Gulyás Leves (Hungarian Goulash Soup)

George’s Story

I first posted this on my blog when a close family member had just passed away – it was a tribute not just to him, but also to my Hungarian heritage. I had grown up with this dish since I was a young child. Now, just the smell of it reminds me of my childhood and hearing the Hungarian language being spoken in my parents’ house.

To a Hungarian, according to Alan Davidson in the Oxford Companion to Food, the word goulash or gulyás in Hungarian refers to the ‘cattle driver’ and simply means cowboy. However, the only place on a Hungarian menu that one would find the word gulyás would be amongst the soups and would be called gulyás leves (soup of the cowboy). However, what is generally known all around the world as ‘goulash’ is in Hungary known as pörkölt or paprikás.

George Lang, in his book on Hungarian cuisine, states that the origins of this dish go back to at least the ninth century where shepherds cut meat into cubes and cooked it with onion in a heavy iron kettle known as a bogrács. However it was not until paprika entered Hungarian cuisine in the late sixteenth century – likely via the invading Turkish army – that the dish became more like the version of the dish that we know today.

In addition to the use of paprika, there are a number of other essential ingredients and rules that define gulyás leves, such as the use of chopped onions and the use of bacon or lard, or both. But just as much as it is defined by what it contains, it is just as importantly defined by what it does not. Again, Lang states that one must, “Never use any flour. Never use any other spice besides caraway. Never Frenchify it with wine. Never Germanize it with brown sauce. Never put in any other garniture besides diced potatoes or galuska (a small pasta-like dumpling).”

Over the years, this dish has established itself as one of the most readily identifiable symbols of the nation of Hungary and its people.


Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes plus 2-3 hours of simmering
Serves: 4

3 medium tomatoes
3 strips middle bacon (180g), finely chopped
1.2 kg shin (gravy) beef, cut into 3 cm dice, tendons removed
400 g (about 2-3) brown onions, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed (optional)
2 tsp caraway seeds
2 bay leaves
1 red capsicum, finely chopped
3 tablespoons vegetable oil or lard
2 tablespoons good-quality sweet (mild) Hungarian paprika*
2 potatoes (such as coliban or Dutch creams), peeled, cut into 2 cm cubes


1) To peel the tomatoes, cut a small ‘x’ just into the skin on the bottom of each tomato and then place the tomatoes into boiling water for 30 seconds. Remove tomatoes from the boiling water and plunge them straight into ice-cold water for five minutes. Once chilled, peel the tomatoes with your hands and use a paring knife to remove any leftover tomato skin. Finely chop the tomatoes.

2) Heat the bacon in a wide pan over medium heat. Cook until browned and fat renders, then remove to a bowl with a slotted spoon. Add beef and cook, in batches if necessary, until browned on all sides. (Traditionally, it is done in a cauldron shaped pot over an open fire called a bogrács.) Add beef and juices to bowl with the bacon.

3) Heat oil or lard in a large saucepan and fry the onions on medium-low heat for 10 minutes or until golden, ensuring not to burn them. Add garlic, caraway seeds and bay leaves and cook l minute further. Add the paprika and, if necessary, turn down the heat a little to ensure that the paprika does not burn (which will give the dish an unpleasant bitter taste). Cook another 1-2 minutes until fragrant.

4) Add the meat to the saucepan, increase heat to medium and stir to combine. Then add the chopped tomatoes and capsicum, combine and cook for a few minutes further. Moisture should start to be released and begin the formation of the sauce or gravy for the dish.

5) Add 1 L water, or enough to nearly cover the meat. Increase heat to high, bring liquid to just below the boil, then reduce heat to low so that the pan is slowly simmering. Put a lid on it and leave for an hour or so. Then check it for consistency: if the dish is still a little dry, you can add a little water or if it’s too thin, you can continue to simmer with the lid off.

6) Now, you just want to continue simmering the dish (covering with the lid again if you’ve removed it) until the meat is ‘fall off the bone’ tender. This will take about 2 hours of slow simmering to tenderise the meat.

7) Add the potatoes to the final 30 minutes of cooking, or until softened, then season with salt and pepper to taste. The dish is now cooked and keeps well in the fridge or freezer.

8) Instead of potatoes, this dish can also be traditionally served with galuska (small pasta-like dumplings), plus a refreshing Hungarian cucumber salad as a side. Those with a taste for heat can also add a little chilli powder.

* Can be purchased from specialty food shops and online from Try to purchase the best quality (Különleges) variety or the more common but still excellent ‘noble sweet’ (Édesnemes). For those who like their paprika hot, you can also try the strong (Erős) variety.