The tiny Zakarpattia Oblast, which Uzhgorod is the capital of, borders four countries: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. This makes Zakarpattia a true melting pot of languages and cultures. It’s only here, too, that you can taste such a variety of dishes from different national cuisines: the Hungarian bogrács gulyás, lecsó and rakott krumpli, the Transylvanian tokan, the Slovakian halušky, the Transcarpathian kremzli, the Hutsul banosh or the Jewish cholent.
I don’t expect you to taste all of these yummy dishes while in Uzhgorod, but if you’re only going to taste one, let it be the traditional Zakarpattia bogrács. This dish, cooked from lots of beef, paprika, potatoes and spice, has a lot in common with its Hungarian counterpart, the bogrács gulyás. To many Zakarpattians, bogrács is the traditional dish of the region and their favorite one. And that’s easy to understand after you’ve tasted it, too.
The history of bogrács can be traced 3,000 years back to the preserved meat of the ancient Magyars (Hungarians) as they migrated from Central Asia. Yet few know about how paprika – bogrács’s key ingredient – ended up in the stew.
The legend has it that during the 16th century Ottoman wars in Europe, a famous one-eyed Turkish janizary called Yuchemdzak ordered two Hungarian captives – a priest and a coachman – to cook a supper for his fellow Turkish soldiers.
As the priest was heating up water in a huge cauldron (“bogrács” in Hungarian), the coachman skillfully skinned a lamb and then chopped the carcass into pieces. The priest threw the meat into the boiling water, added onions and potatoes, and topped that off with lots of some strange red spice that the Turks were carrying with themselves.
After Yuchemdzak took a sip, his face got all red and tears burst out of his eyes. “May you all burn in the seventh hell! How much paprika have you added to the meat?!!” screamed the janizary while running around with his tongue out.
Seeing what the dish did to Yuchemdzak, the Turkish soldiers wouldn’t touch bogrács, and so it was all given to the Hungarian captives, to their great joy. The Hungarians have been adding lots of paprika to bogrács ever since so the Turks couldn’t eat it.
To this day, bogrács is traditionally cooked in a cauldron, and the Hungarian variety is still as spicy as it was centuries ago. In Zakarpattia, bogrács is not as burning hot, and so you’ll probably like it better if you’re not used to spicy cuisines.
Whatever you do, though, never – never! – call bogrács a soup, because in Zakarpattia, it’s a masterpiece!