People have often asked me to describe the cuisine of my native country, and I have just as often failed to do so.
Being all at once kinda British and kinda Irish and kinda European, with a lot of Chinese immigrants thrown in for good measure, Northern Ireland has developed a mish-mash of food preferences that could possibly described as Northern Irish cuisine. When I was Couchsurfing, one of the suggested ways of “paying back” the kindness of hosts was to cook them a meal from one’s home country. I was stuck… what could I serve them? A bag of Tayto cheese & onion and a burger with chips and curry sauce?
So, I’ve had a bit of a think about it, and noted the foods that “taste like home” now I’m back, and observed the eating habits of the natives, and come up with this probably-not-comprehensive guide to food in Northern Ireland. (I’ve also been trying – through a manic fitness regime and healthy eating – to lose the weight I (re)gained due to a life of sloth and vodka in Korea, so this post is basically a product of pure hunger.)
Tayto cheese & onion: Probably the most Norn Irish of all Norn Irish foods, these crisps actually have “The Taste of Home” as their advertising slogan. They are made in Tayto Castle (no, really – and you can go there for a tour!) by Mr. Tayto, who is a large, friendly potato with a big smile. He is a familiar character to anyone from Norn Iron, to the extent where giant posters of him adorn the arrivals hall of Belfast International Airport, with the words “Welcome Home!”. Tayto also make many other flavours of crisps and snacks, but nothing will ever surpass Tayto cheese & onion. They have a unique, strong taste, they’re extremely more-ish, and you can’t kiss anyone for 24 hours after eating them.
The Pastie Supper: A pastie, unique to Northern Ireland, is a mixture of minced pork, onions, and probably other things, made into the shape of a burger. It’s then dipped into batter mix and deep fried. When you eat a pastie, your face ends up all shiny with grease, and the paper it was wrapped in is pretty much translucent. I last had a pastie in 1995, which was coincidentally the same year that I first realised how many calories were in one.
As for the “supper” part, that means “with chips” (thick-cut fries) in Norn Irish. Like “meal” or “set” in other parts of the world. Fish suppers are also popular, as are sausage suppers. And battered sausage suppers. The pastie can instead be served in a bap (burger bun-shaped roll), making it – duh – a pastie bap.
Curry chips: This is Chinese-Norn Irish fusion at its best. A Chinese takeaway, to me, is (and always will be) the following: beef curry with rice, deep fried onion rings, prawn crackers, chips, and mushrooms in gravy. Relatively few of these things, as you may have observed, are actually Chinese, but this is the meal I grew up seeing as a special treat. It is friggin’ delicious, horrendously bad for your health, and incomplete without any one of the components. For a snack, though, the curry chip is a Norn Iron classic. A polystyrene carton or foil container full of thick, hot, fluffy chips, with a few ladlefuls of Chinese curry sauce dolloped over them. Variations include the ‘Chip, Pea, Onion, Curry Sauce’, and the ‘half and half with curry sauce’ (that’s half chips, half rice).
There are Chinese restaurants and takeaways on just about every street in the country. Even the most remote village will have one. 95% of them are called the Golden something or the Happy something. We love our “Chinese” food, so we do.
The Ulster Fry: Every region of the British Isles has its own version of the fry(-up), usually eaten for breakfast, but served all day in many pubs and cafes. The Ulster one generally includes: sausages, bacon, fadge (potato bread, see below), soda (not a drink, see below), black pudding, white pudding, tomato, egg, and sometimes mushrooms, baked beans, and vegetable roll (which has very little to do with vegetables).
I’m aware that some of these items will be unfamiliar to my non-Norn Irish readers, so…
- Fadge/potato bread: Not actually bread. You wouldn’t go and buy a loaf of potato bread, for example. It’s a delicious, stodgy substance made by mixing flour and mashed potatoes into a dough, rolling it out, cutting it into ‘farls’, and frying them. It really is gorgeous stuff. I got mad cravings for it when I was in Korea, and was delighted to discover how simple it is to make.
- Soda: If you say ‘soda’ to a Norn Irish person, they will instantly think of the floury, chewy, heavy bread that is best served fried. As well as being an Ulster Fry ingredient, the soda farl can also be turned into a fried breakfast on the go – sliced open and stuffed with sausages, bacon, and egg.
- Black and white puddings: Fairly similar in taste, and both served in small, round slices, these are tasty oatmealy thingies – the black one is made using pork blood, and the white one using fat and suet.
- Vegetable roll: Thick round slices of beef sausage meat mixed with chopped vegetables (leek and onion, I believe). This stuff is addictive, and so – as with most foods I love – I can’t let myself eat it because then I won’t stop.
Absolutely nothing about the Ulster Fry is remotely healthy, except maybe… no, nothing. It’s a heart attack on a plate. I used to have one every Saturday morning at my granny’s house, when I was a skinny wee girl who could eat whatever she wanted with no consequences. Once I hit my teens, the weekly Fry had to become a thing of the past, and now I have one maybe once or twice a year. And it’s grilled now, not fried… but still double your entire daily calorie allowance, I’ll wager.
Spaghetti bolognese: I quite possibly assumed this was a local dish when I was a child. Spag Bol is one of the most popular meals in the country, and nearly everyone (including me) has their own preferred recipe. My mum gave me a list of simple recipes when I first left home to go to uni, and I developed my Spag Bol recipe from hers. I could eat it every night of the week without getting sick of it.
Veda: This is the first food on my list that I don’t particularly like, but it’s definitely a Norn Iron staple. It’s a very soft, brownish-coloured, malty loaf, found in most kitchens across the land. It’s usually eaten as a snack, in thick slices with butter and either jam or cheese. I’ve never liked it, probably because it’s on the sweet side and I don’t have much of a sweet tooth – but many people I know eat it regularly.
Champ: Yes, more potatoes! Champ (mashed potatoes made creamy with milk and butter, with chopped scallions mixed through) can be served in various ways, often with sausages or bacon. In my family, it was always served as a meal on its own. A big pile of champ and a glass of milk each, and a butter dish in the middle of the table. What you do is create a hole in the centre of your champ, and then put a lump of butter in the hole. Around the edge of the champ, you carefully pour some of the milk from your glass, so that it looks like a moat around a glorious potatoey castle protecting the golden butter treasure within. You eat it by taking a spoonful of champ, dipping it in the butter, and scooping up a little of the milk. The combination of the hot, creamy potatoes, the tangy scallions, the melting butter, and the ice-cold milk is out of this world. And you can practically hear your left ventricle slamming shut, too.
Sausage rolls and wee buns: Bakeries are very important in Northern Ireland. I can easily resist the cakes, donuts, and sticky “wee buns” (cupcakes) due to my afore-mentioned lack of a sweet tooth, but they seem to be a great weakness for the majority of my fellow citizens. There are wee buns at any social event or gathering, and you’ll be practically force-fed them with your cuppa tay when you visit your great aunt. I may not share the nation’s adoration of sweet baked goods, but when it comes to savoury baked goods… oh, curse this healthy eating malarkey! Sausage rolls are one of my major downfalls in this world, honestly. I’ve had to ban them from my life, because otherwise they tend to take over and shrink all my clothes. Spiced, hot sausage meat wrapped in light, flaky pastry… definitely one of my top ten foods in the whole world, I’m telling you.
I have got to abandon this post now, because I’m absolutely starving and I now want to cry at the thought of all the sausage rolls and curries and crisps that are in shops and restaurants all around this very country at this very moment, waiting to be eaten.
I’m off to have a rice cracker, so.