The true character of Hungarian cuisine is based around simple, hearty dishes rich in flavour – the kind that stick to your ribs. It’s safe to say that the most famous Hungarian dish undeniably goes to goulash, a filling, paprika-flavoured soup with beef and some vegetables. Goulash is among those world famous dishes that exist in all kinds of forms around the globe. If one travels around central Europe they might be served goulash in form of a stew (rather than a soup), and some searching on the internet will reveal even more varieties, from goulash with chicken and vegetables, to a variation in the U.S. with noodles, that – to be honest – is so far away from the original that it could easily be renamed.
So, how can we tell which is the real, authentic version of goulash? Well, ask a Hungarian! But if there isn’t one around, we’re here to help you separate fact from goulash fiction. Without going too deeply into the details, it is good to know that in its earliest forms goulash really started out as a kind of a stew but didn’t include paprika at that time as the Hungarians didn’t use this famous spice until the mid-18th century.
But for goulash to become what it is today, paprika was essential. The ground pepper gave the dish not only a nice colour, but a distinct taste, and as the years passed even a symbol for national identity in our decades-long opposition to the Habsburg rule. The latter was probably just as important in the success of goulash as the simplicity of the dish because it became an important element of everyday life beyond the peasantry and found its way to the heart (if not always the picky belly) of the aristocracy.
By the late 19th century when we made our compromise with the Habsburgs, goulash left the kitchens of southeast Hungary and appeared on the menus of restaurants all around the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy where it was mostly known as a stew, while also being a frequent element of the menus at weddings in the Hungarian countryside. Oddly, by the time of its fame, goulash as a stew in Hungarian was referred to as pörkölt, while the name goulash (gulyás in Hungarian) referred to a soup. This is why even now, different dishes can go under the same name, sometimes even in Hungarian restaurants.
But it doesn’t really matter if the dish is listed as pörkölt, a goulash, or even our other famous dish, the paprikash (paprikás), because they are all based on the essential combination of fat, onion, and paprika. As such, they are all closely related. These three ingredients can also be found in fisherman’s soup, an authentic countryside dish with carp that became a nationwide Christmas classic.
The dishes mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg of course; the names that sound familiar for almost everyone visiting Hungary. But when you visit, make sure to try some other unmissable options like the greasy, addictive lángos (deep fried dough), the Transylvanian heritage chimney cake, and the special Hungarian-Jewish cake called flódni (just to name a few). But before you dive in, have a few sips of pálinka, our fruity brandy that cures, burns on the way down, and known to stimulate your appetite.
Get a taste for authentic Hungarian Goulash and learn even more about our best local foods on the Bites and Sites Budapest Food tour.