The History Of Hungarian Goulash Began With Cattle Herders

The puszta region of eastern Hungarian is a treeless, flat area of grasslands prone to high winds and extreme temperatures (via Environment & Society Portal). It is also the ancestral home of Hungary's great gift to the culinary world: goulash. Provincial cattle herders and shepherds of the puszta created goulash out of necessity and convenience.

According to Britannica, goulash began as a slow-cooked, portable stew. Shepherds would cook various types of meat and flavorings until all their liquid was absorbed, and dry it in the sun and store it in bags made of sheep stomachs (similar to Scotland's national dish). While spending weeks to months at a time on the plains of the puszta, herders would carry the goulash with them, reconstituting it in boiling water when it was time to eat. 

Wealthy travelers wrote about the delicious, spiced stew they had in the region, but goulash wasn't a fashionable dish served in their homes; it was a novelty to try while traveling (via Smithsonian Magazine). But when Hungary fell under Habsburg rule, the country pushed back by leaning into Hungarian customs, language, and food, and goulash evolved from a provincial meal to a dish of national importance and national identity.

An essential spice that gives goulash its iconic flavor

Those wealthy travelers wrote about a spicy, warming stew (via Smithsonian Magazine), but originally goulash looked very different from the thick, red stew loaded with beef and potatoes we know today. Goulash was made with black pepper until Hungarian herders made the switch to what is now a quintessential Hungarian ingredient — paprika. The red spice gives goulash that characteristic spice, which enamored travelers and eventually led to goulash as a symbol of Hungarian national identity.

Food writer and restaurateur George Lang even said this about the spice: "Paprika is to the Hungarian cuisine as wit is to its conversation — not just a superficial garnish, but an integral element, a very special and unique flavor instantly recognizable." (per Taste Hungary). 

Hungarians take great pride in the quality of their paprika, so it only makes sense that the national spice and the national dish of this landlocked eastern European country are intertwined. While browsing shelves to buy paprika for your kitchen, Taste Hungary explains there are four different quality grades of the spice; the best, however, are always bright red in color. So why not find the best, bright red paprika you can, and try your hand at making Hungary's national dish with its national spice.