Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

Irish Food


Conservative Irish cookery in the home has not moved far from the traditional staples known and enjoyed for centuries. The earliest staples were oatmeal, dairy products, and leeks. Oatmeal is still used; dairy products are still favored, although tea and stout are more popular as beverages; leeks still appear in traditional dishes, although they have been widely replaced by onions. The biggest change over the centuries was the replacement of oatmeal with potatoes. Fish was and continues to be the principal source of protein (next to milk) because it is readily available and generally less expensive than meat. To most Irish, “meat” most often means variety meats, sausages or pork products, not by preference, but for economic reasons. So adept are the Irish at putting together a satisfying meal economically, that at least this Irish saying is based more on fact than legend: “When it comes to knocking up a light savory meal you can’t beat the Irish.” But increasingly the spice shelf and supply of herbs and vegetables are expanding.


Milk is used in cooking oatmeal and making soups. Buttermilk is a beverage often taken with a light vegetable meal. Cottage cheese, called “curds,” is eaten occasionally and used in Irish curdcake, a type of cheesecake made with curds, eggs and flavored with butter and lemon, all baked in a pastry shell. Local Irish cheeses are gaining heightened appreciation.


Apples are the most popular fruit and are used in applecakes, fruit fools, flummery, and the toffee apples prepared especially for Halloween. Oranges are a special treat, not daily fare. Blends of fruits, such as plums and apples, and berries are made into preserves.

Potatoes are the number one vegetable; although many others are available, they are not used in quantity. Cabbage, carrots, and onions are used year round because of their keeping qualities, but purple broccoli, asparagus, chicory (Belgian endive), endive (curly green leaves), leeks, kohlrabi, marrows, mushrooms, peas, and parsnips also are used. Stoke is a sea “spinach” which must be cooked four to five hours, and dulse (also called dillisk or dillesk) is a type of reddish brown seaweed often added to soups, fish or vegetable dishes or mashed potatoes (dulse champ).

The variety of delicious and satisfying dishes produced from and with potatoes makes their popularity understandable. People near the sea enjoy potatoes freshly boiled in seawater, and boiled potatoes often form at least a part, if not the main part, of a meal. Whether boiled in seawater or saltwater, their appeal is national. Champ is a mound of hot mashed potatoes served in a soup plate with a pool of melting fresh butter; each spoonful of potato is dipped in the butter. Colcannon is a dish of Scottish origin, using mashed potatoes and other vegetables (usually cabbage or turnip) well cooked and blended with the potato. Leftover cooked potatoes may thicken a soup or stew, or be blended with flour to form a potato dough or bread, or formed into patties to be fried as pancakes called boxty bread or boxty pancakes. Cumberland pie is a hearty dish of two layers of the potato pastry filled with rolled slices of bacon and beaten eggs, all well baked. Haggerty is another main dish made with thinly sliced potatoes and onions fried in bacon fat to form a large crisply browned cake. Dublin coddle, a traditional Saturday night dish guaranteed to prevent hangovers, is a piping hot casserole (like a thick soup) of bacon and sausages topped with sliced potatoes and onions.

Casseroles, vegetable dishes, pancakes, and soups do not complete the lengthy list of uses for potatoes. Ingenious Irish cooks have developed delicious recipes using potatoes – usually leftover cooked ones – in pastries, cakes, biscuits and breads. A mouth watering baked pudding is called potato-apple cake, layers of sliced apples between a potato “pastry” sweetened with sugar and spiced with ginger, are baked till golden brown and the apples meltingly tender. This is almost a meal, served hot with sweet cream. It wouldn’t be unusual to have a three-course meal with potato in some form in each dish!


Pork is the country mainstay and a favorite throughout Ireland. But budgets seldom permit roasts, chops, and other expensive cuts. The ingenuity of the Irish cook, however, produces a proliferation of delicious dishes based on trotters (pig’s feet), Bath chaps (cured cheeks and tongues eaten breaded and fried), brawn (pig’s head cooked in spicy broth then chopped and gelled), griskins (odds and ends of pork trimmings pounded flat then breaded and fried), and the wide use of bacon fat to flavor dishes based on cereal or vegetables.

Beef is enjoyed but expensive for frequent use. Mince is the name given to ground beef, brisket is used for simmered corned beef and cabbage, while spiced beef is a traditional Christmas treat. Chickens are used occasionally, mostly in soups or stewed dishes, and goose is a holiday specialty. Game finds its way to the table less often: quail, grouse, hare, pheasant, snipe, partridge, woodcock, duck, and venison. Local lamb is increasingly enjoyed.

Herring is a regular part of the diet and Irish fish soups are a specialty. Lough negh pollan (a fresh-water herring) and potted or soused herring make good companions to potatoes. Fish that is baked slowly in a pickling mixture keeps well and may he eaten hot or cold: this is called potted or soused. Many other fish are readily available: mackerel, trout, cod, haddock, whiting, flatfish, and smoked or fresh eels. Willicks or willocks are winkles or periwinkles that have been boiled in seawater then eaten out of their shells with a pin, sometimes accompanied with vinegar and salt or lightly dipped in fine oatmeal. Blocking and lythe are two fish commonly sold dried and filleted. Crab and lobster are available but the large Dublin prawns, whose fat tails are sometimes exported as scampi, are special favorites, as are freshly shucked oysters.

Eggs are enjoyed with ham, bacon, or sausages, often as a breakfast dish, but more often as a dinner. Eggs are also a frequent ingredient in other dishes. Peas and dried beans are used less frequently. Nuts cannot be considered a protein source as they are infrequently used in baking, and only on special occasions (Halloween) as a treat.


A hot cereal for breakfast in Ireland means oatmeal. Oats and wheat flour (often wholegrain wheat) are used widely in preparing the many breads and biscuits that are a part of most meals and always accompany tea. Frequently, fine oatmeal or coarse wheat flour kneaded into leftover mashed potatoes will form the dough for a stomach filling bread or even a main dish piecrust.


Bacon fat is the most widely used fat for cooking and baking and even as a spread. Butter is used when it can be afforded, most often to lend taste. Increasingly, oil is finding its way to Irish kitchens.


Traditionally, simple cooked fruit desserts, custards and milk puddings made with carageen (a fresh moss used as a thickening agent), and bread puddings are the usual desserts. Cakes are for special occasions only (Christmas and weddings) and most baked goods are not heavily sweetened if they are indeed sweet at all. Honey, treacle (molasses), and white sugar are the usual sweeteners. Yellowman is the traditional Irish sweet: a hard candy similar to the brittle in peanut brittle. Sugar is also consumed in tea. The Irish also enjoy homemade jams and jellies eaten with breads and biscuits. Newer Irish cuisine is borrowing gourmet recipes and using fresh Irish fruits and cream to create spectacular delights.


The Irish spice shelf is a small one but growing! Salt and pepper together with onions and leeks are the daily seasonings. Caraway seeds are used in breads, cakes, and pancakes, cinnamon and nutmeg and mace enhance rich festive fruitcakes together with nuts, dried fruits, and currants. Butter and bacon fat also add flavor to vegetables and fish. More recently, fresh herbs, more spices and even garlic and butter simmered vegetables are being enjoyed and not just by tourists.


Tea is the beverage accompanying every meal and most snacks. The Irish have a reputation for their love of alcoholic beverages, stout being the usual, but occasionally whiskey or mixed drinks too. The Irish don’t linger over their drinks, the reason perhaps found in one of their many sayings: “Don’t sip a cocktail, drink it quickly while it’s still smilin’ at you!”
Of the milk drinks, buttermilk is enjoyed over whole or skim milk as a drink for refreshment or with meals.

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