Think Austro-Hungary: Think Goulash

Come On, You Reds!

Today's column is inspired by a recent visit to Vienna, to visit the grandson (and his parents, of course). The boy's education is coming along nicely. If you say to him, come on, he will, without bidding, add, you Reds. I'm fairly certain his choice of weekend attire was responsible for Man U's famous cup victory over Liverpool.

In Vienna one always eats well. As ever in a foreign land, my mind turned to the cuisine and its influences. The Austro Hungarian empire was broken up at the end of the First World War. Czechs loved the Treaty of Versailles, as it created their sovereign state for the first time. The whole thing was a massive organisation, including parts of Italy, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, and Ukraine as well as Austria and Hungary themselves.

It's probably fair to say that, of the individual countries, Austria has emerged with the most notable cuisine. I'm not even going to touch on the sweet stuff. Start with your strudels and your sachertorten and you could write a book, not just a blog. On the savoury side, if you turn to any reference book you like (for younger readers, these were things you consulted prior to the invention of Google), and you'll usually come on the same big three, schnitzel, tapelspitz and goulash. Well, we covered schnitzel in a couple of columns a year or two ago. Tapelspitz is basically beef poached in broth, not dissimilar to the boeuf à la ficelle which we enjoyed last year. So, goulash it is.

Here's a question. What do goulash and pot noodle have in common? Hold that thought. We tend to think of goulash as a beef based stew; however, the first records, from the 10th century, attribute it to Hungarian shepherds. A nomadic lot, they would dry meat in the sun, then pack it in sheep's stomachs. Add hot water and stir - instant stew. The word gulyás means herdsman, more specifically one who looks after a gulya, a herd of cattle, so we're dealing principally with a beef dish.

Beef stew is hardly a unique dish. It's a little difficult to know why goulash has become so widely known. In many countries, of course, beef would be a rare sight on the table of the common man. It appears to have been more common in Austro-Hungary, the great Hungarian plains being home to huge herds, and Europe's largest cattle markets being in Vienna, Moravia, Nuremberg and Venice. But why goulash in particular? Hungarian cuisine boasts a number of similar stews such as pörkölt, and tokány. There is another one, paprikásand there, I suspect, lies our answer.

Paprika wasn't introduced to Europe until the 16th century. The Hungarians took an immediate liking to it, and it's widely cultivated in the country. From an early stage they were producing different types. Their so called rose paprika is sweet, made from little dark red pods, whereas the  hotter Koenigspaprika, or king’s paprika, is made from the whole pepper. History does not specify who first had the thought of smoking the stuff. Probably the Spanish. We'll consider a recipe or two on Friday, but I would suggest that the best goulashes contain at least two different types.

I've been focussing on Hungary, though the visit was to Austria. No matter. You'll find it everywhere. The Austrians are great culinary robbers - they nicked schnitzel from the Italians - but nothing wrong with that in my book. As the front page of a certain blog reads, good food is good food, wherever you find it.

There are no hard and fast rules to making a goulash, though I would suggest that garlic and paprika are essentials. My version will always be beef based. Other than that, it's up to you. It can be made with cheap cuts. You just need to cook it for longer. It can be a soup instead of a stew. You can beef it up (sorry, pun intended) with potatoes or other veg. Bread dumplings are a common accompaniment, especially in Czechia and Slovakia. In some countries one often finds the beef replaced by venison or wild boar. Needless to say, versions in the USA bear little resemblance to the original. They have been known to include macaroni, hamburger and tomato soup. Do I care? Not a bit, provided it tastes good.



  1. Baird Mark on 20th March 2024 at 4:57 pm

    Is that pasta you’re serving with your goulash Tom?

    • Tom Johnston on 20th March 2024 at 10:20 pm

      It’s pasta in the photo, but, as you know, I generally take photos from the internet. Surprising how much pasta you get in eastern Europe. Being a plebeian Scot, I tend to serve mash.

  2. Paul on 20th March 2024 at 5:32 pm

    We are in Austria for a week. Usually the food is a lot more than just Goulash or Wiener Schnitzel.

    • Tom Johnston on 20th March 2024 at 10:17 pm

      Absolutely, but if you do a poll of the most popular/common, I bet they’ll be in the top 5.

  3. Michael Greenlaw on 20th March 2024 at 9:08 pm

    A good history lesson in itself Tom – you have done your research well!
    I hope you enjoyed some guid goulash while you were away.
    I didn’t know that the Czech Republic was known as Czechia. You learn something new…

    • Tom Johnston on 20th March 2024 at 10:15 pm

      Very kind, Michael, but with Dr Google and Professor Wikipedia, research is easier than it used to be.

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