Spooky Halloween Goulash (Gluten Free, Paleo)

You'll need your strength to survive the zombie apocalypse! This Halloween,, break out the cauldron, and cook up some Goulash or Gulyás and make everyone your love zombie. Scroll down if you just want the recipes, but I'm going to cover several variations from many lands, for those who like ethnic food and legends. Besides, it's a wonderfully warming meal on chilly days.

The internet may be a wonderful place to find recipes, but sometimes a book or two can give you a clearer picture. The historical development of the real Hungarian Gulyás Leves (Goulash Soup) is probably a function of necessity. Where people traveled from place to place, either out of nomadic spirit, shepherding, or because they were traveling merchants, you have a simple Gulyás. Where people stopped and found prosperity, you have a more complex Gulyás. And sometimes it comes under a different name such as Tas Kebap (Turkey), or Ishtoo (India). Here's a more complex wedding style Mutton Stew, the process of the cooking reminds me strongly of Hungarian Gulyás Hús, the Stew version.  Which came first? That's the brain teaser.

There's also an American Goulash, and some Hungarians are annoyed by it because it's so different from the "real" version. However, I'm fine with it. It's just a new variation, but please don't call it Hungarian. American Goulash is a delicious and respectable dish all its own, and it varies form the traditional Gulyás by several factors. Let's look at it first since it's the most well known around here. Halloween is the traditional time to make this warming stew.  I'll try to place American Goulash in the context of a broader definition of Goulash-like recipes.

  • American Goulash has more ingredients than Hungarian Goulash
  • Hungarian Gulyás can be either a soup or a stew, but it's usually a soup. American Goulash is always a stew.
  • American Goulash has ingredients which are never used in Hungarian Gulyás: tomato paste, ground beef, macaroni
  • American Goulash lacks the trimmings that are used in the Hungarian version: chopped parsley and sour cream
  • They're both good, just different. The version I'm doing today is nutritious, has Paleo options, and includes "scary" ingredients for Halloween.

How do you say Gulyás?  

The American word, Goulash, sounds like Ghoul+ ah-sh, no wonder it's associated with Halloween.  In Hungarian the pronunciation of Gulyás is Goo-yah-sh, said quickly, with a tiny emphasis on the yah.  Not like this.  Like this.

Is it really Hungarian?  Who first thought of it?

Well, like all simple dishes that can be made more complex, the origin of the idea will be hard to trace.  At its most basic, it's onions and lamb stewed until a sauce forms, lightly spiced, and often made with dumplings. Its origins are uncertain.  George Lang, author of the respected Cuisine of Hungary book, dates the creation of the Hungarian version to the 9th century (800's).

It should be noted that Hungary didn't officially exist until almost exactly 1000 AD. There's a lot of mystery surrounding that date and time was fuzzy due to the Church continually changing dates to make Easter happen in early spring. But that would be digressing too much, back to the food. 

So if the respected recipe for Gulyás is from 150-200 years before the existence of Hungary, then is it really Hungarian?  Well I think the version that is agreed as the Hungarian version today is definitely Hungarian.  It could've existed in that area for a long time before it was recorded, and I dare say that  it was a good and practical idea, that was much borrowed and embellished by every people who adopted it.

I don't know if  Hungarians strictly invented it, but they certainly used it in military campaigns where the meat was dried, pounded to a powder and carried by soldiers to make instant soup anywhere they happened to camp.  The strength of the legend of Gulyás is probably due to this innovation of Hungarian soldiers. (Ref:  George Lang, Cuisine of Hungary, page 270, 1994 edition, Wings Books, NY)

There was a wandering period of Hungarian history.  Certainly our arrival in Europe was bloody and militaristic.  But before that, there was travel and those days weren't wasted.  If we traveled from as far as the Altaic mountains, as some scholars think, then we had plenty of time to encounter Ishtoo (made with mutton or lamb), or Tas Kebap on the way.  Probably we herded cattle since even today Hungary maintains an ancient form of cattle in an Organic preserve location, and produces baby food from it.  That kind of dedication isn't for nothing.

So while many Hungarians today look back and see lamb as the most authentically Hungarian meat for Gulyás, I see beef as a strong contender for that spot.

As India became more and more vegetarian, the recipe for Ishtoo seemed to change from one resembling Gulyás  to today's ubiquitous Internet recipes for Kerala Ishtu, a potato stew.  If you want to see several versions of Ishtoo from different states in India, I recommend you use a book instead of the Internet. An omnibus that attempts to record every recipe in India (a Herculean task indeed) is India Cookbook by Pushpesh Pant.  My book has the following variations:

  • Istoo with Veggies p 349  (Kerala) - the original Kerala Istoo does indeed have only vegetables cooked in coconut milk, however the modern variation of potato Ishtu (notice the spelling)  is new and probably designed to appeal to tourism.
  • Ishtoo with lamb p 431 (Delhi)
  • similar but not Ishtoo:  Khare Masala ka Gosht p 425  (more complex, from Awadh)

My book has Istoo for the Kerala regional recipe and Ishtoo for the Delhi recipe.  That may be a misprint or it may indicate something else.  Not speaking Hindi, I can't say.  Isht translates with Google to 'favored' or 'desirable' which makes sense for a food. Awadh is the NE portion of the Uttar Pradesh state in India.  Interestingly, Kerala is one of the few states in India where cow slaughter is not outlawed, yet its version of Ishtoo is vegetarian.  No doubt the availability of coconuts and potatoes played a part. "Gosht" indicates mutton so if you're in an Indian restaurant that serves it, now you know what it means.

So yes there is a Hungarian Gulyás but it's part of a family of similar recipes from places quite far away.  That doesn't take any special quality away from it, rather it adds to the rich history of the dish. Just as before, it's proof of travel and ingenuity.  So I hope this broader understanding of the recipe and its family of recipes, will have room for the American version.  There are many advantages to the American version. It has no strict rules, it can adapt to the demands of nutrition or Halloween fun, without breaking tradition.  It can be made cheap or fancy.

American Goulash will never be "Hungarian" any more than Ishtoo or Tas Kebap will ever be.  Each region has adapted the dish and made it unique to their location.

So let's make a pact that American Goulash will not be called "Hungarian" unless it's traditional Gulyás Soup or Stew.  And we will rejoice in the diversity of choices. My focus tends to be on finding historically appropriate substitutions that may be tasty in traditional dishes, while converting them to gluten free.  

My frame of reference is often focused on the Middle East, Italy, or Central Asia because these are influences on Hungarian cooking.  But there's no reason why this dish couldn't be found in any shepherding culture, and made with unique local ingredients.

I have several ideas for what would be an appropriate addition to the Gulyás of today.  Some of these ideas may be heretical to traditionalists, but I think they have historical validity:
  • Ginger or Galangal (which is like a milder more aromatic form of ginger)
  • Roasting the meat first, either as a kebab or in a broiler, then making the stew
  • Ginger-garlic paste as used in Indian cooking, wouldn't be out of place
  • hot pepper, or hot pepper powder, especially Hungarian Hot Paprika
  • Lecso condiment
  • Greek yogurt topping, or sour cream
  • Turnips, kholrabies, carrots of any color, parsnips (very sweet), celery root and seeds
  • Marjoram, Basil, Rosemary, Rose Hips, Nutmeg or Allspice
  • Paprika that isn't Hungarian, but reliably gluten free, or Kashmiri peppers, ground
  • Cornbread as a side dish
  • It always includes onions with meat, braised

The important thing is to make your  Gulyás or Goulash in your own way and to recognize when you've created something wonderful, but too unusual to be called "Hungarian" anymore.  I don't think any of the above would invalidate the "Hungarian" label on your Gulyás. So it's your choice, do you attempt to make a Hungarian Gulyás for Halloween, or an American Goulash?  Do you feel there are rules that prevent some Goulash from being American?  Would using cumin seeds or cardamom cause it to be not American anymore?  If you add shrimp and okra, is it gumbo yet?  Hmm, maybe not.  Where do you draw the lines?  Please comment and tell me.

Photo by jcomp - www.freepik.com

Traditional Hungarian Gulyás Soup

  • Is made red by using lots of paprika, not tomato.
  • Contains galuska (dumplings) not pasta.
  • Is very simple, few ingredients, not spicy unless hot paprika is used, mainly just salt, pepper, onions and garlic are the spices used. It's mostly meat and potato. I've noted some traditional acceptable options, but a good Gulyás isn't embroidered with unnecessary ingredients.
  • Is optionally made creamy with a dollop of sour cream mixed in.
  • May be garnished with chopped parsley, and a few pieces of Hungarian Wax Pepper (hot).
  • While crusty bread is the usual accompaniment, Southern pure-cornmeal cornbread is a delicious substitution.   
  • Use nothing optional if you want it to be strictly traditional.

Paleo Notes:

This is a hard soup to do Paleo.  Most Paleo dumpling recipes use Tapioca and you can do that. But I try to avoid Cassava/Tapioca/Arrowroot (these are all the same thing, except sometimes Arrowroot is not made from Cassava, but it usually is) because the concentrated starch really spikes my triglycerides.  I actually do better with white rice compared to tapioca.  So for Paleo dumplings, I'd suggest you try plantain dumplings. There are good instructions in that recipe, but some other recipes say to use green or bright yellow ones (unripe).  I haven't tried that yet, if you try it, please let me know.

The sour cream is also hard to replace.  I suggest trying cashew butter, perhaps whipped at room temperature with some coconut oil, then added as a topping at the table.  If you stretch your Paleo to include yogurt, then a Greek yogurt would work, and it's likely that yogurt would've been used by shepherds, more often than sour cream.  You need something with a cool, smooth mouthfeel and mostly that's dairy, although cashews are pretty good too.

The crusty bread is a problem too.  I'd suggest finding a mug muffin that seems the most bready to you and using that.  You want something that will soak up liquid.  You can also make Chebe bread (tapioca based Brazilian bread) which has a gooey and puffy interior, with a crusty exterior, if you make it without the cheese.

For Paleo, if you don't use potatoes, then it's acceptable traditionally to use turnips, kohlrabies or carrots.  This aspect of it is the easiest to make Paleo.


1 lb beef, lamb, or mutton chuck or any stewing cut
3 cups water or stock
3 Tbsp fat or oil (bacon fat and olive oil are traditional, though Jewish Hungarians would likely use Schmaltz or olive oil)
1 large yellow skin Spanish onion, chopped fine
4 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into large cubes
2 medium carrots, cut into rounds


1 each, tomato and green pepper, cut into quarters, or 1-2 Tbsp Lecsó (optional, for flavor only) 
4-5 Tablespoons Paprika 
          (When using spices in such a large quantity, make sure they are gluten free, you WILL react if they are slightly gluten-contaminated and they expect you to be exposed to much less than you're using.  Here's a safe paprika.)
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp salt or salt to taste
1 tsp marjoram (optional)
1/4 cup red wine (optional)
1 inch peeled and chopped fresh ginger or galangal (optional)

For Dumplings (traditional, except it's gluten free)

1 egg
3 Tbsp *glutinous* (sticky) white rice flour, available online or in Asian stores
1 teaspoon olive or sesame oil
pinch of salt

Combine ingredients and allow to stand for at least 30 minutes before using. Drop by half teaspoonfuls into simmering soup, or into salted water and simmer for 3-4 minutes. If not serving right away, then drain and refrigerate.

If you want an even simpler one, or you need to avoid eggs, try making tang yuan dumplings.  Rice is a food familiar to Hungarians, but cassava and plantain aren't, so my suggestion for gluten free dumplings in this recipe is based on familiarity.

Toppings are optional and may include:

Sour cream
Chopped parsley
3 cloves of garlic, crushed, added at the end of cooking, before serving (not optional)


On medium-low heat, slowly sautee the chopped onion in the fat or oil.  When it's translucent, push it aside and turn up the heat to medium high.  Add the meat, working in batches if it is too crowded, and sear the meat on at least two sides.

When all the meat has been seared, return all the meat to the pot, and stir in the red wine, if using, the paprika, the salt and the pepper.  Stir until well coated.

Add the water or broth next and stir to ensure that all of the fond at the bottom of the pan is dissolved.  Add marjoram, if using. Add tomato and green pepper or Lecsó, if using.

Turn the heat to medium low again, and cover for about 10 minutes until it begins to simmer.  Then open the lid so steam can escape and continue simmering for one hour.

Add vegetables.  Simmer for 30 minutes, may be left warming in a crock pot, on Low, for a few hours if needed. This is a perfect potluck meal. At this point in the recipe, you can pack it up in a crock pot, and bring the toppings along to the party.

Simmer the dumplings last, or if it's to be served later, cook them separately in salty water and refrigerate until needed.

Which Paprika to use?

Traditionally you would use Szeged Paprika or Kalocsa Paprika.  However, the likelihood that you'll have a gluten reaction is much higher with imported spices which are not certified gluten free.  Do I use them?  No, not anymore.  I did, but I consistently didn't feel good afterward.  I use Kashmiri peppers, ground.  However, those aren't organic so I'm going to try Spicely (the one I recommended) once my supply runs out. Paprika must have a strong enough flavor and color to be used in Hungarian cooking. It must be able to turn a brown liquid brick red.

Apologies for not using my own images, I'm still going through an exhaustion phase.  Photo credit: https://www.foodiesfeed.com/author/jakubkapusnak/

American Goulash / Spooky Halloween Goulash

  • Is made with ground beef usually.
  • May include any ingredient found in a beef casserole such as pasta or even gravy mix.
  • Feel free to be creative especially if you're making it for a Halloween party.


1 lb ground beef
1/2 box spiral macaroni (or shredded cabbage, which cooks into a pasta like texture)
     *I recommend soy or lentil pasta because they are more durable when simmered a bit too long. Tolerant and Bionaturae are good brands for durable gluten free pastas. Be sure rice, soy or corn based pastas are non-GMO verified or Organic to avoid the heavy pesticides used on GMO crops.

2 Tbsp tomato paste
1 large blood red bell pepper, chopped into large pieces
4-5 large potatoes (or cubed butternut squash, which cooks into a bright orange color)
pinch of wakame seaweed (texture is like pasta when cooked, and it looks black and wormy!)
1/2 cup egg whites (to drizzle into the stew, makes spooky ghostly threads)
          ( I imagine you'll just use a box of egg whites, but if you are separating the eggs, use the yolks to add thickness at the very end of cooking. )

4 cups of broth or stock, homemade preferably
1 large onion cut into large chunks


1/2 tsp salt or more to taste
sprinkle of black pepper
italian seasoning, to taste (or oregano, basil and thyme from your garden)
I like to add sage and rosemary, but it's optional
1 Tablespoon paprika
          (Be careful with paprika, some sources aren't reliably gluten free. I grind dried Kashmiri peppers for my paprika, and that's mildly hot, without being too hot. This paprika is safe.)
Olive oil or Rendered fat (I like rendered bacon fat for this, but goose or duck fat are good too)

Topping: wait until the last minute, after turning the heat off, to add three cloves of garlic, crushed, the flavor is much stronger. A swirl of hot sauce (check for gluten free!) is good too.


Start by sauteeing the chunky onions in oil or fat over medium heat. Add the green pepper when you start to see color on the onions. Sprinkle with seasonings after the pepper has been in for at least a minute, and stir. Add the ground beef and break up with your cooking spoon until it's in pieces, well mixed with the seasonings. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt (or more to taste).

If you can only find green bell pepper, that's OK, instead of blood red, it's now liver green! The fun of American Goulash is that you can add non traditional ingredients without being scolded by Hungarians for messing up their dish. Plus you don't have to worry about the dumplings. 

Add tomato paste and stir in. Pour in the broth or stock. Add the macaroni.

If using cabbage instead, wait until later to add it with the squash / potatoes. And reduce the added broth to two and a half cups.

Add wakame seaweed now, it can simmer for hours and not fall apart.

Bring to a boil and turn heat down to a simmer. Simmer for 5 minutes, then add the other ingredients (squash, potato, or both, shredded cabbage if using).

Bring back to a simmer, then cook for 8-12 minutes until squash is tender. Get ready to drizzle the egg whites (beat the egg yolks if using), by putting them in ameasuring cup with a spout.

When squash and pasta are cooked, stir the stew and drizzle the egg whites into the soup while simmering. It probably won't form perfect sheets but that's ok. If using yolks, they will thicken the stew, stir them in quickly and simmer for about 30 seconds longer, stirring.

Turn off heat and add crushed garlic cloves. Check for seasoning, and serve.

For a potluck Halloween party:  don't add the pasta, precook it separately and bring it along. Reheat the Goulash in a crock pot and add the pasta to it just before serving. If you precook the pasta, you can use a non durable pasta like quinoa pasta if you wish. 

* * *

Finally, there is a Szekler Gulyás which is different and may be made Ketogenic easily, if you wish.  It uses pork and sauerkraut as its main ingredients.  It's seasoned with caraway seeds and always includes sour cream.  But that's a recipe for another time.  Have a wonderful Halloween!


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