Goulash – a tasty history (5)

At the beginning of the 19th century, by the time paprika and potatoes were so common that it was as if they had been around forever, gulyáshús had been ordained Hungarian National Dish. Why, of all the beautiful foods Hungarian cuisine can boast of, it was to be goulash? Probably that was due to the fact that the dish is typical of the Hortobágy region in eastern Hungary, the only part of the kingdom where the Hungarians were in the majority and which -in contrast with the west bordering Austria- the policy of germanisation of the Imperial and Royal government had hardly been able to make headway. Debrecen, the capital of the region, was one of the main centres of resistance and would momentarily, during the 1849 uprising in which the Hungarians tried to gain independence, become the capital of Hungary.

The very first time we come across the name of the dish in print is in the “Diaetetica” by the medic István Mátyus from 1787, where it is called “Gujás-hús”. From then on accounts begin to pop up in which mention is made of goulash, and are the days that it lingered in the anonymity of the pots of the cowherds of the puszta decidedly over. Goulash began to appear regularly on the tables of farmers and burghers, soldiers and travelers, and with the nobility too it was a popular bite, especially on hunts. In 1790, the writing count József Gvadányi informs his readers of a trip he made to the Hortobágy, where his host presented him with what was unmistakably a goulash, although the author does not mention the name of the dish. In the “Betsi Magyar Merkurius”, a Hungarian newspaper that appeared in Vienna between 1793 and 1797, we read in a front report(¹) of 1793 that a unit of Hungarian soldiers stationed on the Rhine, on “21 August, when they just prepared themselves a gulyás, were raided by the French”. Travellers in the Hungarian Kingdom, too, could enjoy the dish, such as the Saxon Count Johann Centurius Hoffmannsegg who visited the country in the years 1793-1794. In one of his letters he writes: “We often had to sleep in a szálás (inn). I always preferred a Hungarian national dish of meat with Turkish pepper(²) which tastes delicious and must be very healthy”.

Goulash - a tasty history (5)

What we, with a little goodwill, could call the very first printed recipe for goulash was -not surprisingly, as we have seen- published in Latin, the language that every literate Hungarian mastered and preferred as colloquial language over German. It is a book entitled “Hungaria in parabolis” (Hungary in narratives) by Antal Szirmay, published in Budapest in 1804. A chapter in which the author describes the eating habits of his country starts -coincidence or not- with goulash: “Itinerantium Hungarorum cibus est Gulyás-hús a’ Bubulcis adoptatus, siue caro bubula minutim conscissa cum cepa, pipere, et semine foeniculi in sartagine, quam Bogrács vocant, cocta.”, or, in plain English: “The food of travellers in Hungary is gulyás-hús, chosen by the cattle-herds, which are little pieces of beef with onions, pepper and caraway seed(³), cooked in a cauldron called a bogrács.”

(¹) Since April 1792 Austria was, together with other European states, at war with revolutionary France.
(²) Turkish pepper, török bors in Hungarian, was the common name for paprika at that time.
(³) Semine foenicul is literally translated fennel seed, but it is likely that caraway seed is meant, since no goulash recipe known to man prescribes the use of fennel. Probably it is a confusion between the Hungarian édeskömény (“sweet caraway” for fennel) and fűszerkömény (“spice caraway” for caraway), and its translation into Latin.

© 2016, Marcel Wick



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