From Bacon and Cabbage to Coddle: What is Ireland's national dish?
As the world celebrates being Irish today, our reporter searches for a definitive answer to our culinary identity
Published 17/03/2016 | 02:30
Here's a conundrum: if you had visitors in town - I mean visitors who you liked and wanted to have a good time - and they asked where they should go to eat our national Irish dish, where would you send them?
The challenge in answering that question is of course figuring out what our national Irish dish is. If we were Stateside, you could pack them off to a really great burger joint. Or you could suggest a mean goulash, schnitzel, pot au feu or roast beef and trimmings, depending on which European country you were in. But what is our Irish equivalent? Do we even have one dish that is beloved of the nation?
That question might have been easier to answer a decade or two ago, before Irish food was something we began to take collective pride in. Back in my days as a waiter in Celtic Tiger restaurants, tourists would frequently ask where they might go to eat Irish food, perhaps washed down with a pint of plain.
We'd suppress our giggles and wonder, why on earth would you want to eat Irish food? But we were perfectly happy to direct the tourists to Temple Bar to eat stew in an Oirish pub, just so long as we didn't have to join them.
Times have changed. Now we're all foodies and newly proud of our excellent Irish ingredients, our fast-evolving restaurant scene and our emerging modern Irish cuisine. Sure wasn't a young Irish chef recently crowned the S. Pellegrino Young Chef 2015 for a modernist celeriac dish inspired by Irish stout?
Since winning the title, Mark Moriarty has been representing us Irish on the global culinary stage. He often asks his international audiences what foods they associate Ireland with and the answer remains 'potatoes and alcohol' - reminding us that the international reputation of our cuisine still has a way to go.
"But," he tells me, "more than a particular dish, we're becoming renowned for our larder: for being a country with really good food produce."
And there's something else that you will find the length and breadth of the country, he argues. "Perhaps our 'national dish' is more the hospitality side - Ireland is really good for having fun and being looked after, which is almost more important than the food and often one of the more overlooked aspects of eating out."
A fair point, and generous for a chef to make, but it doesn't answer our conundrum. I put the question to another national food hero who frequently represents us overseas: Cavan-based chef, Neven Maguire.
"There's certainly a perception that we eat a lot of corned beef, beef in Guinness, Irish stew or bacon and cabbage."
So would a visitor find any of those more traditional dishes on Neven's menu in MacNean House?
"We might do a variation of Irish stew with a trio of lamb, but people don't go out to eat comfort food that you could cook at home."
Maybe it's time to follow that well-worn tourist trail in pursuit of traditional Irish fare.
"I'm 27 years in Temple Bar and the changes I've seen are incredible," says Padraig Og Gallagher of Gallagher's Boxty House. "The food in Ireland today is of spectacular quality and value. We're finally embracing what we have, which is really good produce."
As its name suggests, his restaurant specialises in boxty, the potato cake particular to border counties such as Leitrim, Cavan and Fermanagh. It's a versatile dish that can be boiled, baked or cooked in the pan.
"I grew up eating boxty on its own with a bit of honey or sugar," says Padraig Og, "but in the restaurant we serve it lots of different ways: we make boxty dumplings and treat it like gnocchi, or treat the loaf like bruschetta and top it with St Tola's goat's cheese."
Could this be our national dish? Even Padraig Og, who admits his natural bias, concedes that the regional specialty is not really a contender. "Potatoes only arrived here 400 years ago, after all." He puts his money on bacon and cabbage. "The cabbage was here long before the potato, and bacon goes back aeons," he tells me, explaining that the pig was Ireland's animal of choice, from the wild boar of medieval diets up to more recent centuries when it became domesticated.
"The pig was easy to keep. He ate everything so you could feed him the scraps. He lived in the house and was slaughtered during the meitheal, when the community would use every part of it: the old saying went that the only part of the pig you couldn't eat was the squeal.
"Our customers are looking for something traditional but a little different," Padraig Og explains, so they can have a tasting board of three types of stews (Irish Lamb Stew, Guinness Beef Stew and Dublin Coddle) or perhaps pan-seared corned beef with a contemporary twist sauce of wholegrain mustard and Stonewell Irish Cider, and a side of violet potato and black kale hash.
Despite it being a dish most Irish-Americans would associate with the home turf, corned beef doesn't count as a national dish. Indeed, while "all the colonies were built on corned beef" it was not something that we ate here in Ireland, as Padraig explains.
"In 1667, the British banned the export of live animals from Ireland to the 'mainland' so we had all these animals.
"We also had a cheap tax rate on salt, and could import the best salt from Portugal, so we used that to preserve our beef for export. It was so good that during the Napoleonic wars, both navies would provision in Cork to feed their colonies."
Elaine Murphy of The Winding Stair believes that corned beef is making a comeback via our globe-trotting generation.
"Young Irish people are discovering a love for it through the salt-beef sandwich craze," she says. They don't serve it in The Winding Stair, but she's proud to serve the spiced beef that she remembers her grandfather making in his Clonakilty butcher shop. "For years it was limited to Cork, but it's great to see it making a comeback."
When The Winding Stair first opened, they featured a lot of 'peasant dishes' on their daytime menu, but Elaine explains that "we've moved away from bacon and cabbage and stews because we found our customers don't want to eat a stew in a restaurant."
They do however often serve a version of what she believes constitutes our national dish. "To me a national dish is what the majority of people would eat at least once a month. That's probably fish and chips which interestingly came to us from the UK through the Italian immigrants."
The Winding Stair often serve ray and chips, which has strong Dublin associations, or the more "national historical dish" of smoked haddock poached in milk with onions, which they serve with a cheddar mash.
You'll also find spiced beef in one of our best fine-dining restaurants, Chapter One, where Cork-born chef-patron Ross Lewis serves a carpaccio of spiced beef from Tom Durkan in Cork's English market. But for the most traditional Irish food, he believes that the Farmgate Cafe in the heart of the English Market "wins it hands down."
"The menu is all local foods, whether steaming plates of stew, tripe and drisheen or oysters from the market. If I was to bring highbrow chefs, who typically want to eat the most basic tasty food stuffs of a country, that's where I'd bring them."
Further south, Mark Murphy's Dingle Cookery School offers classes in traditional Irish cooking, covering local dishes like the Kerry apple cake and traditional mutton pie served in a hot broth, as well as using seaweed in cooking, a tradition that's making a comeback. What's more, Mark tells us that he knows where to get a mean take on what seems to be the closest thing to our national dish. "The Marine Inn in Dingle does bacon and cabbage like it's supposed to be, using local butcher Paidie Moriarty's traditionally cured bacon. It's good pork, not overly salted, and served with cabbage and a proper parsley sauce."
Throw in some potatoes and pints, and you have the makings of a fine dinner. Even with the emergence of world-class restaurants and chefs who are embracing our well-stocked Irish larder, perhaps our pubs still have an integral part to play in our national diet after all.