Traditional Food as Lens into History

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For every new city I visit, I try to taste their traditional food that I have never heard of before. Food can tell us about what is harvested in the country, what the local staple food is, and what ingredients they value. Food is also an expression of cultural identity that local people are extremely proud of. The evolution of food throughout history to produce more complex and sophisticated food could represent local economy, history, values, and beliefs.

My last trip to Budapest, Vienna, and Prague was very interesting because they all served one particular dish but with local variations. This dish is called “goulash.” This shepherd food originated in the Middle Ages in Hungary and is locally known as “gulyás.” On rare occasions when the cattle died or was slaughtered, the cowherds would roast the meat with onions and make it into a simple soup. They also added pepper if it was available to them. Due to various invasions from different ethnic groups and the Americas, the locals were introduced to the chili plant. They discovered that chilies could be dried and pounded into chili powder, known as paprika, which ended up replacing the pepper from earlier recipes.

THe beginnings of Goulash in Hungary

At the early history of goulash, it still remained a dish for the peasants. During Habsburg rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hungarians (Magyars) started to resent the Austrian culture that was forced upon them. Therefore, they began emphasizing their own Magyar customs by using their own language and promoting peasant culture. Goulash started to make way into urban kitchens and restaurants in the early 19th century.

The increase in the popularity of goulash in Hungary meant that paprika production was lagging behind, and thus, side innovations of processors to more efficiently produce paprika was developed. Paprika became incorporated into more and more dishes, in addition to those of the noblemen. Highly esteemed chefs started to include goulash in their menus, and therefore, transformed the identity of the goulash into a national dish rather than a peasant dish. Nowadays, it is served with potatoes, beans, or small dumplings in kettles.

Vienna Goulash

Outside of Hungary though, most goulash are served as thick savory sauce and stew mainly made from beef. The Austro-Hungarian Empire allowed the ease of transmission of ideas and recipes. The Vienna-style goulash originated in the 19th century and is known as “Wiener Saftgulasch.”  The Viennese also developed their own goulash, the Fiakergulasch (Coachmen’s goulash), which is served with sausage, fried egg, pickle, and bread dumpling. This goulash was developed for the ever-hungry coachmen who drives the carriages around Vienna.

Czech Goulash

Czech goulash also has its own history. During the time period when individual states promoted self-identity, goulash was introduced into regions of Czech Republic. The Czechs began to adapt the dish to local ingredients and their own tastes. Similar to the goulash in Vienna, it is served as a thick stew served with knedliky, the local dumpling. They also replaced the sweet paprika with spicy paprika. Czech goulash was popular since the beginning; however, it flourished even more during the Communist regimen after WWII. Interestingly, during the period, they only had one cookbook, “Recipes for Warm Meals,” which they were permitted to use. Due to the unavailability of certain special foods, they could only rely on the simplest recipe, the goulash.

In most cultures peasant dishes are the dishes that are considered to be traditional in today’s perspectives. This could be due to the use of local ingredients and those that are available throughout all seasons of the year. National dishes also stuck throughout history during times of prosperity as well as times of need, providing comfort all along. Dishes that suited the tastes of the noblemen utilizes many imported ingredients through trade routes and higher end seasonal foods that does not represent the identity of the majority of the citizens. Food is an extremely important lens into cultural identity and history of the country. Therefore, when you travel, always be open-minded to trying new food, because it is the easiest way to understand other’s history and culture.