Best 11 Irish Foods (Irish Cuisine History Included!)
The United Kingdom may be united on paper, but it has always been fraut with tension. Nowhere is that more evident than in Ireland. The English crown of course wanted the whole of Ireland under its rule. But resistence resulted in a partition in 1921 between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Now, Northern Ireland is part of the UK, with England, Scotland, and Wales – Britain (aka Great Britain) refers to only England, Scotland, and Wales. Ireland (the south) remains a separate country, joined to the others, including the North, only through the geographic term the British Isles.
And why does this matter? Politics plays a big role in food and attitudes to it. And no more so than in Ireland – the whole of it. Three distinct periods influenced Irish food – before, during, and after the Potato Famine (1845-1849).
It was caused by blight, a disease that destroys the leaves and tuber, for which there was, and is, no cure. A natural disaster, then? Yes. But the extent of it? As one nationalist said at the time, “the Almighty sent the potato blight but the English created the famine.”
If a million people die and millions more emigrate for the lack of potatoes, you have to ask why they were so dependent on the potato? And why, in the middle of the fastest economic growth period in human history, did the leading economic power of the time not do more to help?
In the end, 1997 in fact, the British government apologized for doing “too little” and standing by “while a crop failure turned into a massive tragedy”.
But the devastation remained the “univited guest” in every Irish dining room for more than a hundred years, which is why it took so long for the Irish people to start thinking of food as a source of pleasure rather than simply as sustenance.
Only in the last 25 years have the people at last been able to enjoy food – choosing it, preparing it, and eating it – without a lingering sense of guilt at such indulgence and plenty.
Today, Ireland has a dazzling and growing food scene. A new generation of cooks are reviving past traditions and looking to Scandinavia and France for inspiration. For a long time languishing in the shadows of London, Ireland is becoming a food destination in its own right.
There were a full 21 Michelin-starred restaurants in Ireland in 2019 and at this year’s awards, 3 restaurants received the new Green Star for sustainability, 2 in Galway and one on the Aran islands.
So, let’s take a look at the traditional dishes of Irish fare, north and south, that form the basis of the cuisine.
1. Boxty/ Homemade Irish Potato Pancakes
We’ll stay with the potato for a bit as it is a true staple of Irish dishes.
Boxty is immortalized in an Irish rhyme: Boxty on the griddle, boxty in the pan, if you can’t make boxty, you’ll never get a man, showing how important it is to the culture.
This peasant dish is much like the rösti and involves grating potatoes, mixing them with baking soda and buttermilk and frying, boiling or baking the mixture, though the pan is the most common method.
Its name, Boxty, comes from the Irish arán bocht tí, meaning poor-house bread. But it’s currently getting a makeover with the addition of spices and its use as a tortilla wrap filled with beef.
Another potato dish that remains a firm favorite among the people is this very simple but tasty and creamy mash.
It’s a little more than just adding scallions to your potatoes. The scallions are first brought to the boil in milk and left to one side for the flavors to infuse. Once the potatoes are boiled and mashed, the milk and scallions are reheated and mixed in.
It is served with a big knob of butter melting in the middle, and it goes great with bacon or ham – or try it with fish, though that’s not traditional.
There are varieties of champ across the island and a very common and very delicious one is colcannon. The recipe goes way back to the 1700s and is popular on Halloween and St Patrick’s Day.
Every cook has their own favored way of cooking the dish, but the one common feature is generous amounts of butter.
The potatoes should be floury, for the starch, and mashed with plenty of butter. Add to them kale, leeks, or, most usually, cabbage cooked in a little water. For added flavor, blitz up some scallions and add those too. Serve, with another generous dollop of butter, as a side to ham, bacon, beef stew or lamb chops.
4. Bacon and Cabbage
Corned beef and cabbage might be more well known in the States, but the traditional dish was made with a good lean loin of bacon.
Beef was just too expensive in Ireland back in the day and only the rich could afford it. The peasants made do with pork. That only changed when the Irish arrived on the shores of the US where beef was cheaper and affordable. Hence, corned beef and cabbage.
And then it got exported back to Ireland. So it is eaten here, but the original bacon and cabbage remains the firm favorite.
You need a nice bit of loin and a green cabbage, not white. Boil the meat with a few veggies for flavor, then coat it with a mix of honey, mustard, and ground cloves. Leave it to rest for at least 30 minutes, but overnight would be even better.
Cook the cabbage for just 5 minutes in water from the bacon and, of course, some butter. Reheat the bacon in the oven and serve it all together with some champ. Parsley or mustard sauce goes well with it, too.
5. Irish Stew
Ah! The warm and hearty Irish stew, the classic dish. This, too, has literary recognition in an 1800s’ ballad:
Then hurrah for an Irish stew / That will stick to your belly like glue.
It was made from readily available cheap bits of the sheep. Sheep were kept for the wool, the milk, and the cheese. By the time the poor animal had outlived its usefulness, its meat was pretty tough.
Hence the long, slow cooking, at least 2 hours, that makes the Irish stew the rich and filling dish that it is, full of plump potatoes, onions, and succulent flaky meat.
That’s the original, but the stew has gone through various iterations, with additions such as other root vegetables, Guinness giving it a thick dark sauce, and dumplings. In the States, where sheep were not so prevalent, lamb was substituted for beef.
If that isn’t delicious enough for you, leave it in the fridge for a day or two and let those flavors mingle.
6. Steak and Guinness Pie
When Irish beef became affordable, it quickly got into the local dishes. And then when Guinness was on the shelves, some bright spark decided to put the two together.
And thank the three-leaved shamrock that they did because it’s a combination made in heaven.
The long, slow cooking of the filling creates perfect, tender beef and allows the beery flavor of roasted barley to infuse with the meat and veggies. Cut into the puff pastry, and the thick, luscious sauce oozes out and mingles with the champ or colcannon for the perfect comfort food on a cold winter’s day.
7. Seafood Chowder
I might have mentioned Ireland is an island, but so far have neglected its seafood. Criminal. Because it is among the finest in the world.
With over 7,500 km of coastline, much of it facing the Atlantic, seafood has been a staple for many years, particuarly on the west coast.
And it’s here that you’ll find some of the best seafood chowder served in bars and restaurants throughout the year using fresh local fish and shellfish. Salmon, haddock, hake, cod, and pollock are common plus mussels, prawns, lobster, crab. Really, whatever is available, which is why it’s often refered to as the poor man’s food.
So you’ll find a different recipe in Galway to that in Donegal or Dingle, some with potatoes some without, some with bacon some without. But all of them great tasting and yummily creamy.
And it’s super quick and easy to make. Cook the onion and bacon for a while, add the potatoes and stock, add the fish and cream – don’t let it boil – and serve. Done!
8. Galway Oysters
Ireland’s oysters are special. And to show them off at their best there’s the Galway International Oyster and Seafood Festival every September to welcome the new season.
What makes them so special? The Atlantic waters. Because they are a bit like wine – it’s where they come from that matters.
Pacific oysters grow well here and are available year-round. But it’s the native flat oyster that is the jewel in the emerald crown and is only available after it spawns in the summer until the following April – so if you want to experience them in their natural habitat, time your visit right.
The Pacific and the natives feed on different phytoplankton, giving them different flavors. The natives are a flat oyster, smooth on the outside and shallow inside, where you’ll find the delicate meat with a wild, gamy flavor.
The Pacific are more numerous. Taking just three years to mature, 9,000 tons are harvested each year. That compares to just 500 tons of native oysters, which take five or six years.
The 19th century boom in oysters made them a cheap food for the poor, sold on the streets and used to bulk out meat dishes. Today they are a sign of wealthy decadence. The boom led to over-fishing, industrialization and growing populations polluted the waters. Cleaning this up and ensuring environmentally safe and ethical production came at a cost.
So maybe you wont eat them everyday, but a trip to the west coast to sup Irish oysters with a cool glass of white wine as the sun sets over the Atlantic…
9. Soda Bread
Soda bread – about as Irish as it gets. Or is it?
No, in fact. The Irish discovered it, replicated it, and earned themselves a worldwide reputation for it, but it was indigenous Americans who first invented it.
They used pearl ash – a natural form of soda created from the ashes of wood – to leaven their bread, not having yeast. The Irish picked up on it and ,given it’s best made with soft wheat flour that grows best in Ireland, the bread has been a staple of the diet since the 1800s.
Cooked in an iron pot or on a griddle over the open hearth, it has a dense texture, hard crust, and light sourness.
So seriously is it taken as part of the country’s culinary identity, there’s even a Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread.
While traditionally made with sour milk, buttermilk is most often used today, mixed into the flour, soda, oats, and salt. Great for mopping up an Irish stew and popular on St Patrick’s Day.
Guinness is a dark ruby brown beer made from roasted barley. No, it’s not. Guinness is a brand name.
The original drink was called porter, because of its popularity among train porters at the time, and was invented by a London brewer called Ralph Harwood in 1722. If Arthur Guinness hadn’t set up a brewery in Dublin and begun brewing the liquid in the 1770s, we’d all be drinking Harwood!
Instead, Guiness is know worldwide as Ireland’s national drink. So popular has it become, and such a symbol of Irishness, that 1,883,200,000 (that’s 1.8 billion) pints are sold worldwide very year. Though that figure should be put next to the one for Irish whiskey, which sold 2,376,000,000 (2.4 billion) shots globally in 2019.
But it’s not just consumed as pints. It goes well in Irish stew and steak pies as we’ve seen. And it also makes an appearance in many cakes, giving them a roasted barley flavor.
11. Irish Coffee
Arguably the first flavored coffee – in my opinion, the only one worth drinking, Irish coffee was the invention of an airport bartender. A storm in 1943 forced a flight to America to return to the airport and Joe Sheridan was asked to provide food and drink to warm up the freezing passengers.
And when you think of it, what better way to warm your cockles than to throw a whiskey into a coffee and top it with cream – the trickiest bit.
The cream has to float. And to make it float, don’t skip on the sugar. You need a couple of cubes of sugar, brown or white, melted into the hot coffee to help the cream to float. And don’t use a spray! It has to be heavy cream or whipping cream but never half and half.
Pour it slowly over the back of a spoon just resting on the top of the coffee. If it doesn’t work, pour it away and try again. There’s nothing quite like sipping hot, whiskey-flavored coffee through thick cream. Don’t forget to wipe your lips.