Rediscovering The Humble Origins Of Hungarian Goulash

Hungarian goulash, a traditional soup dish with a rich history and cultural significance, has often been overlooked or overshadowed by other global cuisines, despite its unique flavours and culinary heritage. Legend has it that Hungarian goulash originated as a humble soup stew cooked by Hungarian herdsmen on the vast grasslands of the great Hungarian plains known as the Puszta. It is said that they cooked it in their leather bags while on horseback, using the natural heat and spices available. This anecdote showcases the practicality and inventiveness of the Hungarian people in adapting the cuisine to their nomadic lifestyle.

It emerged as a practical and hearty dish among the nomadic herdsmen and shepherds who roamed the region. Its origins can be traced back to the 9th century, when the Hungarian tribes migrated to the Carpathian Basin. The dish gained international prominence when refined varieties of paprika, derived from ground red chillies, were introduced. Chillies, brought from the Americas, flourished in Hungary, and the locals developed their own spice, paprika, using these peppers.

Goulash, a dish born out of the Hungarian cowherds' ingenuity, holds significant cultural value. These cowherds, who tended to their cattle on the expansive plains, cooked hearty stews in large cauldrons over open fires. With simple ingredients like millet, lard, bacon, onions, salt, and occasionally black pepper, they created a flavourful meal. When a cow was slaughtered, the cowherds indulged in a rare treat: a stew made by browning the meat with lard and onions, adding water, and sometimes substituting dried red chillies for black pepper. Travellers in the late 18th century discovered this robust, spicy peasant dish that warmed the stomach and named it "gulyás hús" after the Hungarian term for herdsmen. Goulash represents the resourcefulness and rich culinary heritage of Hungary's humblest communities.

Regional Variations  

Goulash exhibits regional variations across different parts of Hungary, showcasing the culinary diversity within the country. In Szeged, goulash often incorporates sauerkraut, which adds a tangy and slightly sour flavour to the dish, creating a unique twist. In Debrecen, a city in eastern Hungary, goulash tends to be spicier, with the use of hot paprika lending a fiery kick to the dish. Budapest, being the capital, has its own variations, with some modern adaptations featuring additional vegetables like peppers or carrots, adding freshness and vibrancy.

Moreover, there are notable adaptations to goulash to accommodate dietary preferences. Vegetarian and vegan versions have gained popularity, replacing the meat with hearty vegetables like mushrooms, lentils, or potatoes while still capturing the essence of the traditional flavours. These adaptations showcase the flexibility and creativity of goulash, making it accessible to a wider range of individuals with different dietary needs or preferences while still preserving the essence and character of this beloved Hungarian dish.  

Recipe for Lamb Goulash

Hungarian goulash is traditionally made with beef meat. Here is the lamb version for you to try:


    750 g deboned lamb shoulder or leg, diced

    1 onion, diced

    3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

    2 tbsp sweet paprika powder

    1 tbsp olive oil

    1 cup dry red wine

    1 cup lamb stock or beef stock

    1 red or green pepper, diced

    1 carrot, diced

    2 potatoes, peeled and diced

    2 tomatoes, diced

    2 tbsp tomato paste

    1 dried bay leaf

    1 tsp dried rosemary

    Salt and pepper, to taste

    1/2 cup sour cream (optional)


1.    Preheat the oven to 160 °C (320 °F).

2.    Heat the olive oil in an iron skillet on high heat. Add the diced lamb, salt, and pepper. Stir and brown all sides for about 3 minutes.

3.    Add the diced onion, pepper, carrot, potatoes, and garlic to the pan. Sauté while stirring for 2-3 minutes until they start to caramelise. Add the paprika powder and mix well.

4.    Pour in the red wine and reduce the heat to medium. Let it simmer for 5 minutes.

5.    Add the lamb stock, bay leaf, rosemary, tomatoes, and tomato paste. Stir until well combined.

6.    Transfer everything from the pan to a casserole dish or leave it in the oven. Ensure the meat is fully submerged in the liquid. Add more stock if needed.

7.    Cook in the preheated oven for 2 1/2 hours until the lamb is extremely tender.

8.    Let the goulash rest for 15 minutes, then remove the bay leaf. Season with salt and pepper according to taste.

9.    If you prefer a thicker stew, dissolve 1 teaspoon of cornflour in warm water. Add this mixture to the goulash and bring it back to a boil to thicken.

10.    Serve the lamb goulash with a dollop of sour cream (if desired) and a side of stewed potatoes. Enjoy!