The Simple Hungarian Goulash, Grandpa Sandor-style

published by Tomkiss on Feb 16, 2010

Everyone has their own “authentic” version of how to make real Magyar Gulyás (Hungarian Goulash). Some swear that it can only be made with beef, others blasphemize those using water, claiming that Goulash should only be made using only dry red wine and never water. But tricks and trades will come and go, while gourmet tastebuds will continue to seek the real version. Here’s my version based on information obtained by my late grandfather, who claims he inherited the “recipe” from his grandfather. The proof of the “Goulash” is in the tasting. Jó étvágyat kívánok! – that is, Bon appetite!

My Hungarian grandfather, Sandor, once revealed to me the secret of what he called ‘the formal Hungarian Goulash’. No fancy nitty-gritty recipes, just plain common sense, Hungarian cooking, using the only available local ingredients. “Just as a wine maker uses grapes to make wine, so a good cook uses water to makes the formal Hungarian Goulash. He uses only lard, onions, beef, garlic cloves, ground sweet paprika and black pepper,” Grandpa Sandor told me when I enquired about why my friends in Szeged (SE Hungary) claimed that real Hungarians make goulash using wine instead of water. “They people of Szeged may cook with wine only, but wine was always a luxury that only the very rich would have cooked with,” said Grandpa Sandor.

As tradition would require, he said that he had learned the art of Hungarian Goulash from his grandfather (also named Sandor – the Hungarian equivalent of Alexander), who had been a grey steer cattle herdsman from whom the generally accepted anglicized name version for Goulash derives. The word Gulyás [pronounced goo-jash], literally meaning ‘cattle herdsman’ as the prefix comes from the herd, alias Gulya [pronounced goo-jah]. The dish was cooked over an open fire in a small pot, the bogrács [pronounced: bohg-rach].

I was told that Grandpa Sandor’s grandpa was a herdsman employed in the Hortobágy [pronounced: hor-tow-badge] region of the Great Hungarian Plain, or Puszta [pronounced: pooh-stah], during the Hapsburg oppression reign of Empress Maria Theresa. It was a time of malice for rural Hungarians as the Austrian domination left very little for the common self-subsistence smallholding farmers, known as paraszt [pronounced: par-hast].  Most of the villagers slaved in the fields of the noblemen under the name zsellér [pronounced: shell-lehr]. If they were lucky, herdsmen were allocated horses to drove cattle to greener fields and distant markets, otherwise the long odysseys were done on foot.


The ‘Sandor’ method of preparing and cooking Goulash can be considered perhaps the most simplest and perhaps even authentic version, unlike those laid down in many fashionable money-making cook books these days. The herdsmen were poor, with little or no means of acquiring spices. They carried few belongings, possibly a small sack of dried beef chunks, which they sometimes ‘tenderised’ under their saddles, when driving the steers during their nomadic lifestyle.

Unlike the American cowboys I was told that in the very early days most Hungarian cattle herdsmen were compelled to drive the steers on foot to as faraway as Italy and Germany. The horse herdsmen, the Csikos [pronounced: chik-hosh], were ultimately the horse riders. Meat (even chicken) was considered a delicacy for the poor, consumed only on special occasions.

The ‘Puszta’, which is as flat as a pancake as far as they eye can see, has few rivers and lakes, so the thirsty cattle and drovers would move along a route of borehole wells, dubbed ‘Gemes-kut’[pronounced: Geh-mash koot], a crane-like watering well, getting its name from the long arm with a weight on the end, that acted as a lever on a ‘Y’ form long wooden pole. From a distance these resembled the crane bird. This lever was used to draw water from the well.

Once the cowboys watered their livestock they wiped the sweat off their brows under the wide brimmed hats, bathed or retired to lighting up a pipe of home-grown tobacco, lit a camp fire for the ‘bogracs’ and while cooking their goulash (on special occasions mostly) they sang folk songs to the tune of a reed flute and other simple musical instruments as they watched the sunset, telling stories and reminiscing over better days.

They generally used big chunks of dried beef for their goulash after they had simmered the rings of raw onions on salt preserved (and occasionally smoked) pork fatty bacon. When ready the thick gravy-like goulash stew was dished out on wooden platters and eaten with a wooden spoon. At times the herdsmen would dig out the soft part of the hearth-baked brown rye bread, using the rind as a spoon.

At times they would also acquire potatoes and perhaps black pepper and sweet red paprika spices, then considered as luxuries. For this reason in the better times Gulyas was eaten as a stew and in leaner times it was diluted to form a soup. Today restaurants offer Gulyas porkolt [pronounced: pur-colt] stew and Gulyas leves [pronounced: leh-vesh] soup.


The goulash stew cooked very slowly in the small cast iron bogracs, hanging suspended over the hot embers of the nigh fire. To regulate the heat the herdsmen would shift the pot left or right of the fire heat. Grandpa Sandor claimed that the secret of really good goulash lies in its lengthy cooking process, sometimes even 2 to 3 hours. “But the magic recipe of goulash is the added flavours acquired from cooking in a cast iron pot, the clean fresh air and the smoke of the fireplace,” Grandpa Sandor revealed.

He added that when the herdsmen came close to villages and homesteads they would occasionally acquire vegetables and spices to enriched their beloved goulash. “The most prized spices were freshly ground sweet red paprika, garlic cloves and black pepper.  Grandpa Sandor says, “No herdsman could ever add too much paprika to the goulash. Herdsmen consider it an art when frying the paprika on the braised onions in the iron pot.” He added, “That’s what gives goulash its truly unique taste.”

This Hungarian ‘cowboy’ delicacy’ was also adopted by shepherds Pásztor [pronounced: pahs-tor] and the Csikós [pronounced: chik-hosh], giving rise to a variety of ‘goulash’ stews and soups, at times also made using sheep and horse meats.

Eventually the simple diet of the foot and horse-riding Hungarian cowboys was introduced to the western world via travelling Hungarians (military, circus actors, diplomats and adventurers). Although Goulash stew and soup was considered a simple dish generally made by the poor, it became a gourmet dish for the more affluent, whose chefs came up with the modern versions and spices. Even so, the legacy of Hungarian Goulash continues its conquest and can be found just as well in Bejing as in New York. In Hungary there is an annual goulash cooking competition, and every housewife, cook and chef swears that their goulash is the only way it should be prepared.

The ‘Sandor’ version of Hungarian Goulash (serving for 6):

Original ingredients:
2 medium slices of salt or smoke preserved fatty bacon
2 medium onions (white, yellow or blue) diced
750 g beef (shoulder, chuck or sheen), cut into 1 inch cubes
3-4 cloves garlic (crushed)
1 pinch fresh ground black pepper
3 tbsp (10 ml) ground sweet or hot red paprika from Hungary’s Szeged or Kalocsa region.

The above is the original recipe line-up according to Grandpa Sandor, at better times and when accessible, others added the following ingredients to goulash (still at serving for 6):

2-4 medium potatoes (diced)
1tsp (10ml) caraway seed
2-3 carrots (diced)
1 parsnip (diced)
2 leaves celery (chopped)
2  medium sized bay leaves  (break in halves)
600 g tomatoes (diced)
600 g green peppers (diced)
2 tsp (10 ml) sugar
1 pinch of salt
½ cup (125 ml) soured cream (or thick yogurt)
1 litre water on standby in a jar


Cooking tips (for old and new versions):

1.Heat lard or fatty bacon cubes in a steel pot

2.Add diced onions, braise till golden brown

3. Sprinkle paprika, stir constantly to avoid it burning

4. Top up with just enough water to cover the onions

5. Add meat, allow to sauté with onions till light brown

6. Top up just enough water to cover meat, as meat also has juice

7. Add seasoning (garlic, caraway seed, bay leaves, salt, black pepper and sugar), bring to boil.

8. Cover pot with lid, reduce heat, let simmer for about 1 hour

9. Add diced carrots, parsnip, potatoes and celery leaf, top up 2 cups water.

10. Slowly boil on low heat before adding garlic, diced tomatoes and green peppers.


Beef may require 2 hours to cook, so test to check when tender. Cook till thick and saucy stew, this can be achieved by removing the lid. When done serve the goulash with fresh baked bread.
In restaurants goulash is sometimes served with boiled potatoes or a noodle-like Hungarian cooked dough called csiperke [pronounced: chee-par-keh]. This is done by separately mixing 1 tbsp flour, 1 egg, water and salt, and pinching thumb nail-sized bits off the kneaded dough formation into the goulash. It requires at least five minutes for the goulash to cook the csiperke. For decorative purposes goulash is generally served in a deep bowl, with an added scoop of soured cream that is sprinkled with ground sweet or hot Hungarian paprika and top decorated with 1-3 parsley leaves. Jó étvágyat kívánok [pronounced: your  ate-vah-jott  ki-van-ok] – Bon appetite!


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