When we say goulash, we think Hungary. Historians trace the roots of the hearty stew with lots of paprika to medieval Hungarian shepherd culture. But, in keeping with the shepherds’ lifestyle, goulash is an itinerant dish with many versions all over Central Europe. One of my favorites is commonly made in the Czech lands. To add to the confusion, in Prague you will sometimes find it labeled as “Viennese.” I set out to recreate the dish at home.
Hungarian cuisine knows a whole variety of goulash versions. It really is a science. But meat, onions, tomatoes and especially paprika are probably the basic non-negotiable ingredients of goulash across Hungary and beyond. This is also where historic continuity breaks off. In the year 1000, the shepherds of the Great Hungarian Plain didn’t have two of these five ingredients – tomato and paprika – that were brought to Europe from the Americas much later.
More importantly, across regions or even individual families, people feel very strongly about what constitutes a proper goulash. I grew up in Northern Germany in the firm conviction that it had to be made of both beef and pork. This may be very different from the “original,” but we nevertheless thought of it as abstractly Hungarian. Others insist that it include peppers or pickles or that it be more or less liquid, possibly even a soup. Similar disagreement can be found when it comes to side dishes. They can range from potatoes to noodles, dumplings or even plain bread. I suggest having the “Viennese” goulash from Prague with dumplings, but if you don’t have time for that, egg noodles will be equally good.
After some research on Czech cooking sites and a few trials and modifications, I can conclude that this recipe recreated the familiar taste – possibly even surpassed it.
Prague goulash. Serves four.
- 2 lb stew beef, cut into pieces about 1.5×2 in. The great thing about stew meat is that you can buy cheap cuts, which makes local and grass-fed more affordable.
- 5 tbsp bacon fat. Not everyone has bacon fat at hand. Olive oil works just fine.
- 1.75 lb onions, chopped. And yes, that’s a lot of onions.
- 5 garlic cloves, minced.
- 4 tbsp paprika. I like “Pride of Szeged.”
- 1.5 tbsp caraway seeds.
- 6 oz tomato paste.
- 2.5 cups beef stock.
- Salt, pepper.
Step one. Wash and thoroughly dry the meat. Heat the fat on medium-high and sear the beef from all sides until browned. Don’t crowd the pan – do several rounds if necessary. Put the meat aside, keep the fat in the pan. If there are small pieces of browned beef left, that’s fine.
Step two. Using the same pan, cook the onions over medium heat for 10-15 minutes. Add garlic, paprika and caraway seeds and cook for another couple of minutes. It can stick to the pan, but make sure nothing burns. Add the meat and mix thoroughly. Add salt and pepper, then stir in the tomato paste. Finally, add the stock.
Step three. Transfer the pan to the oven and cook at 320 degrees for about 2-2.5 hours, until the meat is very tender. Stir every now and then and add more stock or water if necessary. You don’t want it to be too liquid, but make sure it doesn’t burn.
Serve with egg noodles or dumplings.