Though long established as the national dish of Hungary, its origins lie with the rootless, itinerant stockmen who roamed the plains of medieval Mitteleuropa.
From the Carpathians in the north and east to the Dinaric Alps in the south, the Great Hungarian Plain (Alföld) is bewitching in its vastness. Uninterrupted by hills and with scarcely a tree to be seen, it seems to have neither beginning nor end. To the poet, Sándor Petőfi (1823-49), it was ‘boundless as the ocean’ and almost as empty. As Petőfi explained in Az Alföld (‘The Plains’), it encapsulated a profound sense of freedom. There, and only there, did he feel at home; in its immense solitude, his imagination could roam unhindered and his ‘eagle soul’ could ‘escape from its prison’.
It was amid the barren beauty of the plains – which today form a part of Hungary, Serbia, Slovakia, Ukraine and Romania – that goulash was born. Exactly where and when are lost to us; but it has plausibly been suggested that, by the ninth century, a rudimentary form was being prepared by itinerant cowherds. Usually travelling in groups of five or six, they would spend months at a time roaming the vast expanses on their short, stocky horses, tending to herds of long-horned steppe cattle. Their life was simple. They slept under the stars; they drank from rivers and springs; and they ate their meals in common. Slinging a cast-iron cauldron (bogrács) over an open fire, they cooked a rudimentary soup with the long-lasting ingredients they carried in their saddle-bags, such as onions, cured bacon, lard and millet. Whenever one of their animals was too weak to go on, or they had the good fortune to come across a wild pig, they would kill it and add its meat to the pot. There was little in the way of seasoning – a pinch of coarse black pepper, at most – but it was a tasty dish, perfect for a winter’s night.
Such simple soups were made the world over. But in the lands between the Tisza and the Upper Danube, its austere simplicity set it apart. Devoid of herbs and fresh vegetables, it was unlike anything enjoyed by those who led a more settled life. This is not to say that it was unknown in the towns. Stopping at fairs every few weeks, the stockmen shared their fare with customers or friends; and, in time, some town-dwellers even made a version of it for themselves. But the artless composition and earthy flavours were indelibly associated with the itinerant life of the plains and it was from the herdsmen (gulyás) that it took its name.
Slowly, this rudimentary goulash was carried throughout Alföld to the cattle markets of Debrecen, Szeged and Hódmezővásárhely and beyond, to Bratislava, Vienna and Prague. Its simplicity facilitated its spread. Since it had no fixed ingredients, it could be adapted to suit local tastes and could transcend the religious divisions by which the region was increasingly rent. Catholics, Orthodox and – after the arrival of the Ottomans in the early 15th century – Muslims could enjoy it without scruple. It even began to cross social boundaries. As larger sections of the plain were given over to cultivation and the life of the herdsmen came under threat, it was adopted by farmers and smallholders. It was even found on the tables of the lesser nobility, especially in times of hardship. But, in the imagination, it remained a poor man’s dish and even, as rural peasants throughout East-Central Europe began to be subjected to their landlords, with the condition of serfdom. So strong did this association become that, by the mid-16th century, a new – and more pejorative – etymology for its name had been proposed. Rather than deriving from the Hungarian gulyás, Ottoman scholars suggested that the word ‘goulash’ actually came from the Turkish kul aşı – meaning ‘servant’s food’.
The coming of paprika
By this time, goulash had begun to change. In the early 16th century, explorers brought hot and spicy peppers (capsicum annuum) from Central Mexico to Spain; and soon, these exotic imports were being traded throughout the Mediterranean. Spreading along the North African coast, they eventually reached the Balkans and, from there, were brought into the Great Hungarian Plain, where they were received enthusiastically.
Peppers could be cooked and eaten as they were, but it was soon discovered that they could also be dried, crushed and made into a spicy powder, which was soon dubbed ‘paprika’. In comparison with the modern version, this was extremely hot; but, added to goulash, it gave the soup an attractive red colour and a deliciously warming taste.
As early as 1569, peppers were being grown by the Ottomans in Buda. Within decades they had become a familiar feature of cottage gardens throughout the Alförd. As they spread, paprika supplanted black pepper as the principal spice in goulash; and by the end of the century, it had become something close to the dish we know today.
Yet the coming of paprika had little impact on patterns of consumption. Even in its new form, goulash remained the preserve of the lower rungs of society – common to all ethnic groups, yet claimed by none. By the end of the 17th century, when the Ottomans had been driven out and the Habsburg monarchy restored, it was still a ‘peasant’ dish, eaten by Christians and Muslims, Hungarians, Czechs, Poles and Ukrainians.
Only amid the storms of the 19th century did this change. Following the proclamation of the Austrian Empire in 1804, the Kingdom of Hungary – unlike many other Habsburg territories – had been allowed to preserve its own political identity. Largely untroubled by the imperial administration in Vienna, it maintained its own parliament (Diet) and, in theory, lived according to its own laws. Yet, within a matter of years, the appearance of Hungary’s equality had given way to the reality of its subservience to Austria. After 1811 the Diet was rarely convened; harsh taxes were imposed to cope with the crippling debts incurred by the imperial government during the Napoleonic Wars; and dissent was ruthlessly crushed. The Hungarians were outraged and demands for political reform became ever more insistent. Patriotic fervour swept the kingdom. For the first time, Hungarians – including, most notably, Petőfi – strove to distinguish themselves from the Austrian ‘oppressors’ by cultivating a distinct sense of Magyar identity, rooted in language, in landscape and in culture.
Following several abortive attempts by the imperial government to stem the tide of Hungarian nationalism, revolution broke out. Independence was declared and the new state, under the regency of the poet Lajos Kossuth (1802-94), fought a bitter war against Habsburg Austria. Though this was ultimately unsuccessful, it had important effects. The Empire into which Hungary was reintegrated was now no longer a single unitary state, but a ‘dual’ monarchy, in which the Magyar people were assured of their equal and independent status. And, as Hungarian national identity became more pronounced, goulash was claimed as the ‘national’ dish. Precisely because it was a ‘peasant’ food, named for the nomadic herdsmen of the Alförd, it could be presented not only as a truly ‘popular’ dish – far removed from the refined cuisine of the Austrian court – but also as an authentically Magyar food. This was a patent absurdity. Though it was rooted in the plains, it was no more ‘Hungarian’ than it was Slovene or Ukrainian. But it was a convenient fiction; and, as the culinary expression of the revolution, it was soon taken up by all sections of society.
The growing popularity of goulash provided a spur to further refinement. As demand for paprika rose, pepper was cultivated on a much larger scale and with greater inventiveness. In 1920 – just two years after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – a grower in Szeged discovered a variety whose fruit was much sweeter than any other. By grafting it onto other plants he was able to create a paprika that was cooler and more flavoursome. Within a few decades, the older, hotter variety had been almost completely supplanted.
At about the same time, tomatoes were added to the recipe. This was, in part, a response to changing patterns of cultivation in the Hungarian plains; it was also a matter of taste. Now that the paprika was less overpowering, people came to appreciate a slightly richer, smoother taste, with a hint of tartness.
Served with thickly sliced dumplings, or with csipetke (egg noodles), goulash had, by the outbreak of the Second World War, become perhaps the most common Hungarian food. It could be found in homes, cafes and restaurants throughout the country. Yet – for all its ‘Hungarian’ associations – it also continued to enjoy popularity elsewhere in Europe. In all those countries of which the Alförd is a part – Ukraine, Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (as they then were) – goulash formed an integral part of the national cuisine, albeit in a variety of subtly different guises. It even reached further afield. Successive waves of immigration in the early 20th century took goulash to the United States. First attested in a cookbook published in 1914, it quickly gained a following beyond its original consumers; and, as it spread, its recipe was adapted. Ground, rather than cubed, beef was used; csipetke and dumplings were replaced with macaroni; and cheese was often added, as well.
Today, goulash is still fêted as a distinctively ‘Hungarian’ dish. An object of pride, especially among supporters of the nationalistic Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, it is occasionally even held up as a mark of Hungarian exceptionalism. But, if the history of goulash illustrates anything, it is that it is really no one’s. Rooted in the restless wandering of medieval stockmen, it has always been a dish without borders, a food for sharing, a taste of freedom. And thus it should remain.
Alexander Lee is a fellow in the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick. His latest book is Humanism and Empire: The Imperial Ideal in Fourteenth-Century Italy (Oxford, 2018).