Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sweet Paprika And Goulash

I have always wanted to tour around Eastern Europe checking out the countries that made up the former Soviet Union. This past summer I visited one such country, Hungary. I spent a week in Budapest at the end of august with a couple of my French friends. I had already spent three months studying in Paris and welcomed the opportunity to travel outside of France. Budapest is a wonderfully novel city with ornate though stern Russian architecture, a tragic national history, unique cuisine, and jolly populace. We fell in love with unicum the national liquor and potent spirit composed of over a hundred herbs and spices. I ordered one at almost every bar we went to served ice cold and taken in shot form with a powerful medicinal kick. At 200 forints it was good prize for a stiff drink. I have actually heard that unicum is sold at a famous bar near Wall Street at a whopping $50 per shot. My friends and I ate virtually all of our meals outside of the hotel and had a challenge to see which one of us could eat the most authentic Hungarian dishes. I pride myself that I won our little competition because I genuinely tried to experience both Buda and Pest, the respective sides of the river, like a local. I ate all the weird cakes and pies with smoked fish of all kinds, stews and spaetzle dishes, and stuffed cabbage. As we went around Budapest we remarked early on that nearly every storefront had paprika on offer and every restaurant whether Italian or Austrian, French or Chinese served goulash.

Goulash is a Hungarian staple; a stew or soup of beef, onions, and peppers that is both filling and delicious. Needless to say that I ate my fill of goulash on my trip through Budapest and interestingly each restaurant served its own variation though each was chalk full of paprika. Paprika is a traditional Eastern European spice. Some were thinner than others with small bits of beef shredded into the broth, others had a lot of vegetables peppered throughout, and some used lamb or veal. The single commonality in the various goulashes we tried was the use of paprika; ground dried red or green bell peppers. The spice is commonly associated with Hungarian cuisine and comes sweet, spicy, or smoked to add vibrant color and flavor to dishes. Paprika is a popular ingredient in a range of national cuisines principally to season and color rice, stews, and soups, like goulash. Ever since our trip together, my friends and I have been meaning to have a Hungarian evening replicating the dishes and drinks we had there. The other night I was craving goulash and after a bit of research through my cookbooks and magazines I found three recipes that looked authentic enough. I opted for the cook’s illustrated recipe from the February issue; a hearty stew of chuck eye roast, sliced onions, tomatoes, carrots, and tons of fresh paprika.

The key to goulash, and other Hungarian dishes for that matter is fresh sweet paprika, not a dated batch that has been lingering in the pantry for years. The smokiness and deep red color imparted by the paprika gives goulash its authentic taste. I find that a good goulash tastes a bit like a meaty bowl of chili with tons of onion and pepper flavors which spices up the otherwise bland cut of meat. Normally Hungarians serve goulash in a large bowl accompanied by bread, potatoes, cabbage, egg noodles, or spaetzle. I served mine with orchietta, which is what I had in my pantry, and the ear shaped noodles were reminiscent of Eastern European spaetzle. Now that I have researched and tested some goulash recipes, it is time to invite my friends over and recreate the magical meals we shared in Budapest. All in all it was a wonderful trip and we ate very well despite claims that Hungarian food is lousy. I just think their cuisine gets a bad rap and that tourists are generally under appreciative or perhaps hesitant to indulge in unique local cuisine. As always, I encourage you to enjoy and share delicious food and home cooked meals with yourself and others!

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