To Haggis Or Not To Haggis

May 6, 2019

Haggis. You’ve heard of it, though, if you’re like me, that’s about as far as it goes.

Previously, I had a faint awareness of the side dish common in Scotland. As I learned more about ancestors hailing from the old country my curiosity grew; however, upon catching snippets about heart and liver stuffed into sheep’s stomach--that curiosity waned.

Still, during a recent trip to Edinburgh and the highlands in Scotland, I determined to give haggis a go. I even consulted with native Scots to get the low-down on the ancient recipe. Here’s what Stephen, our excellent tour bus guide, had to say:

“Haggis is our national dish. Normally you would have haggis mixed with potatoes and turnip, we call it haggis, tatties, and neep. The taste of haggis itself, first of all, most of it is oatmeal. It comes from many centuries ago, people didn’t want to waste any of the animal, so you would mix things you would traditionally describe as offal: heart, lungs, liver things we might throw away. We cut that up and cook it with the haggis, which I know it doesn’t sound on first hearing particularly tasty.”

Upon arriving in Edinburgh, opportunities to try the national dish were plentiful, with a ‘full Scottish breakfast’ headlining the menu at our hotel. While my husband ordered it without reservation, I needed a practice run, opting for the vegetarian haggis and wondering what in the world would show up on my plate.

We both learned a ‘full Scottish breakfast’ is a close cousin to a ‘full English breakfast’ of back bacon, eggs, grilled tomatoes, fried mushrooms and bangers (or sausages). Oh, and black pudding--though that could be a discussion for another day. The Scottish version simply adds a round or dollop of haggis to the mix for good measure.

My vegetarian haggis proved innocuous, even mostly agreeable as if rough-cut oatmeal met up with a bag of mixed vegetables for a pre-dawn tango in the blender. Though, compared to its omnivorous counterpart on my husband’s plate, the vegetarian haggis appeared pale and soggy, like it just docked ashore after a stormy crossing on one of the many lochs, or lakes nearby.

Not sure I could stomach an entire serving of traditional haggis, I reached across the table to lift a forkful of my husband’s breakfast. The color was more robust--reddish-brown with bits of oatmeal and onion. The appearance: somewhat like cooked rice, if you mixed it with a bottle of hearty barbeque sauce. I took a bite.

“So when most people taste haggis--if they’ve not been put off by the description which they shouldn’t be--you will get a kind of spicy taste, not a hot spice or curry kind of spice, but most people say that’s kind of surprises them. It’s kind of spicy. And, the texture, if you’ve had porridge it’s a little like that, kind of a rough texture because it’s mostly oats you’re eating.”

Stephen is right. When I tasted haggis, the first thought that crossed my mind was ‘savory mush.’ Though, there’s quickly more to it. While I did not expect the soft and crumbly consistency, the meld of onion, oats, spices and meat quickly filled in with a deep, earthy and nutty richness. Since it is ground, you don’t remain focused on the organ component. Though, like a usual American, I thought about it just enough to be content with a single bite. It’s funny, how we wince at unfamiliar foods while we devour hot dogs between innings at the baseball stadium and pass bags of chicken nuggets to our toddlers in the back seat of the car.

In fact, learning more about the national dish of Scotland made me wonder what comes to mind when they think of food in the United States.

“Ah, well, huge portions is the first thing I think of. Never order a starter.”

He’s got a point. Who needs an appetizer when meals at American restaurants seem portioned to last a week? Stephen also specifically mentioned New York strip steak and great seafood in California and other coastal states he’s visited. But, he remained flummoxed by the sheer volume.

“Enormous portions, why do we need to serve so much. Not that I was complaining, I did eat it all.”