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The Culinary Evolution of Hungarian Goulash

...the fiery Hungarian Goulash spread like wildfire outside of Hungary

Hungarian Goulash has always fascinated people regardless of their cultural background.  This history rich culinary treasure has been the topic of many discussions around tables all over the world for centuries.   However, the secrets lies so deep in our culinary history that only a brief historical review of Hungary could shed light to the sometimes misunderstood origin of today’s world-famous national dish of Hungarians or Magyars as we call ourselves in Hungarian. 


Goulash actually means “Herdsman” in Hungarian and perhaps because they had the best and freshest ingredients, created the most mouth-watering dishes in cauldrons outside in mainly harsh conditions, they do deserve this national treasure to be named after them.  Hungarian Goulash did not always have the bright red color that it’s so famous for today.  Actually Hungary did not even know paprika until the Turks invaded and occupied Hungary for 150 years (1526-1699), bringing with them more exotic spices and the still loved coffee.


Although papika is the symbol of many Hungarian dishes, and our national spice, the plant was mostly used as decoration s the Turks brought the plant to Hungary during the 16th-17th century.  Shepherds and herdsmen, who had more contact with the invader Turks, started to spice their meals with the fiery red powder.  From the herdsmen's cauldrons, the paprika gradually spiced up the dishes of peasants and eventually showed up at the tables of the reluctant aristocracy. 

Red paprika’s 200-year-journey created something so memorable that perhaps there is no country in the world that did not hear about our fiery dish.  But I promised you the history of Hungarian Goulash, which was made not with the use of red paprika, however today’s Hungarian Goulash doesn’t exist without Hungarian red paprika...


Today, outside of Hungary, when it comes to Hungarian Goulash people think of the thick sauced dish we Hungarians actually call “Porkolt”.  This is a main dish, and we serve it with Hungarian egg-noodle droplets “nokedli”.  In Hungary, however Goulash (Gulyas) means a thick and hardy stew served on its own with crusty bread.  Many experts state that both dishes use the same bases, often called the “Holy Trinity” (see: Paper of Sandor Csiki, Hungary) of the Hungarian kitchen, lard, onion and red paprika powder.  However there are many more similarities.   So let us go back in history and seek the origin of Hungarian Goulash.



Hungary is one of the oldest countries of Europe, established in 895 and was a state that was made-up of semi-nomadic people.  However, it accomplished an enormous transformation; it transformed itself into a Christian realm during the 10th century.


This state was well-functioning and the nation's military power allowed the Hungarians to conduct successful fierce campaigns and raids from Constantinople to as far as today's Spain. Hungarians (Magyars) have been cooking some version of Hungarian Goulash since 895 some argue, for many centuries before.  However it was not called Hungarian Goulash and was cooked in earthenware dishes. 

As I mentioned previously, Goulash is the name of the herdsmen who started cooking Goulash type dishes outside in cauldrons on the great plains of Hungary.  These herdsmen used ancient recipes passed down from their ancestors.  People started calling this dishes “Goulash Meat”.  






Count Jozsef Gvadanyi  on photo,(1725-1801) published a paper in 1790 (A country notary’s travels to Budapest) , in which he chronicles amongst many things, Hungarian Goulash Meat that was only made with onion and black pepper.  Not resembling today’s Hungarian Goulash.  In 1807, Count Antal Szirmay published a recipe for Hungarian Goulash that used onion, black pepper, anis and dill as main ingredients. 

Again, not much to do with our national dish today.  As you see although the paprika plant was already in Europe for 300 years, and the Turks brought it to our country during the 16th-17th century, it was still not widely used to colour dishes.    However the culinary evolution of Hungarian Goulash has been started.


Jozsef Csapo physician of the city of Debrecen published an herbal dictionary in 1775 listings the “red paprika plant”

“This plant is cultivated in the gardens, and its red long fruits are ground into a red powder by the peasants and pepper their dishes with the powder.  It is called “Turkish powder”.   It is especially hot, and fires up people’s blood extremely.  If they mix it with vinegar it is even more fiery.” 





First, the paprika powder gained popularity in the southern part of Hungary, pushing the other popular spices such as saffron, ginger, basil, and tarragon out of the peasant kitchen.  The first Hungarian Goulash Meat recipe that has been recorded was in 1748, in which they have recommended the use of the red paprika powder.  

At the end of the century Southern Hungarians already started to name their Goulash Meat dishes Paprikash, which meant with pepper.  Meaning with red paprika.  During the 1831 cholera epidemic, Hungarian has used a large amount of red paprika powder, red paprika schnapps and red paprika wine as medicine to treat cholera. Red Paprika Powder became an every-day grocery item in all households. 

During the 19th century today's Hungarian Goulash and the use of red paprika powder has gained popularity all over Hungary.   


Towards the end of the 19th century, during the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, the fiery Hungarian Goulash spread like wildfire outside of the Hungarian border.  From the 1840's Budapest restaurants served today's version of Hungarian Goulash to their many customers.

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