Goulash by Any Name

In Israel, goulash has become one of the many adopted comfort foods that make up the patchwork quilt of Israeli cuisine. It can be found in Tel Aviv’s Yemenite quarter, at many of the workingman-style eateries surrounding Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, and in people’s homes. But I have come to realize that in Israel goulash is simply the generic name for any manner of simple beef soup or stew, perfect for surviving the winter.

Goulash is typically associated with Hungary — and rightly so. “There is only one goulash soup and this is the Hungarian one,” explains Ofer Vardi author of “Going Paprikash”. Traditional Hungarian goulash is a simple but flavorful soup of beef, onions, tomatoes, peppers, beef broth, and paprika that is simmered until the beef is fall-apart tender. It is hearty and comforting, full of rich beef flavor.

The dish has humble roots as a basic peasant dish, but somewhere along the line became a symbol of Hungarian nationalism. “Some time in the 18th century, “ recounts Vardi in his cookbook, “as Hungarian nationalism began to arise, the steamy soup was discovered by the urban aristocracy who transformed it into a symbol of national pride.”

When many Hungarian Jews fled to Israel after World War II, like Vardi’s grandmother, they brought dishes like goulash with them. Today when you go to the butcher or supermarket for stew meat, you ask for goulash, the colloquial name for any cut of stew beef. Vardi believes that this is partially what accounts for the habit of calling all beef soups and stews goulash.

Liz Steinberg of the popular Anglo-Israeli food blog Café Liz and JCarrot contributor has another theory: “They call it goulash only because it’s a reference point that most people understand.” So indeed “the goulash in the Yemenite quarter is 100% Yemenite.” Cookbook author and Jewish food authority Faye Levy confirms that while it may be called goulash in restaurants, “My parents-in-law were Yemenite and never called it goulash. They just called it ‘soup’ because that was the daily soup, usually for lunch.”

The truth is that Yemenite beef soup and Hungarian goulash aren’t that disparate. The main difference lies in the seasoning. Hungarian goulash gets its flavor profile and rich color from paprika, the ubiquitous national spice made from dried red peppers. Its Yemenite counterpart, meanwhile, is flavored with a spice mix called hawayij marak, which is made up of cumin, turmeric, black pepper, and sometimes cardamom and cilantro.

Both soups have regional and personal variations. Vardi says that some places add mushrooms, cabbage or other vegetables. Levy notes that with Yemenite beef soup “some people thicken it with flour but I usually don’t. At home I like to add extra veggies [like] zucchini, carrots, turnips — but it’s not ‘authentic.’”

Here, then, are Levy and Vardi’s two takes on beef soup. You can decide for yourself which one calls out to you, and what adjustments you will make to personalize it. In the end it doesn’t matter whether you call it Hungarian goulash, Yemenite beef soup, or simply soup. Both the Yemenite and Hungarian versions — as well as the countless variations — represent a snippet of International Jewish culture and, now, Israeli cuisine.

Yemenite Beef Soup

Makes 8 first-course or 4 to 6 main-course servings

2 tablespoons ground cumin (preferably fresh ground)
2 teaspoons turmeric
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
2½ to 3 pounds meaty beef bones, such as shank bones
1 large onion
2 ripe, medium tomatoes, or 4 plum tomatoes
About 2 quarts boiling water
4 to 6 fairly small boiling potatoes, peeled (optional)

1) Mix cumin, turmeric, and black pepper.

2) Put beef shanks in a large heavy casserole and heat over low heat. Sprinkle with salt and spice mixture and heat over low heat about 7 minutes, turning pieces occasionally so they are well coated with spices.

3) Cut a deep X in the onion and in each tomato and add whole to casserole pot.

4) Add boiling water to cover, pouring it along side of casserole so spices are not washed off shank bones.

5) Add potatoes, push them into liquid, and add more water if necessary so they are covered.

6) Bring to a boil, then skim foam from surface. Cover and cook over low heat 3 to 4 hours or until soup is well flavored. (Soup can be kept, covered, for 3 days in the refrigerator.)

7) Skim excess fat. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot, in shallow bowls.

Recipe by Faye Levy, from “Faye Levy’s International Jewish Cookbook”

Bograch Guyash (Bográcgulyás, or Hungarian Goulash)

Makes 4 servings

1 pound 2 ounces (1/2 kilo) beef shoulder or shin, cut into ¼ inch cubes
1 onion, finely chopped
4 potatoes, peeled and cut into ¼-inch cubes
1 green pepper, cut into cubes
1 tomato, peeled and cut into cubes
3 carrots, peeled and cut into rounds
1 generous teaspoon of sweet paprika
Salt to taste
1 teaspoon caraway

1) In a large pot, fry onions in oil until translucent. Remove pot from heat and add paprika.

2) Return pot to heat and add ½ cup water so that the contents do not burn and the onion absorbs the flavor of the paprika. Stir while adding caraway seeds and meat.

3) Brown meat on all sides while continuing to stir. Add remaining water to pot, then tomato and pepper. Salt to taste and cook until the meat is almost done, 2 to 3 hours. Skim the scum that rises to the surface of the soup occasionally during the cooking process.

4) Add potatoes and carrots. Cook covered on low heat until the meat is soft and the potatoes are cooked, about 20 minutes.

Serve hot.

Recipe by Ofer Vardi, from Cooking Paprikash

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