In Search of Papa’s Hungarian Goulash

My grandfather didn’t come home with much after WWII. What he did come home with was a very particular set of skills. Skills he acquired over a long career. No, my grandfather was not the inspiration for Liam Neeson’s character in the movie Taken; but during his military career, he did see a lot of things that he did not like to discuss. The death and ‘ugliness’ (as he put it) were something that he did not want to relive. Any time a war movie would come on TV, he would turn it or have to leave the room. I’m sure that many men and women can attest to the PTSD issues that arise after attempting to normalize themselves after seeing such things. The stories that he did tell were meaningful and to the point. He told us about the bullets whizzing by his head when he took the SS-Ehrendolch dagger from a high ranking Nazi SS officer (that spent out the rest of its years ‘hidden’ in the top drawer of my grandparent’s chest of drawers) on an undisclosed beach. He would talk about driving his GMC CCKW 2 1/2 ton 6×6 truck across the Rhine River in Germany, using the Bailey bridge, or driving on the German Autobahn. His fondest (and my fondest memories to hear about) were his culinary adventures overseas. My grandfather was a cook in the Army (eventually working his way up to Mess Sergeant) and would tell us about the meals that he prepared. He would talk about the sugar that he would take to trade with the ladies in the local villages for fresh eggs, vegetables, and meat; and how he had to improvise to make the meals better. 

My grandfather’s love for cooking didn’t stop after the war. Along with that Waffen dagger, he brought home that particular set of skills that I mentioned earlier. Those skills were helpful in my grandmother’s kitchen. My grandmother’s cooking and baking would become legendary in our small community, but my grandfather’s skills were no laughing matter. His venison hash or stew beef would be modified remnants of recipes from his Army days. A favorite recipe that he learned while in Hungary was his version of ‘Hungarian’ Goulash. Despite it being one of the most delicious dishes from my childhood, I have not attempted to make it. I’m sure there is some deeper psychological reason that we could bring up here, but it boils down to knowing that mine won’t be as good as my grandfather’s goulash was. My uncle and cousin have even unsuccessfully attempted to replicate the recipe many times. Whether I do it to honor my late grandfather or because I want to taste it again, I think that it is my time to figure out this recipe and try it myself. So what is goulash? Is it Hungarian? What’s really in it? Not knowing where he picked it up overseas, we don’t know the answer to these questions. So I did what I always do: research.

Goulash, a soup consisting of seasoned meat and vegetables, may have originated in Hungary, but it is eaten in some variation or another throughout most of Central Europe and beyond. The origin of the recipe dates back to 9th century Hungary when Hungarian shepherds and herdsmen would make a soup with cooked and flavored meat they packed in sheep’s stomachs. In Medieval Times, these Hungarian cowboys would slaughter an animal along the cattle drive and utilize all cuts of the cow and the flesh; because meat itself was scarce (they would use the hide for leather, fashioning foot protection to use. And a side note: no one can tell me that it is just mere coincidence that the names for goulash and galoshes have a similar name. Anyways, I digress.). As they would use all of the meat of the animal (and later recipes use typical cuts of beef , veal, pork, or lamb), my grandfather always used a chuck steak (a cut from the upper shoulder of the cow). The shoulder adds a thickness to the goulash. This thickness is due to the collagen (found in well-exercised muscles) that turns into gelatin during the cooking process. This process allows the goulash to not rely on flour or a roux to be the thickening agent. Much like my grandfather’s recipe, the goulash is made by first cutting up the meat into chunks, seasoning it with salt, and then browning it with a sliced onion in a pot. Hungarian Paprika is added to the beef when the liquid (water or stock) is left to simmer. Optional vegetables and seasoning (vegetables like carrots, parsley root, peppers, and celery; and seasonings like ground caraway seeds and garlic) are added while it is simmering. Cayenne, bay leaf, and thyme are optionally added at this point as well.

From what we remember, my grandfather only added carrots and a little bit of celery at this point in the cooking process. And though tomatoes and potatoes were not in the original recipe (tomatoes being an addition found after the first half of the 20th century and potatoes being a post-16th century addition), my grandfather added a can of my grandmother’s canned tomatoes and white potatoes. In the original recipe, the addition of white wine or wine vinegar is added near the end of the cooking process, but my grandfather added an American convention: Heinz 57 and Kitchen Bouquet. This substitution adds a complexity to the dish that would be similar to the original addition of white vinegar, other vegetables, and additional spices. While some goulash is served with egg noodles called csipetke and is sometimes served topped with sour cream ours is just delicious soup in a bowl.


When I told my wife that I was going to make goulash, her thoughts turned to the Americanized version which is normally made with hamburger (minced/ground beef) and macaroni. Hungarian Goulash is different from the American Goulash and though my grandpa’s recipe is similar, it is not exactly like the traditional Hungarian Goulash. He modified the recipe based on what he had on hand in rural North Carolina. To make this modified traditional Hungarian Goulash you’ll need to start by browning a pound and a half to two pounds of beef (most of the original recipes (and my grandpa) suggest using shoulder cut {though as stated above the original recipe used all cuts available}) in your pot (honestly a dutch oven would work best but use what you have). The browning is a key to establish a base flavor before you remove the meat from your cooking vessel and sautee a chopped onion. After your onions are translucent, add raw diced carrots (and yuck celery or bell peppers if you so choose). Cook until the onions are caramelized. The next step is to add canned diced tomatoes (my grandpa had the luxury of using my grandma’s canned tomatoes but a store-bought brand would work fine for this application). (Note: Do not drain the tomatoes before adding them to the vegetables.) You will need to cook the tomatoes for a short while to remove the tomatoes’ acidity and continue to develop our flavor. You will now need to add four teaspoons of your Hungarian paprika (if you are using smoked or regular paprika, please use it according to your taste). Stir the paprika in and allow the mixture to continue to build its complex flavor profile. Add two cups of beef broth, and make sure that you stir it well to incorporate the flavors. (Note: this is the time that you could add some wine if you so choose.)

Add the beef back to the pot with the addition of black pepper, salt, and two bay leaves. Let this cook on medium heat for at least an hour and a half before you add five to six medium-sized, cubed potatoes. While you have the lid off of your cooking vessel, add two teaspoons of Kitchen Bouquet and six teaspoons of Heinz 57 sauce. This addition is the unconventional way that my grandpa used to develop the complex flavor profile that he found overseas with the ingredients that he had on hand here. Let this simmer on medium heat until your potatoes are fork-tender. Now give it a taste to test the flavor. You can add more salt, paprika, or whatever at this point to perfect the flavor. If the flavor is where you want it, take out the bay leaves, break out your ladle and pour up a bowl of this hearty, delicious goulash.


  • 1 Tbsp Olive Oil
  • 1-1/2 to 2-pound beef (chuck or a other shoulder cut)
  • 1 Large yellow onion, chopped (equaling about 1-1/2 cups)
  • 2 large carrots, diced
  • 1 can of diced tomatoes
  • 4 Tbsp Hungarian sweet paprika
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 Tbsp Kitchen Bouquet
  • 4-6 Tbsp Heinz 57 Sauce
  • Salt and season to taste


Crossing the Rhine River by Unknown author –, Public Domain,

SS Honour Dagger by b3rliner – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Goulash by Lily15 – Hungarian Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Bowl of Goulash by Ralf Roletschek – Own work, de:User:Ralf Roletschek, GFDL 1.2,

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