I like to say that Scotland’s moisture-drenched moss gave me green. Yesterday, Hungary gave me red.
It happened over a bowl of goulash, the Hungarian national dish. I had known about goulash and its main ingredient, paprika. I might have tried it once or twice in a bastardized Canadian form. But as my first bowl of Hungarian goulash (“gulyás” in Hongarian) sat on the bistro table before me, I felt almost intimidated by its redness.
It’s no wonder the Canadian version of goulash didn’t stack up. Goulash is one of those dishes that blends love of country and of family. Ask any Hungarian where to find the best goulash, and they will tell you without hesitation: Mom.
That’s exactly what my Hungarian host Andras told me when I asked him about goulash. He was even kind enough to suggest bringing some from his mother, though I’m sorry to say the opportunity hasn’t arisen yet. In other words, goulash seems to be to Hungarians what sauce a spaggat (the thick, hearty French Canadian version of Italian spaghetti sauce) is to French Canadians: it’s an ubiquitous yet mercurial dish with a very loose basic definition, and which, it seems, requires motherhood to execute to perfection.
Loosely speaking, goulash is a paprika-based stew, with potatoes and whatever meat is at hand, as well as a heavy dose of paprika. It is thought to have been invented by animal herders, whose simple means gave birth, like in so many parts of the world, to their country’s defining dish.
What sat in front of me was a mere restaurant offering, almost an insult to the deep family roots of Hungarian cuisine. Nevertheless, I raised my spoon to my lips, and tried paprika again for the first time.
I immediately realized I knew this taste. At the same time, I don’t think I’ve ever been able to isolate it like I did now. I could taste its sweetness, the essence of roasted pepper.
It tasted like a family home I had never visited before.