Just as Montreal was once a respectable city for rye bread, it was also once an important hub for Canada’s Hungarian immigrant population and, as a result, a city with its fair share of Hungarian restaurants, delis, and bakeries. It goes without saying that the virtual disappearance of these two aspects of Montreal’s former food culture is no mere coincidence. Again, it’s not that you can’t find Hungarian food in Montreal—one of the city’s best boucheries/charcuteries is the venerable Charcuterie Hongroise, which has been selling their exceptional sausages, smoked bacon, and other specialties on the Main for some 50 years now. When it comes to actual sit-down restaurants, the metro area has a few, but it’s safe to say that there isn’t a whole lot of competition in this department anymore. Gone are the days when Hungarian establishments were clustered along a good portion of St. Laurent Blvd., gone are the days when Hungarian-continental restaurants like Pam Pam (my parents’ favorite) graced the city’s downtown dining scene. When it comes to Hungarian restaurants and their dwindling numbers, though, it strikes me that Montreal isn’t alone among North American cities. It might just be my imagination, but it seems to me that Hungarian restaurants were much more of a fixture 20-30 years ago (maybe it’s just because I was spending so much more time in the Goulash Belt back then). What happened? Did tastes just shift away from Hungarian, and, if so, why? Did the clichéd trappings of your average Hungarian restaurant—the mandatory ersatz beef goulash, the strolling gypsy violins, etc.—finally suffocate the cuisine? One would have thought that the fall of the Iron Curtain might have triggered a new wave of Hungarian restaurants across North America. Maybe it has elsewhere, but if it has I haven’t read anything about it. It certainly hasn’t in Montreal. If ever there was a cuisine just begging to be revisited and revitalized it was Hungarian cuisine. We’re constantly being told how young and brash and exciting a city Budapest is (and those of us who’ve been there know that it is). I say, bring on the Hungarian New Wave!
In the meantime, you’ll have to take matters into your own hands as we did the other night. Disappointed by the last “chicken paprikash” I had in a restaurant, and having been eager to experiment with some of the Hungarian recipes we had at home, I went out to the store to get a fresh tin of hot Hungarian paprika, Pride of Szeged brand, and we rolled up our sleeves and got to work.
Now the recipe I chose came from Saveur’s special issue of Food for the Holidays (Winter 2004), and it came under the unpretentious and somewhat vague title Paprika Chicken. The write-up mentioned only that it was a “home-style version of an iconic Hungarian dish,” but it didn’t specify which dish in particular. You see, things get a bit complicated when it comes to those dishes that have become know as the classics of Hungarian cuisine. First off, the Hungarian equivalent to the Anglicism “goulash” has nothing to do with stew, it’s the word for cattle driver (gulyás). This word, in turn, is associated with a soup (not a stew) called gulyás leves, meaning “soup of the cattle driver” or “soup of the cowboy,” a soup that bears little resemblance to “Hungarian goulash.” What is known internationally as “Hungarian goulash” is known in the motherland as either pïrkïlt or paprikás. Now, Hungarian cattlemen, shepherds, and pig herders had been making dishes involving cubes of meat, onions and spices (like “Hungarian goulash”) for at least 150-300 years before the arrival of paprika, and one common version involved roasting the meat over an open fire until it reached the point just prior to burning, acquiring a slightly burned surface (the quality of which became known as pïrkïl). According to Alan Davidson, although paprika was mentioned in a Hungarian dictionary as early as 1604—not too long after its ancestor pepper (Capsicum Annuum) was brought to Europe from the New World—it was not until the early 19th century that paprika took hold in Hungary (by way of Turkey and Bulgaria) and that the Hungarian people reinvented their cuisine, practically eliminating the use of ginger and black pepper in the process. When they experimented with this new spice, Hungarians discovered they could use it to reach the point of pïrkïl, flavor-wise, without actually burning the meat, and that, in fact, they preferred this variation to most ways of cooking meat that had preceded it. This new dish became known as pïrkïlt, paprikás if sour cream had been added to it, it was used to cook beef along with veal, pork, rabbit, and poultry, and it quickly became the national dish, the dish that vaulted paprika to the status of “national condiment.” What does this all mean? Well, I guess it means that the dish we made was in actuality a pïrkïlt because although sour cream is listed, it only appears in the form of a dollop alongside the dish. That being the case, you can understand why Saveur might have fudged the name a bit (in fact, some of you out there might be wishing that I had, too).
What’s important here is that the dish is a stunner. Simmer down that sauce and it turns into a thing of beauty even though it doesn’t involve a roux in any way, shape, or form (I was a bit surprised). The mix of paprika powders gives the dish an impressive depth, of course, and feel free to play around with the ratio a bit if you prefer your dishes a little spicier, but the real surprise was the effect of the green pepper, which gave the sauce a subtle flavor that I’d never been able to place before. It’s traditional to serve this dish with spätzle-like dumplings (what my Baba used to call by the Slovak word halusky), but almost as classic is the combo with egg noodles, and that’s the path we followed this time around. Lastly, that sour cream/milk mixture might seem a bit arbitrary, but it was worth doing—it improved the consistency and mellowed it out considerably.
Without any further ado:
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3 medium yellow onions, peeled and finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, crushed then peeled
2 tsp sweet Hungarian paprika
1/2 tsp hot Hungarian paprika
3 fresh or canned plum tomatoes (given the season, I used canned tomatoes)
2 green bell peppers, cored, seeded, and diced finely, or, preferably, some other tastier green peppers (like Cubanelles or Italian fryers), treated in the same way
2 tsp salt
1 cup water
2 3.5-lb chickens, rinsed and cut into 4 pieces each
1/2 cup sour cream
2 tbsp milk
Heat the oil in large pot over medium heat. Add onions and cook until golden, about 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add garlic, the sweet and hot paprika, tomatoes, bell pepper, salt, and 1 cup of water and stir well. Add the chicken, cover, and simmer until tender, about 45 minutes, turning chicken once about halfway through (and possibly rearranging the pieces to ensure that they get evenly cooked, as I did). Remove the chicken pieces from the pot and set them aside.
Strain the sauce through a fine strainer into a bowl, making sure to press down on the vegetables to squeeze every last drop of liquid out of them. Discard the vegetable solids. Return the sauce to the pot, increase the heat to medium, and simmer until the sauce has thickened, about 20-30 minutes. Meanwhile, when the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove and discard the skin and bones, keeping the breasts and thighs intact (to be honest, we weren’t that methodical about this step—we didn’t care if it resulted in a somewhat messier meal, we were all friends and family). Return chicken to the pot, reduce heat to low, and keep warm, tossing the chicken in the sauce so that it gets coated evenly.
Mix the sour cream and the milk together in a small bowl and set aside.
Serve the chicken pieces with egg noodles, a ladle full of that amazing sauce, and a dollop of the sour cream/milk mixture. Bread and salad is all you need to make a meal of this.
Serves 4 to 6.
By the way, we’re compiling variations on traditional Hungarian pïrkïlt and paprikás dishes. We’d be ecstatic if any you out there would send us your home recipes.
Andrew Dalby, Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices
Alan Davidson, The Penguin Companion to Food