A Tale of Two Goulashes

When I was growing up, I thought “goulash” was macaroni mixed in meat sauce. I don’t know where that came from – feel free to ask my parents. On our recent trip to Prague and Budapest, however, I learned that what is considered goulash in Czech Republic is very different from Hungarian goulash. Allow me to explain.

On our second day in Prague, we ate lunch at a small Czech pub. It was a chilly Sunday afternoon and the restaurant was cozy and inviting, buzzing with the conversation of friends and couples enjoying a Sunday get-together. We must have looked cold, and I was very excited when the server sat us right in front of the wood-burning stove and suggested a glass of hot mulled wine to warm us up. She delivered the wine quickly, along with a slice of lemon and some sugar to sweeten it. There were large salted pretzels hanging from a small wooden rack on the table, underneath which were jars of different types of mustards. We heeded the guide book warnings that the pretzels are not complimentary and avoided them in favor of the goulash we had heard was a Czech favorite. This particular restaurant offered goulash served in a bread bowl and that sounded perfect for us and we both ordered it. The bread bowl was a very large, hollowed-out round loaf of crusty rye. It was hearty and delicious, but did not compare to the stew inside. And that’s pretty much what the goulash was – a beef stew sans vegetables. Well, there were onions in there. The goulash was brown and very thick and the beef was so very tender and the sweet onions were caramelized just so – it was heaven in a bread bowl. We left the restaurant warmed inside and out and completely satisfied.

Until we went to Budapest. On the pedestrian shopping street known as Vaci Utca, we found the Old Street Café. Here we had the pleasure of tasting Hungarian goulash, served in individual enamel soup pots. Less a stew, more a soup, this treat had the color of its main ingredient – paprika – which is Hungarian for pepper. It also had beef, onions, carrots, potatoes, garlic, and tiny doughy dumplings. The potatoes and dumplings gave it just the right amount of thickness. Contrary to popular belief, there wasn’t a tomato in sight – that color comes from the real authentic Hungarian paprika and it was smoky, savory, and packed some serious heat. The dark Hungarian beer Dreher Bak stood up to it very well. I started perspiring about half way through my bowl while Chris was scratching his head because spicy foods make his head itch. All I need to add is that when we were done, we practically ran to the Central Market Hall to buy paprika to take home.

In summary, the two types of goulash are so different that you can’t really compare them. If a thick brown meaty beef stew is your thing, go Czech. If you like spice, go Hungarian. I for one am happy to have had the chance to enjoy both.

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