Who Put the Paprika in Goulash
...and Other Hungarian Soup Tales
(e-SoupSong 6: October 3, 2000)
ONCE UPON A TIME it was said that those ferocious Hungarian warriors of yesteryear--the ones who swept into Europe on horseback from the Ural Mountains in AD 800s--were fired by paprika-laden dishes.
Paprika--the dried and pulverized form of chili peppers--wasn’t even a glint in a Magyar eye until the 16th century at the very earliest. Chili peppers were resting comfortably in the New World--and didn’t move until Christopher Columbus brought some seeds back to Europe from his voyage of discovery there in the 15th century.
That said, goulash--or gulyásleves--DOES go back to those intrepid Hungarian horsemen. A 14th century Italian chronicler described how, in medieval times, these restive nomads adapted it into the world’s first instant soup: they’d boil heavily salted beef in huge kettles until it fell off the bone--then cut it into small pieces, dry it in the sun or in an oven, grind it to a powder, and carry it in bags so that, on a campaign, all they had to do was boil up some water to make a proper soup.
And it was Hungarian herdsmen--cowboys, really--who perfected the goulash form. From the Middle Ages on, the great Hungarian plain--the Puszta--was home to vast herds of cattle. Herdsmen--or gulyás--would feast on gulyáshus ("herdsman meat") and onions, which they would cook up in a kettle (bogrács) that was hung up over a fire on a tripod. They’d eat the soup straight from the kettle with big wooden spoons.
Meanwhile, pepper plants were introduced into Hungary, maybe in the 16th century, maybe in the 17th--either by the occupying Ottoman Turks or by Bulgarians who had fled north around that time trying to escape invading Turks. Hungarian novelist Géza Gárdony conjures up a scene--probably not historically accurate--of local paprika use in 1533 when he has one-eyed Turkish janissary Yumurdjak direct one of his Hungarian prisoners to make soup for Turkish troops:
"The driver put a big iron pot full of water on the fire and when the priest and gypsy had rapidly skinned the sheep, he chopped it up with a practiced hand and dropped the pieces in. Onions followed and plenty of paprika. …Hardly an hour had passed before András, the driver, received such a blow that his hat flew twelve feet into the air. ‘May the seventh hell swallow you up!’ roared the one-eyed janissary. ‘How much paprika did you put into the stew?’ And squeezing his eye, he held his burnt tongue in the air. The paprika stew went to the prisoners, to the great delight of the gypsy as well. ‘Ah well, this is worth even two blows’" (Eclipse of the Crescent Moon, or Egri Csillagok, Part I, published 1901, translated in 1999 by George F. Cushing).
But by the Napoleanic wars (1803-1815), when black pepper had become both scarce and expensive, poor people had come to dote on what they called "Turkish pepper" or "heathen pepper." They could grow chili peppers from seed, harvest them, dry them, then grind them directly into the goulash kettle.
True gulyasleves was born. Braise the onions in fat. Toss in the beef cubes. Take the kettle off the heat and sprinkle in the paprika (please note: Only hot fat releases the pepper taste--but if it’s too hot the fragile powder will burn). Add the rest of the ingredients and cook until tender. I invite you to try the authentic recipe at www.soupsong.com/rgoulash.html. It is the recipe of Kati Fenyvesi, native of Budapest--translated into English by her husband Sándor, whose own recipe homepage can be found at www.geocities.com/Rainforest/Jungle/7004. Believe me, goulash is a soup worth riding horses for, or herding cattle for, or just to celebrate getting up in the morning for that matter. Operatic great Sherill Milnes is mad for it; so are U.S. financier George Soros and Belgian "Olympic dream team" chef Peter Verhulst. It’s delicious...and, take note, it IS a soup.
So what about that casserole/stew version you find in restaurants and recipe books? Not authentic. That’s a Hungarian pörkölt--whose name got dropped for its better known sibling when it was exported outside Hungary. Such are the linguistic accidents that drive cultural historians crazy.
But goulash ain’t the only soup in town. Hungarians adore all kinds of soups and eat them routinely with meals (delicate first courses at lunch in 2-handled bowls)...and just as routinely as meals. For example, the famous Halászle, an extraordinary thick fish soup that is annually the subject of a cookoff in Baha (pronounced "boy-oh"), west of Szeged. How do I know? I pounded Baha’s pavement last month til I found its traditional cast iron fish cauldron in a hardware store there. It’s a wonderful soup with many variations, but always with different kinds of freshwater fish.
There’s also a traditional soup to celebrate the end of home butchering season (meat, veggies, and pasta or dumplings with horseradish); to counteract flatulence (cumin soup); to prevent hangovers (Korhelyleves that’s really tart and spicy); and to celebrate Christmas (Borleves, or wine soup). Oh yes, and great fruit soups: Meggyleves (morello cherry soup) and Almaleves (apple soup).
What about the so-called "Hungarian Black Soup"? That's coffee, or fekete leves. It was introduced to Buda in 1579, sent to a Turkish merchant by the name of Behrám. While loving the stuff, Hungarians dreaded the end of meals they took with Turkish occupying forces: unpleasant topics were proscribed DURING the meal, but when the coffee was served, out would come the bad news, such as taxes to be collected. To this day, when faced with trouble, Hungarians say "The black soup is yet to come."
Then, too, Hungarian artists seem to have a special weakness for the stuff. Anyway, a whole class of them have been created for or dedicated to them. There’s bean soup (Jókai bableves) for Mor Jókai, author of Black Diamonds and An Hungarian Nabob (kidney and fresh beans with sausage, hocks, veggies, and don’t spare the paprika and sour cream). There’s Pethes’ soup for great actor Imre Pethes (beef and cabbage). Beef broth with marrowbone dumplings was immortalized by Gyula Krúdy in many of his stories. Conversely, writer Kalmán Mikszáth was immortalized when János Gundel created Palóc soup for him (mutton, green beans, paprika, and potatoes thickened with sour cream). And famous actor Ede Újházi dined so avidly on a rich chicken soup that it was named after him: Újházi Tyúkleves. Contemporary writer Endre Nagy said about it: "Old roosters were required..., such as those whose tough tendons were proof of the spice of passionate love scenes. They had to boil for three days and three nights, before they combined with the stock and vegetables, above all with the 'legendary' celeriac. The master paid particular attention to coxcombs, and other powerful organs of the rooster, in whose hereditary effect he passionately believed. And it was deemed a sign of the greatest consideration if he served someone one of these components."
Which brings us to a poetic close: Berda Jószef’s "In Praise of Bouillon". Here it is in English:
"Shine oh eyes, drool oh mouth with joy: the delicious bouillon is ladled up, served right in front of you.
Look, how golden yellow it is, glistening, and how nose titillating its smell is! What a taste! Ambrosial!
Surely it has its own soul! this is what you really need!--
Do you divine--tell me--its marrowbone, its aromatic vegetables, and its spicy soul of ginger that cures all ills? --
Believe me, this is the only thing to live for, this is the direct line to salvation, otherwise you are a bitter, toothless dog, barking at the world--not transported beyond by this morsel of heavenly ham."
And here it is in Hungarian:
A húsleves dicsérete
Many many thanks to Sándor Fenyvesi for bringing this over-the-top poem to my attention...and for translating it into English too. He also translated a devastating chapter on soup and poverty from the classic Hungarian Isten a szekéren, or God on the Farmwagon, by Ferenc Sánta--and a truly sassy soup folktale involving King Matias and a clever rogue.
Ragyogj szemem, csordulj ki nyálam az örömtől: azletes húslevest tálalják, íme, eléd.
Nézd csak, mily aranysárgán csillog, mily orrcsiklandó szaga van! S az íze! A mennyei íz!
Abban van aztán a lélek! Ez kell neked igazán! -
Érzed-e, mondd, a velős csont, az illatos-ízes zöldség, s a még fuszeresebb gyömbér testet-lelket gyógyító erejét? -
Csak ezért érdemes élni még, hidd el, csak így tudsz nemesebb dolgokra figyelni, különben kedve-vesztett fogatlan kutya vagy, ki mindenkit mérgesen megugat s a legszebb sonkafalatra sem kíváncsi.
To Sándor and Kati and Gergely and Viktor and Bálint and to all lovers of Hungarian food I say Jó étvágyat kivánok--Good appetite!
Best regards, Pat Solley
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NEXT MONTH: CELEBRATING RAMADAN WITH SOUP.