With Burns Night becoming more and more popular, traditional Scottish foods are on the rise. The first thing to know is that there’s more to it than just square sausages and deep-fried mars bars (although we still say don’t knock it until you try it!). This week, in celebration of Burns Night, Zsófi gives us a rundown of some of the best Scottish food (and she knows, having lived in Edinburgh for five years!).
What is Scottish Food? Your Guide to the Ultimate Burns Night Celebration
I spent a few days in Glasgow visiting a friend very dear to me just before the New Year. As we browsed through the West End’s charity shops, from amongst the surprisingly great selection of sparkly dresses and a comical assembly of Christmas postcards, we found a new treasure: a 2021 book entitled Glasgow’s 100 Best Restaurants. Immediately I shoved the book into my friend’s hands for her to buy as I cannot imagine how one can live without such knowledge.
Luckily, she is as much of a foodie as me, and she very happily paid the shocking two pounds for the book. And, well, that was our entertainment sorted for the rest of my visit. Unfortunately, we were not able to try all 100 restaurants in just four days, for which I am still angry with my fallible human body (and, I guess, the time constraints), but we did manage to give five a go, and the experience inspired me in a number of ways.
I called Scotland my home for longer and more sincerely than any other place I moved after; a five-year residence in Edinburgh from which only happy memories and lifelong friends remain. And yet, I have not written about Scottish food, and how different it is to English, nor the bustling food culture that can be experienced in its leading cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow; both of which I believe I know quite a bit about. So… with Burns Night coming up on 25 January this year, I can think of no better time to loudly express my love for the Scottish and their food.
For the non Scottish or non-Scottish-fanatic readers, let me start by explaining a little bit about Burns Night and why it is the ultimate celebration of this country, their people, and their food.
If you ever find yourself in Scotland on 25 January, you are in for a treat! People flood the streets to wonder at the colourful fireworks filling up the Scottish skies, before retreating into their homes to eat the most traditional foods of Scotland and equally traditionally, get drunk.
Originally, Burns Night started as an intimate celebration to commemorate the birthday of the most renowned national poet, Robert Burns. Now, this posthumous birthday party has developed into a national day where all in Scotland prepare what is referred to as a Burns Supper, drink inhumane amounts of Scotch, and recite Burns’s poems by heart – so some good ol’ literature-based fun!
Focussing in on the food, as is important in life and even more so in articles about food, while innovations are highly encouraged, there is a traditional procession of a Burns Supper many like to keep to even if just for the hell of it. Firstly, once all the guests arrive and all the cooking and preparations are finished, you officially open your evening with a prayer in Scots called the Selkirk Grace. This is followed by a recital of Burns’s perhaps most famous poem, the Address to Haggis, which is a mandatory prerequisite to serving the dinner with plates full of haggis and neeps and tatties (do not worry, I will provide translations for this soon). Of course, you can’t finish a Burns’ Supper without washing it off with some whisky and once all the booze has put you in a singing mood, with the musical rendition of Auld Lang Syne. If you are lucky and surrounded by quick-footed kilted-up Scottish men, you might even have the opportunity to try out a ceilidh dance (pronounced: kay-lee), a traditional Scottish group dance often performed at weddings, gatherings, and Burns Night.
Now, this is a very brief overview of what is usually a multiple-hour occasion; however, I believe there are a few words that deserve further explanation. So, let me walk you through the food and drink component of the Burns’ Supper.
Read more from Zsófi’s Kitchen…
Traditional Scottish Food
When one thinks of Scotland, one may immediately think of its leading dish which has become almost synonymous with the words Scottish Cuisine: haggis. For those not familiar, haggis is a meat pudding made of cooked mince offal mixed with suet, oatmeal, and seasonings, encased in a sheep’s stomach and boiled for three hours. Sounds… inviting?
If you’re a meat-eater in Scotland, you are likely to find haggis in your traditional Scottish Breakfast, or with your Tatties and Neeps – this latter being the Scottish denominations for potatoes and turnips. There are many theories about how haggis came to be, and more importantly, how it came to be the national dish – the very symbol of Scottish cuisine, in fact. Many speculate a French origin or think of it as a Scandinavian or Roman import.
No matter the topographical origin, one thing can be sure: the origin of such a dish is most likely found in hunting whereby when an animal was killed, the offal had to be eaten straight away or preserved. This isn’t an easy task in a forest, so they often quickly chopped it, seasoned it, and stuffed it in the stomach. Not a pretty process, but it meant that the food could be preserved for a couple of weeks and feed many mouths.
So how did it become so Scottish? It all started in the 18th century and the economic decline that it brought to the country. While England’s economy was booming in the 1700s with the Agricultural Revolution which made all kinds of produce more readily available to the masses, Scotland was struggling. Haggis is cheap, easy to store, and guarantees that none of the parts of the animal are wasted. It became a sort of gastronomical panacea for the people.
Haggis soon drew a sharp demarcation line between the two countries: while its consumption was booming in Scotland, almost nobody was eating haggis in England. This difference was picked up on and enlarged by the hostile politics between the two countries in which England depicted haggis and other Scottish dishes as uncivilised to which the Scottish responded with growing pride over their cuisine. Haggis became cemented as the Scottish National Symbol in 1786 when another Scottish National Symbol, Robert Burns wrote one of his most famous poems: The Address to Haggis.
No matter the origin, haggis is as Scottish as they come. It is an absolute must-try – especially if you’re lucky enough to be there on Burns’ Night.
Now, for those for whom offal and sheep’s stomachs are not too appetising (I’m one of you guys), there are of course many many vegan versions available. Scotland is one of the best countries for vegan/vegetarian food options, and this is not wasted on haggis. Vegetarian haggis became popular as early as the 1980s, and have since developed many different recipes to try. The best recipes for me are the ones that keep all the ingredients and seasonings of the original, just replace all the animal organ stuff. So if you see any with oats, and split peas, nutmeg and mace, you’re golden. One of my favourite recipes includes portobello mushrooms too which gives a meaty texture, mixed with lentils and oats, and I highly suggest you give it a try.
Fun fact: Haggis is prohibited in the USA. There is a law against importing food that includes sheep’s stomach so American readers, get those flight tickets to Scotland now!
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Neeps and Tatties
Neeps and tatties are the indispensable sidekicks to haggis – really, who is Holmes without Watson? If you spend enough time in Scotland, you will likely have been confused many a times about these child muttering-like words very serious adult Scottish people use around dinnertime. Simply, neeps and tatties refer to Swedish turnips or swedes and potatoes (if you squint, you can make out how the Scottish names came about: tur-nips -> neeps and po-tatoes -> tatties).
These two root vegetables are usually served mashed together with some butter and seasoned with salt, pepper, and mustard. They are eaten for every traditional Scottish meal, Burns’ Night, Hogmanay, and even Christmas dinner next to some chicken or haggis.
With a history dating back to the 11th century, Scottish whisky – also known as Scotch – is an important part of Scottish identity. This fermented mashed grain and barley drink is popular all over the world with famous distilleries in the US, Ireland, and Japan; however, nowhere is it as special as it is in Scotland. Whisky’s very name comes from the Scottish Gaelic phrase uisge beatha, meaning ‘water of life’ – and my father would certainly agree with this designation.
While nobody can be confused about the quality of Scottish whisky, there might be a few questions to be answered about the plurality of names that we call it. So, what is the difference between whisky and Scotch? Well, not much. Whisky can be called Scotch or Scottish Whisky if it is made in Scotland, matured in Oak Casks for a minimum of three years, and bottled at an alcoholic strength of 40% abv. minimum. And if we’re already talking names, there is also an orthographic minefield to be conscious of when talking about the water of life, all because of the humble letter ‘e’. Do we call it whiskey or whisky? Well, this all depends on where the whisk(e)y you’re drinking is from. If it is made in Japan, Canada, or Scotland, it will be called whisky without the ‘e’. However, if it is made in the United States or Ireland, it is whiskey with the ‘e’. So, for Burns Night, get your oldest bottle of Scotch Whisky, and leave your Whiskey at home.