If you’re visiting Edinburgh, you will no doubt encounter haggis in your time here. It’s Scotland’s most beloved, most famous food, a dish surrounded by folklore and mystery – so what exactly is haggis?
Is haggis an animal?
Yes and no. There’s a popular folktale that says a haggis is a wild animal native to the Scottish Highlands. A small, plump creature, with two legs longer than the others, which runs in circles around the mountains, and is notoriously difficult to catch. Unfortunately, that’s all just a story!
Haggis is made from animal produce though, usually sheep, though you may find beef or pork in there sometimes. Specifically, offal. Yes, I know, it doesn’t sound very appealing, but just keep reading!
What’s in haggis?
There’s many misconceptions about which organs are found in haggis, and it’s true that recipes will vary. But traditionally, it’s made from sheep heart, liver, and lungs, mixed up with oats, onions, and spices. These are then stuffed into the sheep’s stomach, although today you’ll often find that it’s a sausage casing instead. This gets boiled, then the casing is sliced open, and the mixture is scooped out again to be served.
And vegetarians, don’t panic – nowadays, you can find many variations on haggis recipes! Especially if you’re visiting Edinburgh, almost every restaurant serving haggis has a vegetarian version available, and there’s vegan and gluten-free options in some places too. Usually these still have the oats, onions, and spices, along with other seeds, pulses, and vegetables. There’s no one set recipe for vegetarian haggis, so it will depend on that particular chef.
What does haggis taste like then?
Firstly, it tastes far better than it sounds, promise! Many people are put off by the ingredient list, but if you set that aside and just give it a try, most are pleasantly surprised. The texture is coarse and crumbly, from all the oats – it’s a little like a minced sausage – but it should also still be moist. The meat is gamey and earthy, and should be quite spicy and peppery as well.
What are its origins?
Haggis is irrevocably connected to Scotland nowadays, but actually there’s not much historic evidence to prove this. It’s more likely to have been a global dish, with variations eaten all over Europe – there’s been suggestions that Romans and Vikings ate similar dishes. It could even date to prehistoric times!
Back before supermarkets, when we all had to go hunting for our dinner, you had to make use of every part of your kill. The offal is the part of an animal that will go bad first, so it had to be used and eaten straight away. And the simplest way to do that was to scoop out all those organs, chop them up, and mix them with your crops and herbs – and hey presto, haggis!
With the arrival of farming, Scotland’s rugged Highland landscapes are best suited for sheep – fun fact, we actually have a larger sheep population than human! So it made sense for that to become the usual main ingredient, and avoid wasting any part of the animal.
How do you cook haggis?
If you’re coming to Edinburgh on holiday, then you’ll find haggis on the menu of most restaurants – we can show you the best of them on our food tour! However, you can also try cooking it yourself. You can buy a haggis from a butcher or some supermarkets. You then have to simmer it in a pot of water for several hours, taking care not to burst the casing. Alternatively, you can bake it in a dish of water, or even microwave it. There’s plenty of haggis recipes available online for more detailed instructions!
What do you eat haggis with?
Just about anything! Well, traditionally haggis is served with neeps and tatties, which are simply the Scots words for turnips and potatoes, both of which would be mashed in this case. You can get this as a full main course, or nowadays you’ll often see it in a mini starter version, arranged in a little stack. However, it’s actually a very versatile food, so we get creative with it…
It’s popularly used as a sort of stuffing – for instance, Balmoral chicken is a chicken breast stuffed with haggis, and it can be used in Scotch eggs in place of the sausage meat. Or, try haggis bon bons, balls, and croquettes. If you want to get really adventurous, you might try haggis flavoured crisps, deep fried haggis, or in burgers, pizzas, lasagna, pakoras, curry, nachos, burritos… we’ve found ways to put it in everything!
Why is haggis famously Scottish then?
We Scots do love our haggis, although contrary to stereotype, we don’t eat it all the time! You’ll most often find it at special dinners and events, or sometimes at a ceilidh (Scottish dance and music). The reason it’s become so beloved here though is down to the poet Robert “Rabbie” Burns. He wrote a huge collection of poetry and songs in his short life during the 18th century, and one of his most famous is the ‘Address to a Haggis’. To summarise, it’s a poem about how fantastic haggis is, and no, I’m not kidding.
Burns is celebrated every year on his birthday, 25th January, known as Burns Night. People attend Burns Suppers, where we recite his poetry, sing his songs, drink plenty of whisky, and eat – what else?- haggis! So, after a bagpiper leads the dish around the room, someone recites the ‘Address to a Haggis’ to it, before the main meal is served. Sounds mad, but it’s quite a special event!
Want to give haggis a try for yourself then? Of course, it features on The Orange Food Tour, in one of Edinburgh’s best restaurants, along with many other excellent Scottish dishes!
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