Goulash is a traditional dish in many parts of eastern Europe and is one of the national dishes of Hungary, where it originated. It is a stew of meat and vegetables, especially potatoes, that is seasoned with spices, particularly paprika. It is also a dish that has made its way, in various forms, into cuisines around the world. Some of these recipes are almost completely different from a traditional Hungarian goulash. Ground beef goulash is largely an American invention that incorporates browned ground beef, pasta, and tomatoes into a dish that little resembles the beef, vegetable, and paprika stews of eastern Europe.
Traditional goulash, whose name is derived from the Hungarian word, gulyas, is made with cubes of meat, typically beef, but other meats, such as pork, lamb or even veal can be used. It is a rich stew and can include many vegetables, including carrots, bell peppers, and parsnips. Potatoes, which serve to thicken the stew as it cooks, are always included, and paprika is a staple of goulash that must be included. Other spices and seasonings, like garlic and savory herbs are often used as well. Variations are common, even in Hungary and other eastern European countries. The stew is simmered until the meat is tender and the mixture thickens and is sometimes served with hearty egg noodles or other pasta or with grains like kasha or rice.
American style ground beef goulash differs significantly from traditional versions. It is usually made by browning ground beef with onions and garlic, and the body of the dish, which is seasoned with paprika, is usually tomato based and sometimes includes beef stock. Chunks of tomato, peppers, and onions may be added. Pasta, particularly elbow macaroni is usually added after being cooked separately. The final character of a ground beef goulash dish is thick and hearty, more like a stew than a pasta and sauce dish. It also differs from traditional goulashes in that it can be made in much less time and does not require long simmering.
Like the eastern European dishes from which it is derived, ground beef goulash varies greatly depending on the cook, and almost everyone who makes it has their own recipe. The sauce can be entirely beef based or tomato based, vegetables can vary, and some ground beef goulash may actually substitute potatoes for pasta. Seasonings vary as well and can include caraway, savory herbs, parsley, garlic, and hot pepper, but paprika is a constant.