But let us go back to Hungary, which, after all, is the birthplace of this singular stew. The French sociologist Frédéric Le Play (he was also engineer and economist) distinguished in his book “Les Ouvriers Européens” (“The European Workers”) from 1855, in which he described the living conditions of 36 European working class families, three types of Hungarian goulash: the gulyás hus, the pörkölt hus and the paprikás hus, of which he qualifies the latter as the “national dish”. Life in the Hungarian countryside at that time was apparently good, in any event a whole lot better than any of the other European families the scientist visited, because they ate three times a day, and meat appeared on the table at every meal.
The first of the three is the “real” goulash: the bográcsgulyás. This is a stew of beef, paprika, onions, potatoes and water, seasoned with some caraway seeds and salt. It is a wet affair, this goulash. It’s actually more like a soup than a stew. In that respect it is very akin to that other famous Hungarian dish, the halászlé, the famous fish soup. Perhaps less known to foreigners, but in Hungary and the neighbouring countries extremely popular, this “goulash” of the fishermen of the Danube and the Tisza. The soup is made with the same simple means: a cauldron, a tripod and a spoon, with for ingredients the locally caught fish, paprika, onions and water and nothing else. In this first group we can also count the gulyásleves, the goulash soup, which can be regarded as a gulyás with extra vegetables added. This category includes dishes like the Székelygulyás or székelykáposzta (a goulash with sauerkraut) and the Alföld-goulash (with root vegetables).
For the second, more solid form, which is more like what outside Hungary is regarded as a goulash, we must look to the pörkölt. Pörkölt, a word that means “strongly seared” or “browned”, is a compact goulash with a thick sauce. Here, too, the invariable ingredients are paprika and onions.
The third and last type is the paprikás. This is a thickish stew on the basis of a sauce of onions and paprika enriched with cream. The best-known is undoubtedly the paprikás csirke, the chicken paprikash, a simple but irresistible stew with chicken in the lead. Catfish is mostly used for the fluvial version. Vegetarian goulash is also often made in this way, for instance with mushrooms or potatoes.
Finally, we have to mention the lecsó. Lecsó (pronounced letch-oh) is a kind of ratatouille of peppers, tomatoes, onions, some bacon and a spoonful of paprika. It is eaten as a main or side dish. Although the dish is not generally counted as a goulash, all the elements of a goulash are indeed present.
Hungarian cuisine has yet another stew: the tokány. This is a stew like pörkölt, but with even less liquid. The major difference is that no paprika is used in a tokány, but black pepper. Pepper, as we have seen already, was used as a condiment before paprika appeared on the scene, and a stew seasoned with black pepper is perhaps the archetype of goulash. And so we are back at the origins: a simple stew which was not seasoned with paprika, but with black pepper, a spice that has been known in Europe for thousands of years.
© 2016, Marcel Wick