Today is a major national holiday in Hungary celebrating King Saint Stephen I (Szent István). This was his saint’s day until 1687, but is now celebrated as the founding date of the nation of Hungary. Stephen was the last Grand Prince of the Hungarians between 997 and 1000 or 1001, and the first King of Hungary from 1000 or 1001 until his death in 1038. I could go on at length about Stephen’s exploits and accomplishments, but I’ll be brief because I want to talk about paprika and gulyás (goulash).
Stephen claimed the title of Grand Prince on the death of his father Géza in 997, and had a number of supporters. But his claim was based on the Christian principle of primogeniture (inheritance by the eldest son), and the bulk of Hungary was not Christian at the time. Traditional Hungarian law prescribed that the senior member of the Árpád dynasty should inherit the title. At the time this was Koppány, duke of Somogy (Stephen’s father’s brother). Koppány married Stephen’s mother (as would have been customary) and claimed his brother’s title. The war that ensued was both a power struggle and an ideological one. Stephen favored Christianizing Hungary and making it a Western Christian state; Koppány supported traditional Magyar (ethnic Hungarian) values which were non-Christian, with Hungary divided between ethnically distinct chiefdoms – the old versus the new. In a nutshell: Stephen won.
Stephen had himself crowned as the king of Hungary either on 25 December 1000 or January 1 1001. The sources indicate only that he was crowned on the first day of the new millennium, which could be interpreted as either date. He then spent the remainder of his reign consolidating his power by bringing the local chieftains into line with the new order, and spreading Christianity and Western principles of governance. He also aligned himself with Western leaders, notably his brother-in-law, Henry II, king of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor (who rose to power in much the same way as Stephen).
To celebrate this day I want to focus on what is now the quintessentially Hungarian spice, paprika, and the national dish, gulyás. For many cooks in the world today paprika is a single spice, a red, slightly sweet powder made from ground red bell peppers. But paprika is one of the most richly diverse of all the spices in the cook’s arsenal. It can be red or brown, piquant or mild, smoky or not. It’s all a matter of how it is prepared. Paprika is made by grinding the dried fruits of Capsicum annuum which range from the mild bell pepper to the fiery chile pepper. Differences in kinds of paprika are determined by the soil and climate in which the peppers are grown, the mix of powders from peppers of different heat and flavor, and whether or not the peppers are smoked as part of the preparation. Smoking is more common in Spain than elsewhere.
The plants are indigenous to Mesoamerica, but were quickly adopted by Europeans, first in Iberia, but soon spreading. Capsicum plants were first grown in the region of Hungary by Turks in the early 16th century. The main areas of production now are Kalocsa and Szeged in the south. The paprika produced there is more robust than is found elsewhere, and comes in 8 named grades:
Special quality (Különleges) the mildest, very sweet with a deep bright red color.
Delicate (csípόsmentes csemege) – color from light to dark red, a mild paprika with a rich flavor.
Exquisite Delicate (Csemegepaprika) – similar to Delicate, but more pungent.
Pungent Exquisite Delicate (Csípős Csemege, Pikáns) – an even more pungent version of Delicate.
Rose (Rózsa) – pale red in color with strong aroma and mild pungency.
Noble Sweet (Édesnemes) – the most commonly exported paprika; bright red and slightly pungent.
Half-Sweet (Félédes) – A blend of mild and pungent paprikas; medium pungency.
Strong (Erόs) – light brown in color, the spiciest paprika.
You can find a few of these in Western Europe and the U.S., but most are available only in Hungary. Typically outside of Hungary, Hungarian paprika is classified as either sweet or hot. In fact, even in Hungary nowadays the old grading system is disappearing in favor of sweet versus hot. Whatever the case, Hungarian paprika should be used for Hungarian dishes, otherwise you are missing something vital.
The national dish of Hungary is gulyás, known as goulash in the English-speaking world. Of course, like all great national dishes, gulyás, comes in as many varieties as there are regions, seasons, and cooks. Gulyás can be either a soup or thick stew, the principal ingredients of which are meat, root vegetables, and paprika. Additions and variations are infinite. Any and all meats, even combinations, are acceptable, although beef is most common. Typical cuts include the shank, shin, or shoulder; as a result, gulyás derives its thickness from tough, well-exercised muscles rich in collagen, which is converted to gelatin during the cooking process.
The meat is cut into chunks, seasoned with salt, and then browned with sliced onion in a pot with oil or lard. Paprika is then added (in tablespoons), along with water or stock, and the gulyás is left to simmer until the meat is very tender. After several hours, some combination of garlic, whole or ground caraway seed, soup vegetables such as carrot, parsnip, bell pepper, celery and a small tomato may be added (note that tomato or tomato paste are definitely optional). Other herbs and spices could also be added, especially chile pepper, bay leaf, and thyme. Diced potatoes are often added, since they provide starch as they cook, which makes the gulyás thicker and smoother. A small amount of white wine or wine vinegar may also be added near the end of cooking to round the taste. Gulyás is often served with small egg noodles called csipetke (spaetzle in German), either cooked in with the gulyás towards the end, or served as a plain bed like pasta. They are produced by making an egg pasta dough and then pinching small pieces off in little shallow bowl shapes.
Some of the regional varieties of gulyás are:
Gulyás (Plain Style). As above. Root vegetables, no csipetke.
Gulyás à la Székely. Reduce the amount of potatoes and add sauerkraut and sour cream.
Hamisgulyás (Mock Gulyás). Substitute beef bones for the meat and add more vegetables.
Csángó Gulyás. Add sauerkraut and rice instead of csipetke and potatoes.
Betyár Gulyás. Use smoked beef or smoked pork for the meat.
Likócsi (Pork Gulyás). Use pork and thin vermicelli in the gulyás instead of potato and soup pasta. Flavor with lemon juice.
Birkagulyás (Mutton Gulyás). Made with mutton. Add red wine for flavor.
You will also find gulyásleves throughout Hungary – a soup version of gulyás. The method is much the same except there is much more broth and it is not reduced or thickened.
All experienced cooks will be able to take what I have described here and run with it. But for those of you who need a little more guidance here is a recipe for classic, plain gulyás.
4 tbsp vegetable oil
2 yellow onions, chopped
1 ½ lbs (750 gm) beef chuck, cut into ½ in (4 cm) cubes
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
¼ cup Hungarian paprika (sweet or hot)
2 tsp dried marjoram
2 tsp caraway seeds
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 medium carrots, cut into ½ in (4 cm) cubes
2 medium parsnips, cut into ½ in (4 cm) cubes
1 ½ lbs (750 gm) new potatoes, peeled and cut into ½ in (4 cm) cubes
1 tomato, seeds removed and coarsely chopped
1 red bell pepper, coarsely chopped
5 cups (1 lt) beef stock
Heat the oil in a heavy pot over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until translucent.
Increase the heat to high. Add the beef and season with salt and pepper to taste. Sauté until the meat is browned on all sides. Stir in the paprika, marjoram, caraway, and garlic and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the stock, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a slow simmer, and cook covered until the beef is very tender, 2 hours or more.
Add the potatoes, carrots, parsnips and simmer, uncovered until the vegetables are tender. I like mine a little more on the al dente side, but it’s more typical to cook them longer. Make sure the sauce has reduced and thickened.
Add the tomato and bell pepper and cook another 5 minutes on medium-high heat.
Serves 6 to 8.