In the U.S., the preparation of food constantly evolves, assimilating new ingredients, methods, and cultures in the process. Just take a look at classics in the American repertoire — it's a far-reaching array of flavors. From Chinese-inspired orange chicken, to Italian-influenced spaghetti and meatballs, many have transformed past creations found in their source cuisines. As a result, noting the distinctions between evolved versions can be tricky. And such a differentiation is certainly true for American-style goulash and chili mac.
Both allude to a comforting and economical meal made with pasta, ground beef, and tomato sauce, batched to feed a family or gathering. Numerous ingredients, from broth to powdered spices, jarred sauces, onions, garlic, and beans can go into either. And, perhaps most dependably, expect a generous shredding of cheese on top. Yet, investigate some characteristic elements, like goulash's inclusion of paprika versus chili mac's use of evaporated milk, and the dish's origins shine through. And through such a lens, the dish's differences become more apparent.
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What Is American Goulash?
Delicious American goulash draws from an old-school tradition of one-pot meals, a close cousin to classics like American chop suey and macaroni with bolognese. While now enjoyed across the country, the dish is strongly interlinked with Middle Atlantic states. It shares few qualities with its European namesake: Both dishes typically utilize paprika and meat, but from there on out, there are a multitude of differences.
Instead, American goulash is all about expanding a small amount of ground beef into many servings. After searing the beef, the sauce is constructed, and the macaroni is boiled right in the aromatics. The noodles turn soft and absorb all the flavors, in a method similar to chili mac. The addition of tomatoes — whether fresh or canned — is key, something absent from its Hungarian predecessor. Into such a sauce go Italian seasonings, plenty of garlic, bay leaves, and dried pepper powders, like cayenne and paprika. Then, for a salty and savory touch, add soy sauce or Worcestershire, and some even add wine. American goulash's palate leans European, topped with a serving of chopped parsley on top. The result is a pasta dish with abundant sauce in an almost gravy-like consistency. Finished with shredded cheese, it's a serving of tasty, comforting fare.
What Is Chili Mac?
Chili mac stems from a similar culinary tradition as American goulash and its related dishes but with distinct seasonings and ingredients. Although its origins are not well documented, the name and preparation are affiliated with the Midwest. Regardless, its fundamental character is certainly similar to such a related umbrella of preparations: macaroni cooked in an aromatic, ground-beef-based sauce.
Per its name, the dish does take influence from chili con carne, incorporating fragrant aromatics such as cumin, oregano, chili powder, and other Mexican-style dried peppers. Beans, especially darker varieties, also make a frequent appearance. And while other components such as garlic, onions, broth, and tomato sauce are also common in American goulash, there is another key differentiator: evaporated milk. Combined with a greater volume of shredded cheese, chili mac typically takes on a creamier, thicker consistency. Such a texture makes it more reminiscent of mac and cheese, but with Mexican-American flavors. While it may overlap with American goulash in many of its qualities, these adjustments lend it a distinct character.
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