Goulash is lauded as the Hungarian specialty all over the world, and it is no coincidence that an entire epoch of Hungarian history is referred to as “Goulash communism.” The word gulyás originally meant only “herdsman,” but over time the dish became gulyáshús (goulash meat) – that is to say, a meat dish which was prepared by herdsmen. Today, gulyás refers both to the herdsmen, and to the soup.
From the Middle Ages until well into the 19th century, the Puszta was the home of massive herds of cattle. They were driven, in their tens of thousands, to Europe’s biggest cattle markets in Moravia, Vienna, Nuremberg and Venice. And the herdsmen made sure that there was always one “sickly” creature that had to be slaughtered along the way, the flesh of which provided them with a magnificent gulyáshús.
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It was not until the end of the 19th century, during a period of burgeoning national awareness, that goulash moved from the herdsmens kettles into the cooking pots of the wealthy. The Hungarians felt their cultural identity was threatened by the far-reaching reforms of the Holy Roman emperor and Hungarian King Joseph II, which were implemented after his mother’s death in 1780. As the result, anything national came to have significance for them.
It became imperative to protect the Hungarian tongue (German had become the national language), and to remember and pass down the traditional Hungarian dances, and their national costumes. The Hungarians wanted to assert their independence, the national characteristic of the Magyars, everywhere, even in their gastronomy, and so goulash became highly fashionable. The dish that had until then been eaten only by herdsmen using wooden spoons and from a shared kettle, was now served in the manor houses at elegant tables bedecked with porcelain and silver cutlery. And from there it moved on – or perhaps we should say back – to the simple folk outside the Great Plain, where it finally became common property.
A goulash soup can be prepared in a number of different ways, and each one has its own ardent supporters. However, all agree that the cook should be generous with both meat and potatoes. Under no circumstances should flour be used to bind the soup. If the soup, which should actually be quite thick, is a little too thin, one or two tablespoons of tomato paste may be added – although with care, so the soup does not become too tart. Ground paprika, which is always used in generous quantities, will also help to improve the consistency.