a dish that suits all ages.”
Rose Weissman in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
EVEN though the name of Vienna’s world-famous beef stew is a corruption of the Hungarian word for cowboy, gulyás1, the recipe itself does not stem from neighboring Hungary2. Of course, its signature ingredient does: paprika, dried and ground sweet pepper, which is the iconic Hungarian flavor, so much so that it is hard to find any Hungarian food without its vibrant red color. Although “Indian” pepper”, the hot pimento and the sweet bell pepper are both natives of America, Hungary is to be recognized for developing the peppers into a dried, ground seasoning. The doyenne of Jewish food writing, Joan Nathan, reminds us in her 2017 culinary exploration of Jewish cooking from around the world King Solomon’s Table that by 1650 these “Indian” peppers were also traded by many Jews, who, fleeing the Inquisition from Spain to places like the Ottoman Empire, later brought these spices along the Danube until Hungary.3
Hungarian herdsmen from the Puszta steppe are said to have always eaten a soupy meat and potato dish called gulyás. But they could only start to flavor their gulyás with paprika after the Ottomans had brought them paprika, or Turkish pepper as it was then called. Paprika grew well in the sunny and hot Pannonian plains. The Hungarian cowboys eventually brought paprika together with their cattle to Vienna, Moravia, Venice, and even as far northwest as Nuremberg.
The Hungarian gulyás is a hot paprika-flavored meat and potato soup, not a stew like the Viennese goulash. Therefore, Austrian goulash is often mistakenly thought to be related to another Hungarian dish called pörkölt. But mainly because of the absence of bell peppers, tomatoes, and lard, Vienna’s goulash is not a pörkölt either.A look at George Lang’s erudition in The Cuisine of Hungary4 from 1971 or at the locally popular János Rákóczi’s Konyhaművészet5 published in Hungary in the 1960s confirms that, up to this day, Hungarians officially continue to put tomatoes and bell peppers into their paprika meat stews like pörkölt, something the Viennese don’t do. Void of any vegetables but onions, the Viennese goulash is a different beast.
Furthermore, until the late 19th century and its nationalistic drive, the rest of the Hungarian population hardly ate paprika or herdsmen’s food like gulyás6. In his Daily Life and Cooking of a 19th-Century Hungarian Jewish Homemaker, András Koerner writes:
“I was surprised to hear from my mother that she had rarely eaten pörkölt at Riza néni’s. Pörkölt is a meat stew seasoned with paprika, perhaps the most common way of cooking meat in Hungary today. Looking through Riza néni’s recipe collection confirmed my mother’s observation that pörkölt used to be less ubiquitous. The collection included no recipe for pörkölt and paprika rarely appeared in the recipes as seasoning. Paprika is by far the most frequently used seasoning in Hungary today, but it only became popular in the early nineteenth century7.”
Only the Viennese goulash contains kimmel (Yiddish for caraway) and dried marjoram. “A Viennese beef goulash differs from the Hungarian original in several ways”, writes Marcia Colman Morton in The Art of Viennese Cooking8, “It does not include green peppers; it does include far more onions (the rule being that the weight of onions must equal the weight of meat) and is flavored with lemon, caraway, marjoram and perhaps garlic. The resulting aroma enchants every kitchen in the Austrian domain.” So, no soupy broth but rather a thick, sweet gravy resulting from velvety melted onions.
Since I grew up in Vienna with a Hungarian mother, I always ate both goulash and gulyás as well as pörkölt, paprikás (another similar Hungarian favorite), and tokány (a Transylvanian grease-paprika-onion-meat dish). The fight over the origins and the best recipes of goulash are as ancient as the dish itself. “I’m gonna turn you into goulash” is a well-known threat in this context. Goulash’s fame started in Hungary and Austria with the Hungarian nationalists’ plan for more independence from the Habsburg Empire. Pushing this dish in Budapest and Vienna as a symbol of their particularism, it backfired when the Viennese started to really like,9 adapt, and, with the help of the émigrés, spread this dish and its funny name all over the world.
By the time Sigmund Freud had bought his copy of the cookbook Die Deutsche Kochschule in Prag10, goulash had really become popular in Vienna. Just like Sigmund Freud11, the Viennese were fond of beef, which was cheap at that time12. This might have had something to do with the dish’s success, as well as it may explain why the Viennese simply left out all extra vegetables of the Hungarian versions. The Freuds’ cookbook included three kinds of beef goulash, two of which are titled “Hungarian” but definitely appear to be Viennese. Around this time the Viennese slowly refined the recipe of this popular dish until it became the archetype of today’s goulash, Wiener Saftgulasch, Viennese gravy goulash. A major part of this development was the omission of flour because a rich gravy could be achieved solely relying on a greater amount of onions and the connective tissues of meat.
In 1903, when the dish finally entered August Escoffier’s hall of fame, his Guide Culinaire13, it was also noted as “Hungarian Goulash”, making the Viennese name for the dish and the revised pronunciation of gulyás final: A Frenchman could just as well have written gouillash if he wanted to make it mimic the Hungarian word.
Also, those who have a Freudian eye can’t help but see the male pride symbolized in these disputes around a dish featuring a red hot chili pepper. The Viennese simply took the hot and manly spice and adapted its use for their own needs as they did with so many other dishes and ingredients from the different regions in and around the Austro-Hungarian empire. They made paprika their own by literally disarming this potentially dangerously hot national spice — because Viennese prefer the sweet variety to the hot. They ate their enemy’s threatening family jewels and made them a part of themselves. They appropriated and reinvented the main paprika dishes, Hungary’s national symbol. Gulyás became goulash.
Today, there’s a wide variety of different goulash recipes out there. Basically, there are almost as many goulash specialists in Vienna as there are inhabitants and émigrés, and everybody has his favorite recipe, from the one they make at the café down the street or at an upscale restaurant like the famous Hotel Sacher, to Mother’s ragoût. By some counts, there are over a hundred distinct versions of goulash14! Competitions and arguments over the best goulash are frequent. And, comparable to the Jewish cholent, the Ashkenazi Shabbos (Shabbat) stew, preparing, eating, and discussing it is often a men’s world. And, as for cholent, sure enough, every discussion will have the one foodie that will tell you only this or that Viennese or Hungarian goulash is the real thing. And then, inevitably, creationists will start to argue with evolutionists over the history and politics of food.
Without lard and certainly, no sour cream, contrary to Hungarian gulyás, pörkölt, paprikás, or tokány, the Viennese goulash didn’t even have to be adapted to suit kosher standards. It quickly gained a place of honor on the local Jewish holiday tables, especially on Sukkos (Sukkot)18. It’s so easy to make, reheat, and transport that the army too discovered it for their hungry men. In German, a mobile army kitchen is even referred to as a goulash canon. And it is, in fact, one of the few dishes that are actually a lot better when reheated and edible even out of a can.
Let’s be clear, from a classic French perspective, and contrary to many recipes out there, a goulash is a ragoût because the meat is never roasted before it is simmered in an aromatic liquid. “The daubes, estouffades, and terrines usually require no browning”, says Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, “and are much simpler to do. To be technically correct, any recipe describing meat which is browned before it is simmered should be labeled a fricassee…19” Browning is not appropriate because it changes the texture of the beef, resulting in something more boeuf bourguignon-ish than a classic goulash.
This consideration alone would not disqualify Wolfgang Puck’s goulash, which he calls “Americanized”, of which Chef John from FoodWishes.com said that if there were a beef stew hall of fame, “this recipe would have a whole wing dedicated to it. It’s that amazing!”20 What makes this recipe problematic is that however much you might like it, it has almost nothing to do with goulash from a flavor and taste point of view. The recipe mixes too many ingredients. The main stars paprika and beef almost disappear. In a now offline video from his online cooking school, Wolfgang Puck himself acknowledged that when his father came to visit him in America once he was already a celebrity chef, his father tasted his goulash, pushed it aside and said, “This is no goulash. Mother, go and teach your son how to make goulash.” To make good goulash you must trust the excellence of your paprika, the beef, and onions. Excellent dried marjoram and caraway seeds are beneficial too. No need for a multitude of other ingredients.
RECIPE: Viennese Goulash
No smoked paprika here! Spanish smoked pimento, for instance, is not appropriate. Get a fresh pack of paprika for this recipe. Don’t use stale spices. After all, paprika is the main flavor in this dish. Average supermarket grade paprika is not what you want. To get the typical Viennese taste, get the very popular Kotányi brand, which after having been founded around a paprika mill in Szeged for import to Vienna, today has paprika of undisclosed origin in it. But it still meets the average Viennese taste. Don’t hesitate to order online if necessary. The safest choice would be to go for the brands Szeged, Kalocsa, or Kotányi. You’re looking for a quite fruity taste, not bitter. Many people, including myself, also add some hot Hungarian paprika too.
The meat is slowly braised. Even the big chefs use water and a dash of vinegar or lemon juice at the end. But balsamic vinegar adds too many layers of extra flavor. Some people use beer. Some, even in Vienna, use red wine. If you insist, you can use very light homemade beef stock. (If store-bought, go for chicken stock.) But the best is to just use water and let the paprika be the star. This is what even Austrian restaurants like New York’s renowned Wallsé do!
12 servings (Always make a lot more than you need!)
6 pounds (3 kg) “Wadschinken” (boneless shank or shin of beef is best as stew meat)
6 pounds (3 kg) yellow onions
1/2 cup neutral vegetable oil like canola
3 Tablespoons tomato paste
5 medium garlic cloves chopped
1 1/2 Tablespoon dried marjoram
1 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground caraway seeds (preferably use a mortar)
3/4 cup Hungarian sweet paprika (fresh and excellent quality)
1 Tablespoon Hungarian hot paprika (optional)
5 1/2 cups water (optionally homemade beef stock or beer)
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 Tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- Make ahead: One or two days before serving, prepare the goulash. The flavors develop over time in the refrigerator. Reheating it a couple of times over the course of this period will further benefit its taste.
- Cube the meat: Wash and dry meat. Cut into big bite-size pieces around 2 in. or 5 cm.
- Prepare the onions: Dice onions. To a large heavy-bottomed pot add vegetable oil and onions. Add a few pinches of salt. Turn on the heat to medium, stirring to sweat the onions evenly until golden brown, about 12 minutes.
- Assemble the stew: Add tomato paste, garlic, dried marjoram, caraway, and finally sweet and hot paprika. Stir until fragrant and immediately add the cubes of beef. Stir to coat the meat and deglaze with the water to barely cover the meat. Add bay leaf. Season with salt, and pepper.
- Cook stew: Bring to a boil, cover, turn down and adjust the heat to a steady low simmer. Cook until very tender but not falling apart, about 2 hours.
- Skim off fat from the top of the goulash gravy.
- Refrigerate: Let cool completely and refrigerate. If possible reheat after a day. Let cool again before returning it once more to the cold.
- Reheat gently and taste for seasoning.
- Rectify acidity carefully with a few drops of lemon juice.
- Spoon onto warm plates.
- Serve with fresh white bread like Viennese Kaiser rolls, or Viennese Semmel- or Serviettenknödel (bread dumplings), boiled potatoes, Bandnudeln (tagliatelle) or farfel, a pasta called tarhonya in Hungary and “egg barley” in the United States.
What to drink? Beer is traditional in Vienna, but if you prefer wine, keep in mind that paprika and hot dishes, in general, don’t pair well with acidity and high alcohol content. You’ll absolutely want something full-bodied and soft. Hence a Grenache would be perfect. Therefore a Rioja, Southern Rhône wines or some similar wines would be excellent too. If you want to stay local, get a fitting Austrian Blaufränkisch or a Hungarian Kékfrankos. As far as white wine goes, a Riesling or even a classic Austrian Veltliner wine of rather ripe grapes and quite low acidity can be a good choice.
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- Gulyás is pronounced in Hungarian as “gouyash” and not goulash. The latter is the Viennese corruption, which spread the world over.
- In the course of this post I will list numerous sources, all of which will confirm this. One that I want to particularly highlight is unfortunately in German but available online: “Gulasch” by the Kuratorium Kulinarisches Erbe Österreich (Austrian Board of Trustees for Culinary Heritage) in Kulinarisches Erbe Österreich (retrieved January 9, 2018) <https://www.kulinarisches-erbe.at/geschichte-der-ess-trinkkultur/kulinarik-und-kulturgeschichte-ein-widerspruch/gulasch/>. And for everything that is missing in the latter, especially certain fascinating aspects of the dish’s Hungarian origins, I suggest the colossal research of George Lang in his The Cuisine of Hungary (New York: Atheneum, 1971; London: Penguin, 1985).
- More on how the “Indian” pepper came to the Middle East and Europe and its importance in modern-day Israel in Joan Nathan, King Solomon’s Table – A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking From Around The World (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2017), pp. 254-255.
- George Lang, The Cuisine of Hungary (New York: Atheneum, 1971; London: Penguin, 1985).
- János Rákóczi, Konyhaművészet (Budapest: Minerva, 1964).
- Ayto, John The Glutton’s Glossary: A Dictionary of Food and Drink Terms (London: Routledge, 1990) p. 205.
- András Koerner, A Taste of the Past. The Daily Life and Cooking of a 19th-Century Hungarian Jewish Homemaker (Hannover and London: University of New England Press, 2004), p.55.
- Marcia Colman Morton, The Art of Viennese Cooking (New York: Bantam, 1963).
- “Gulasch – Das Ergebnis politischer Umstände” in Wien > Geschichte der Ess- & Trinkkultur > Historische Küchen > Wiener Küche > Gabelfrühstück – Gulasch on the website by Kuratorium Kulinarisches Erbe Österreich (Austrian Board of Trustees for Culinary Heritage) (retrieved January 9, 2018) <https://www.kulinarisches-erbe.at/wien/historisches/historische-kuechen/wiener-kueche/gabelfruehstueck/gulasch/>
- Freud bought the cookbook in the 1890’s, and the family used it until Anna Freud’s death in 1982: Deutsche Kochschule in Prag, Sammlung von erprobten Speisevorschriften, (1894, 7th ed. 1914).
- Katja Behling-Fischer, Zu Tisch bei Sigmund Freud: Lebensweise, Gastlichkeit und Essgewohnheiten des Gründers der Psychoanalyse. Mit vielen Rezepten(Vienna: Brandstätter, 2000), pp. 61, 63 & 116.
- Read more about the Freuds and beef in Nino Loss, The Freuds’ Tafelspitz – Vienna’s Imperial Simmered Beef: Sigmund Freud, his wife Martha Bernays and their butcher Siegmund Kornmehl (Recipe) <https://schibboleth.com/tafelspitz-viennas-imperial-poached-beef-sigmund-freud-his-wife-martha-bernays-and-their-butcher-siegmund-kornmehl-recipe-boiledbeef/>
- August Escoffier, Le Guide Culinaire (Paris: 1903).
- Among the many versions there are
- beef goulash,
- veal goulash,
- gravy goulash,
- potato goulash,
- Sacher goulash,
- Fiaker (Vienna’s horse carriage) goulash,
- bean goulash,
- sausage goulash,
- (Sauer)kraut goulash,
- horse goulash
And In Memory’s Kitchen – A Legacy from the Women of Terezin (Northvale, NJ: Aronson, 1996) has a recipe for Goulash with noodles.
For more versions see Ingrid Haslinger’s Gulasch: 103 Rezepte – Die Kulturgeschichte eines köstlichen Gerichtes (Klosterneuburg: Norka, [without date]).
- Ingrid Haslinger Gulasch: 103 Rezepte – Die Kulturgeschichte eines köstlichen Gerichtes (Klosterneuburg: Norka, [without date]).
- Gil Marks Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (Hoboken: Wiley, 2004).
- Though the most well informed is the true well of information Das Große Sacher Kochbuch by Franz Maier-Bruck (Wien: Schuler, 1975).
- Molly Lyons Bar-David collected a couple of goulash recipes in Vienna and Budapest for her famous The Israeli Cook Book (New York: Crown Publishers, 1964). She mentions Sukkos as the customary occasion to make the veal goulash, but Chanukah (Hanukkah) for the potato goulash.
The German-Jewish Cookbook lists goulash as Shabbos (Shabbat) and holiday food, even for Pesach (Passover). The dish is so popular in Germany that many Germans believe it to be a local dish. Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman, Sonya Gropman, The German-Jewish Cookbook – Recipes and History of a Cuisine (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2017).
- Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck Mastering the Art of French Cooking (New York: Knopf, 1961).
- Beef Goulash! Thick Hungarian Soup, Thin Austrian Stew, or None of the Above? (January 15, 2013; retrieved January 9, 2018) <http://foodwishes.blogspot.co.at/2013/01/beef-goulash-thick-hungarian-soup-thin.html>.