Paprika, Goulash and more…

Hungarian cuisine might not be as world known as Italian, Japanese or other. However, many cuisines of the world have a Hungarian element in them…more precisely in the kitchen spice rack. When looking at a Hungarian cookbook, you will certainly notice a pattern a colour…red.

Yes, Hungarian cuisine is dominated by the shades of red that come from using paprika. It is so to say the national vegetable. Since my early childhood, I cannot recall a single Hungarian table, whether at home or in a restaurant, which wouldn’t already have alongside the salt and pepper, the fragrant red powder.  A pinch of it for the soup, on the cucumber salad, a pinch more on the roasted potatoes, or cream etc., except for the desserts, that would be heresy.


Due honour is given to the south american continent which is the origin of this plant. Through the trade routes back to the old world, it slowly made its way from the Iberian coast, through the Balkans, to eventually land in the Pannonian basin (where Hungary is today). Fair enough, it was then occupied by the Ottomans, which contributed to the growing of Paprika, on the Buda side of Hungary’s capital Budapest. The word itself refers back to the sensations of what pepper procures, and essentially means the little pepper. The first recorded use of paprika in the Hungarian cuisine goes back to the 16th century, and from here the word literally spread, and found its way to the kitchens of the world under the name of Paprika. Fair enough, there are some exceptions, such as Spain, where it is called pimento, but the Hungarians have really perfected the flavours, fragrances, and shades of this spice.


To give you an idea of the variety that you can find in Hungary, here is a small list:


  • Special quality (különleges) the mildest, very sweet with a deep bright red color
  • Delicate (csípősmentes csemege) – color from light to dark red, a mild paprika with a rich flavor
  • Exquisite delicate (csemegepaprika) – similar to delicate, but more fragrant
  • Pungent exquisite delicate (csípős csemege, pikáns) – an even more fragrant version of delicate
  • Rose (rózsa) – pale red in color with strong aroma and mild aroma
  • Noble sweet (Édesnemes) – the most commonly exported paprika; bright red and slightly aromatic
  • Half-sweet (félédes) – a blend of mild and fragrant paprikas; very light bitterness
  • Strong (erős) – light brown in color, the hottest paprika
  • Smoked (füstölt) – smoky fragrance, darker colour, harder to find.


Busting the misconception


If you go to Hungary, you should not be surprised to receive a soup when you order Goulash. If you want the stew, then you should order pörkölt, we will get to that shortly. Originally, this is the herdman’s soup. The first recorded recipe for gulyás dates back to 1816 found in a pamphlet to which Rátz Zsuzsanna Búza contributed.The way it is written is Gulyás and pronounced -ɡujaːʃ.

First of all, it is important to recall that the Huns, were a semi-nomadic group of people. Therefore, the cooking equipment was reduced to the strict necessary. Imagine a tripod from which hangs a cauldron over a fire, and you have the traditional Hungarian bogrács. To this day, for most celebrations and good occasions, it is very common to do a bogrács party. It is also such a part of the culture, that there are festivals and competitions for all variants of bogrács recipes (see in the references).  A simple principle, by which you dump the ingredients into a cauldron, stand around it like at a barbecue but without having to do much. It is cooked for a long time, until the meat is soft, but not quite falling apart. Considering that for this you mainly use the less fine cuts, it releases more broth type of flavours.

Guylás on open fire



So, what is the “western” goulash that people refer to? It is actually pörkölt; the thicker more stew-like variant. The word pörkölt – pørkølt – simply means roasted. Among the first records of this, Rézi néni wrote a recipe book in 1876. This dish is also prepared it the traditional bogrács, but the first steps are a little different. To start off a good pörkölt, you put lard and onions in the hot cauldron (or pot). Once the lard and onions created a thick sauce like base, you add in the meat and coat it well. Here comes the roasting for a little bit. Braise the meat very little, just to get the maillard reaction going, then add the paprika. Here is something I learned in my childhood, you never put the paprika in, when the cauldron is over the fire, always move it away from the fire. Otherwise you will have a bitter taste. After a few stirs off the fire, continue stirring above the fire briefly, until it is all well coated and starts thickening. The pörkölt has fewer ingredients, especially spices, and much less liquid to start with. You only pour in just enough to cover your meat, and let it reduce. The focus with pörkölt, is quality paprika (the powder) with quality paprika (the plant) and quality meat. Yes, you read that correctly, paprika is the star of the show. A big no no, is adding pepper, caraway or cumin seeds and other fancy herbs. After a long reduction, you finally can indulge in a thick very fragrant meal with soft and tender meat.


The result of these bogrács recipes are wonderful vibrant red meals with little golden pearls of fat bordering the edges of a plate. Of course there are other things you can prepare in a bogrács, such as the regionally disputed fish soups. However, this will be the subject of another introduction. Below, you will find a quick guide to the main differences between the Gulás and Pörkölt. So next time you have the choice to have a goulash, you can ask whether it is the soup or the thicker “roast”.





Gulyás recipe:

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