In a pivotal scene in Pixar’s Ratatouille, Anton Ego – the meanest food critic in all of Paris - is served a piping hot plate of ratatouille. He is immediately whisked back to his childhood, as he recalls his mother serving him the perfect bowl of ratatouille, melting his stone-cold heart and reminding him why he loves food.
In 2018, I had my own “Anton Ego” moment, with a few major exceptions: it was in a city far from Paris, I like to think I’m not a cruel food critic, and, to the best of my knowledge, the preparer of my food was not a chef-rodent extraordinaire.
It was at a restaurant in Budapest. I sat down after a long day of exploring and spotted this item on the menu. Ten minutes later, a bowl of goulash soup appeared. The smell hit me first. The rich broth. The paprika. The caraway. I was whisked back to the first time I had ever eaten goulash soup.
As a college student I spent a semester in Rome, but armed with a Eurail pass and a backpack, I boarded trains that headed north nearly every weekend - to Florence, to Munich, to Lucerne, to Paris and Barcelona, even all the way to Amsterdam (#overnighttrains). My dad wondered if he had sent me to school or to a travel agency posing as a school. Those adventures shaped who I became as much as any classroom, as I was never much of a student. Didn’t sit still well. Or if I was sitting still, my mind was wandering all over the place.
Though I was decidedly “a girl on a budget,” finding incredible food was a priority everywhere I went. It was at some point during these European wanderings that I sampled my first bowl of “gulaschsuppe” - this soup of finely ground beef and vegetables nestled in a rich broth deeply seasoned with paprika and caraway - in equal measure foreign and cozy and fabulous. I’m a little fuzzy on exactly where I was, but the magical soup itself - unlike any soup I had sampled before - was filed away in my memory bank. Apparently that’s the way I’m wired.
Fast forward to last spring, and just like that, one bowl pulled me back to that wonderful, too-brief backpacking chapter of my life. My goulash soup de wanderlust, if you will.
Goulash soup is just one of many reasons to love Budapest. Let’s start with the fact that Budapest is an insanely beautiful city. As we walked and walked along the Danube and through the city center soaking up the glory of the architecture, we couldn’t believe we’d never visited before - especially as all four of my husband’s grandparents emigrated from Hungary (I didn’t visit during my college wanderings in 1987, as it was still under communist rule).
My family allowed me free rein to organize our itinerary and weren’t surprised to learn it was perhaps overly culinary-focused. We never set foot in a museum. Or a church. Or a historical building of any kind. Gosh, that sounds bad. In my defense, I booked a city tour in vintage cars that should have highlighted Budapest’s history and architecture, but it was a dud. While the (quirky? downright odd?) guide knew quite a bit about his little communist-era Trabant, we suspected he was pretty much winging the rest. We’ll have to return some other time to get the scoop on the historical bits.
That’s okay by me, as two days wasn’t nearly enough to fully explore the open air food markets and coffee houses and food halls and restaurants and ruin bars. The food scene in Hungary appealed to me in a zillion delicious ways. My crew may have been starved for history, but no one can argue they didn’t eat well. Come to think of it, when we return, the history nerds in my family can go off and learn important historical stuff, while I continue my culinary exploration of the place. They can brief me over schnitzel and goulash at dinner.
Taste Hungary’s Culinary Walk leapt to the top of the list of my favorite things about Budapest. Barbara-the-guide led a merry cast of eight adventurous eaters all over town (ourselves + an Irish pair of ruin bar-loving school teachers, a Dutch woman visiting her mother, and an Aussie who was on day one of a six-week grand European tour).
We began with fried dough with garlic and sour cream (lavnosh), sampled truffled honey and plum chutney in the Central Market Hall, tried six different salamis (including horse, which gave my daughter some pause), meandered through an entire aisle of the Market Hall dedicated to various pickled items, found our way to a typical Hungarian lunch spot where we devoured goulash, chilled raspberry soup, sausages, sauerkraut, roasted duck, and the daily special - fried pig brain - before settling our stomachs with cake and coffee at a beautiful 19th century coffeehouse. And then we had three glasses of Hungarian wine with cheese pairings to end the adventure. Ridiculous, I know.
Is it any wonder this is how I like to travel?
Along the way, we stopped in front of an expansive wall of Hungarian paprika in the Central Market Hall. The national spice of Hungary, there were at least eight different varieties to choose from ranging from mild to spicy in various shades of reds and oranges. I purchased a big bag of edesnemes, which is earthy and sweet, and smaller bag of the seriously hot variety. Then I prayed these wouldn’t explode in my suitcase on the way home (they arrived intact - thanks for asking).
Once home, I set about trying to recreate that goulash soup de wanderlust with this enormous new stash of paprika. In my internet wanderings, I discovered it is traditionally made with chunks of beef…though I’m sticking with my ground beef memory. I decided to add some lentils for an extra bit of plant-based protein, and skipped the potatoes. I used a combination of my Hungarian sweet paprika plus some Spanish smoked paprika I had on hand, but feel free to tinker with your paprika combinations. If you’d like to play with authentic Hungarian varieties, try Penzeys Spices or The Spice House.
I think I’ve captured the magical goulash soup of my college days, with the bonus of having created a little something to highlight my newfound love of all things paprika.
A few things we loved in Budapest:
If you would like your visit to Hungary to be wildly food-focused, Taste Hungary is your outfit. We did three of their tours - the Bratislava to Budapest Wine Transfer, The Culinary Walk, and The Danube Cruise and Wine Tasting. Lovely people, fascinating tours.
Stop by Gerbaud Cafe to sample one of their gorgeous tortes - our favorite: the walnut-focused esterhazy slice.
Two days is simply not enough to fully explore Budapest, but that’s all we could squeeze in on this visit. We’re looking forward to returning.
A glug of olive oil
2 pounds ground beef
Salt and pepper to taste
3 medium onions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons sherry
6 carrots, sliced and finely chopped
6 celery stalks, sliced and finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 red bell peppers
2 cups cooked lentils (I used the pre-cooked ones from Trader Joe’s)
6 tablespoons sweet paprika*
2 tablespoons smoked paprika* (or if you can get your hands on it, try 1 tablespoon Hungarian Style Half-Sharp)
1 ½ teaspoons caraway seeds
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
¼ cup sherry vinegar
8 cups beef broth
Sour cream, for serving
Parsley, for serving
If you do not have pre-cooked lentils, cook your lentils according to the package directions and set aside.
In a large dutch oven, pour a glug of olive oil in the pot and heat over medium-high heat until it shimmers.
Add the ground beef and season it with salt and black pepper to taste. Cook, breaking it up with a wooden spoon, until it is well browned.
Remove the ground beef from the pot with a slotted spoons and set aside in a bowl.
Add another glug of olive oil, then the onions. Add a the sherry and cook for 10 or 15 minutes, until the onions are translucent and soft.
Add the carrots, celery, garlic and red bell pepper; cook, stirring, until all the vegetables have softened, another 10 minutes or so.
Add the beef and the lentils back into the pot, and stir to combine. Stir in the paprikas and caraway seeds, and cook for about 2 minutes.
Add the beef broth, sherry vinegar and tomato paste. Stir to combine and simmer for about 45 minute to an hour on low heat.
Serve in deep bowls, topped with sour cream and a bit of parsley, if you like. I discovered the soup is also delicious with sour cream to taste mixed into the mixture.