A few months ago, our friends Ron and Vanessa invited us over for dinner. Vanessa recently had twin girls – Carmel and Julia – aka the cutest little darlings in the history of children. I was really excited to spend some time with the babies (and Ron and Vanessa, of course!).
After dinner, Ron showed me a family recipe manuscript that his mother had given him. Ron’s family is Hungarian Jewish. When Ron started living on his own, his mom wrote down their family recipes so he could teach himself to cook the food he’d grown up with. He knew this manuscript would be right up my alley.
Traditional Hungarian Jewish recipes? I was thrilled! I took the manuscript home and scanned it, then began to study the dishes. It’s a colder than usual February here in Los Angeles, so a hearty beef stew called Marha Pörkölt seemed like the perfect dish to try.
Ron, Vanessa, and the twins
Marha Pörkölt translates from Hungarian to “Beef Stew.” What sets this dish apart from other beef stews is the paprika. Hungarian cooking is all about paprika; the spice is used liberally in many dishes. This particular paprika dish is quite common in Hungary. It originated with cattle herders, who made the dish in the fields in cast iron kettles and cooked it over an open fire. Marha Pörkölt is similar to another dish you may have heard of – goulash – which has the same origin and ingredients, though the texture of goulash would be slightly more soupy. You can actually make this recipe into a goulash by adding more liquid for a thinner sauce and adjusting the seasoning to taste.
Ron and his mother Eva
I asked Ron to tell me a little about his family background, so we could understand exactly where this recipe came from. Ron’s family tree is pretty fascinating! Here are some of the highlights, in Ron’s words:
My mother was born Eva Neuwirth in Budapest, Hungary in 1929 to an affluent family. Her father Mihaly was a diplomat and in the import export business. Her mother Julia was of the famed Wertheimer family whose patriarch Samson Wertheimber, a wealthy banker, was given a rare title in the year 1510 by King Maximilian I, of the German Holy Roman Empire, for loans he provided the King. This bestowed family crest made the Wertheimbers “Koenigliche Yuden,” meaning “Noble Jews.” My mother, together with her sister Vera, were the embodiment of a happy pre-war Hungarian Jewish family. My father David Kenan was born Ivan Klein in Budapest Hungary in 1926 to Asher and Eta Klein. Eta is from the Schonberger family. Both families have numerous rabbis in their ancestry – the Kleins are Cohens.
The Klein family, 1927. Ron’s great grandmother is holding his father on the left, and his grandparents are the third and fourth adults from the left.
Both of my parents are Holocaust survivors. My father escaped out of a Nazi labor camp, joined the partisans and made his way to Israel where he was in the Hagana and then had a long career in the Israeli Air Force. My mom survived the Nazis by hiding with false papers (she and her sister Vera had the same papers so they separated, one hiding in Buda and the other in Pest). She stayed in Budapest into the Communist era. There she married Dezso Steiner, the father of my brother Michael. After their divorce, she received permission to emigrate to Israel but when she got to the border, her name was crossed off the list and only her mother Julia, sister Vera, and son Michael were able to leave. She was left behind and couldn’t get out for several years until she escaped Hungary underground. This was extremely rare and dangerous. To this day she will not reveal the circumstances of her escape in order to protect a highly placed accomplice. She arrived in Israel where she met my father.
Ron as a baby in Israel
I was born in Tel-Aviv Yafo Israel in 1960, though we lived in Haifa most of my years there. My brother Michael, 12 years older, moved out of the house when I was 4. With my father generally in another city or country for military service and later his company, it was mostly me and mom and her cooking. In 1974 we moved to the US, 6 months in Columbus, OH, then 6 months in Bolivia where my father was working, and back to Columbus. Again in Columbus, it was me, my mom and her cooking.
Little Ron enjoying his Ima’s food
When I was 20 I joined a carnival to head out west to Los Angeles to pursue my music career. A few months before leaving, I had my mom write all of her recipes into an old Israeli school notebook (called a “machberet”). Every time she would make something, it had to go in the notebook. She adorned them with illustrations of steaming pans and pots to show the correct sized cookware. So cute! Fortunately, 20 years later, mom joined me in LA and the cooking celebration continued. To this day, she’ll grace my wife and I with an occasional fabulous creation of hers. Just this week she cooked her chicken liver recipe for our 1 year old twin girls Carmel (named after Carmel Mountain in Haifa where we lived) and Julia (after my grandmother). They liked it!
Of course they did! I’m not at all surprised. Little Carmel and Julia have very sophisticated taste. 🙂
Here is the original Marha Pörkölt recipe in Eva’s handwriting:
I transcribed the recipe below, giving amounts and cooking times where needed. The original recipe said 1/4 green pepper and 1/4 tomato– I took that to mean a 1/4 lb. of each, since using only a quarter of a tomato and a quarter of a pepper wouldn’t add much flavor to the dish at all. 1 large tomato would be about 1/4 lb., and 1/2 a medium green bell pepper would be about the same. I used the remaining bell pepper and some sliced fresh tomato to garnish the stew. The resulting dish was tender and flavorful, the perfect dinner for a winter evening. This would be served over a traditional spaetzle or potatoes. Having neither on hand, I served it over rice and garnished it with parsley. It would also be great over egg noodles. It’s a pretty mild dish. For more heat, you could add a touch of spicy paprika or cayenne.
For some reason I can’t find the step-by-step photos I took of this recipe, but it’s pretty self explanatory– you shouldn’t have any problems. Next time I make it I’ll take pics and post them here.
Thank you to Ron Kenan, Eva Kenan and family for this wonderful taste of traditional Hungarian Jewish cooking!
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Marha Pörkölt - Hungarian Beef Paprika Stew
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil (I used canola)
- 1 large onion, minced
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- 1/2 medium green bell pepper, chopped
- 1 lb beef stew meat (I used lean beef)
- 2 tbsp sweet (mild) paprika - Hungarian paprika is best
- 1 tsp caraway seeds
- 1 large tomato, cored and chopped
- Salt and black pepper to taste
- 1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley for garnish (optional)
- In a large saute pan, heat canola oil over medium. Add minced onion and saute for about 8 minutes till softened. Add the garlic and green bell pepper. Continue to saute for another 5 minutes till garlic is fragrant and bell pepper is tender-crisp.
- Add the beef to the pan and season lightly with salt and pepper. Cook for 5-6 more minutes, stirring twice, till meat is browned.
- Sprinkle paprika and caraway seeds evenly across the top of the meat. Add diced tomatoes to the pan. Pour 4-5 cups of hot water into the pan, till the meat is almost covered. Stir and bring to a boil.
- Reduce heat to a simmer and cover to pan. Let the mixture simmer slowly for about 90-100 minutes, replenishing the water as needed to keep it from getting dry.
- The stew is ready when the meat is fork tender and the sauce is thick. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste before serving, if desired.
- Serve over spaetzle, potatoes, rice or noodles. It would also be great over quinoa. Kosher for Ashkenazi Passover when served over a KFP starch (ex: potatoes). Garnish with chopped parsley, if desired. Enjoy!