Thursday 19 October 2017

The spice bag: Testing Dublin’s latest takeaway craze on my family

Spice bags are the fast-food phenomenon sweeping the nation, so the uninitiated Emily Diebold opted to test the speciality out on her family...

The Diebold family enjoying their spice bags at home.
The Diebold family enjoying their spice bags at home.
Candy See Fen Wong of Chopsticks restaurant in Skerries with Emily Diebold.

Emily Diebold

Ever heard of a spice bag? If the answer is no, the likelihood is that you are over the age of 25.

It is a new Chinese dish that has spread across the country like wildfire. It has only been around for five minutes but has just won the JustEat.ie award for ‘Ireland’s favourite takeaway dish’.

JustEat.ie processed over two million takeaway orders last year from restaurants across Ireland, so they have a good idea about what people are eating. It is estimated that almost half of the Chinese restaurants in Ireland are now creating the dish.

I had never heard of it before.

However, when I ask my teenage son (16) if he knows what it is, he said: “Well obviously. How can you not have heard of it? What country do you live in? Every single Chinese around here has it on a sign outside.”

I ask the rest of my kids and any other random teenagers who arrive at the house during the week and the answer is pretty much the same.

However, not a single adult appears to have a clue. My husband thinks it is a flavour bag for popping in with meat.

My research continues in the local, in the shops, in the office and at the school gates and not a single person over the age of ‘living with their parents and combating adolescent acne’ knows what it is. In actual fact, a spice bag turns out to be salt and chilli chips and other spices with shredded chicken in a light batter in a bag.

Aisling O’Brien of JustEat.ie tells me: “The first order we got was in 2012. It really grew in 2013, then in 2014, it just quadrupled. We were getting about 500 orders for spice bags a week. The rumour is that it started in Carlow. We don’t know if it’s an urban myth. Some people say it started in Tallaght. The popularity is mainly in Dublin and in Leinster, but it’s going outside there now.”

It seems incredible that a dish only invented a couple of years ago could be more popular than the other top takeaway dishes which, this year, were chicken tikka masala, meat feast pizza, chicken balls, three-in-one and chicken curry.

Candy See Fen Wong of Chopsticks restaurant in Skerries with Emily Diebold.
Candy See Fen Wong of Chopsticks restaurant in Skerries with Emily Diebold.

The rise of the spice bag truly is a phenomenon. So this week, in the spirit of good journalism, and also as a welcome excuse not to have to cook dinner, I decide to order spice bags.

The kids are not very enthusiastic about having it for dinner, so it doesn’t bode well. “It’s just cheap Chinese where they throw anything in. The last one I had was awful,” was one weary response.

“Why don’t YOU just get one in case it’s horrible and the rest of us will order something good,” was another.

Happily ignoring their protests, I find myself around at our favourite Chinese in Skerries, Chopsticks, to order six spice bags. They cost €7.50 each.

Proprietor Jimmy Johnston tells me: “It was about a year and a half ago that people started asking for it and we didn’t even know what it was. So we went around the other Chinese restaurants in Skerries. Two of them were rotten, but one was really nice, so we did some research and based it on that. We’re proud of our spice bag. We think it’s really good. We also made sure we had the right type of bag.”

“They’re very popular with younger people and it’s growing all the time. It’s a dry dish, so you can walk around the town eating it. Now if you’ve left the pub and you’re hungry, instead of going for a bag of chips, people are coming in here for a spice bag for the walk home.

“I find when people try it for the first time they are amazed at how much they like it. It’s been on the printed menu for just over a year and a half now,” he says.

Manager Candy See Fen Wong says she takes about 20 orders for it on a busy night and this is increasing all the time. Jimmy invites me into the kitchen to see the chefs tossing the chips, chicken, veg and spices in a large wok. He explains that all the ingredients are fresh and the chips have to be perfect.

It smells really good. But how does it taste? Back at the house, the clan are gathered around the table. My husband, unable to resist has had a quick taste on the drive home and is already a fan.

The chips are hot and crispy, the shredded chicken is delicious and the whole thing is very spicy. It is in a foil-lined bag to keep it hot and the portions are huge. There is definitely enough for two in each bag.

Even my reluctant 16-year-old is impressed, though not willing to admit he was wrong.

“This is a high-class spice bag,” he announces. “This is really good, but it is nothing like the other spice bag I tried.”

He is probably right: as it is a new dish with no standard recipe, there will be huge variation between restaurants and also there are always going to be good Chinese restaurants and bad Chinese restaurants.

Chopsticks is definitely a good one and they know how to do a great spice bag.

Herald

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