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      A Guide to Haggis

      Haggis! It’s spicy, crumbly and Scotland’s most infamous and iconic dish. Learn everything there is to know about this quintessentially Scottish menu item.

      By Meike van Krimpen, Content Editor
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      A Foreigner’s Guide to Haggis

      I’ve spent over ten years living in Scotland, fully embracing all things Scottish like the theatrical landscapes, moody weather, kilts, bagpipes, and the whisky. Haggis? Not so much. It took me a while to get used to this particular part of Scotland’s colourful personality. I remember the first time trying this infamous dish when I was 16 and on holiday in St Andrews. Luckily it was part of a buffet dinner because although I was keen to try it, I was perfectly content with the teaspoon-sized serving I allotted to my plate. I don’t remember it being particularly offensive. A crumbly, vaguely mince-like, spiced substance that didn’t really taste like anything I ever tasted before. Having had my appropriate portion of culture I didn’t try haggis again till nearly 3 years later when I moved to Scotland and I felt I had to be a little braver. Steeling myself, I ordered haggis, neeps, and tatties (a quintessentially Scottish dish) on one of my first dinners out. Again totally palatable, and even quite enjoyable.

      Determined to convince my friends and family at home that haggis was actually nice to eat I took one home for Christmas. Following the instructions I cooked it in a water bath inside the oven, intending to serve it as one of the many of side dishes of the evening. Something went wrong (probably the lack of refrigeration during travel) and it smelled and looked awful, and quickly got banished to the garden table outside for the rest of the evening. It was a truly sorry sight when it started to snow all over it. It took me a while to get over this trauma, but eventually, with some gentle dabbling, I started eating haggis again.

      Although haggis to this day does not feature frequently in my day to day meals, I won’t ever say no to it if put in front of me. I’ll eat haggis at least once annually on Burns Night like most Scots.

      Remembering my own fear of this particular Scottish dish, I put together some easy answers to the most frequently asked questions travellers ask us about haggis. Even if you don’t enjoy it, you won’t regret experiencing this part of Scottish culture and if nothing else you’ll have a war story to share after your travels.

      1. What is Haggis?
      2. What Does Haggis Taste Like?
      3. Is Haggis Safe to Eat?
      4. Is Haggis Healthy?
      5. Did the Scottish Invent Haggis?
      6. Why is Haggis Scotland’s National Dish?
      7. How is Haggis Eaten?
      8. Can Haggis Be Vegetarian?
      9. Is Haggis a Real Animal?

      What is Haggis?

      Traditionally, Haggis comprises of sheep’s offal, mixed with oats, suet, onion, spices, and is cooked inside a sheep’s stomach. Today, the haggis that is widely available in supermarkets and served commonly in restaurants is made from either lamb, beef, pork, or sometimes venison. The stomach has been replaced with artificial casings.

      Common Haggis Ingredients
      • Heart/lung/liver of lamb 
      • Beef or lamb mince or trimmings 
      • Onion
      • Oatmeal 
      • Suet 
      • Salt
      • Black pepper
      • Nutmeg
      • Coriander

       

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      What Does Haggis Taste Like?

      Haggis in the butcher

      Photo Credit: VisitScotland

      Haggis has a terrible reputation which it really doesn’t deserve. It actually tastes good but is definitely a flavour and texture to get used to. It’s a bit like crumbly sausage, and surprisingly peppery. The oats in the mix give it a pleasant earthiness as well as making it a very hearty meal.

      Most people’s aversion to haggis is because of the use of offal and the historical preparation using the stomach. 90% of the time haggis is no longer prepared in an animal’s stomach, so rest assured on that front. Offal is an ingredient people either love or hate. In the case of haggis, the flavour isn’t overly strong as it’s mixed with onions and seasoning like black pepper, coriander, nutmeg, sage, mace and salt. There are various different types of meat dishes from across the world that are similar in ingredients and preparation, most notably Swedish pölsa, English pork faggots (offal meatballs) and black pudding (blood sausage).

      Is Haggis Safe to Eat?

      Haggis like all foods is perfectly safe to eat if prepared correctly. However, there is a common misconception that it isn’t due to a ban on it in the United States. Haggis has been banned from the states since 1971 due to the inclusion of sheep’s lung as the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have labelled lungs as an inedible animal by-product. Lungs are replaced with other offal products when prepared in the US. However, haggis connoisseurs have said that this ruins the taste and texture compared to “real” haggis, arguing that it’s less light and more like a pâté. This is one to test and taste for yourself though.

      Is Haggis Healthy?

      It isn’t unhealthy! The contested inclusion of offal like liver and heart in haggis means that the meaty version is high in vitamins and minerals like iron and magnesium.

      Haggis is usually quite healthy if eaten traditionally as a main meal as it’s accompanied by mashed boiled potatoes and turnips.

      *Haggis does have a high saturated fat and salt content so people should be mindful of portion sizes.

       

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      Did the Scottish Invent Haggis?

      Haggis is not unique to Scotland and Scottish culture. Similar food preparation has taken place since ancient times. The most perishable meat was prepared and eaten immediately with the available dry stored ingredients in a convenient ready-made container, the stomach of the freshly killed animal. Scotland is singular though in its modern-day consumption and celebration of the dish.

      What are other typical Scottish things?

       

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      Why is Haggis Scotland’s National Dish?

      Scotland has Robert Burns’ 1787 poem ‘Address to the Haggis’ to thank for the dish becoming of national importance. Haggis is traditionally served at a Burns Supper, an evening celebrating Scotland’s national poet and all things Scottish. Expect tartan and bagpipes galore. Other factors have also influenced its popularity. An inexpensive and nourishing meal, haggis appealed to the practicality and hardiness of the Scots. The Scottish also claimed haggis as the English rejected it, embracing the dish that the English ridiculed. The most notable outcome of this resistance was the aforementioned poem by Robert Burns which is now recited annually as the haggis is piped into the dining room on the 25th of January.

      How is Haggis Eaten?

      Haggis dinner

      Photo Credit: VisitScotland

      Although the most common way to eat haggis is accompanied with mashed neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes), along with a liberal glug of whisky cream sauce, there are other ways to savour Scotland’s most famed food. On the more traditional side of things, you could try Balmoral Chicken. This is a chicken breast stuffed with haggis and wrapped with bacon, frequently served with a cream sauce. This way you don’t have to commit to a mound of haggis, but get to still have a very Scottish taste experience. Haggis can also be served at a fry-up instead of black pudding – making it a full Scottish rather than a full English. Restaurants have found various ways to incorporate haggis creatively into more contemporary dishes like haggis pizza, haggis flavoured crisps, Indian-style Haggis fritters, and macaroni cheese sprinkled with haggis crumbs.

      Can Haggis Be Vegetarian?

      Yes! You’d surprised to know that haggis is easily adapted to be vegetarian. Depending on the recipe, offal and suet are replaced with fresh vegetables, lentils, beans, mushrooms, and seeds. The inclusion of oats and the seasoning means that the flavour is actually very similar to the meat version.

      Vegetarian haggis is widely available in all supermarkets and usually offered as a substitute in restaurants. Vegetarian haggis is actually an excellent replacement for mince in a variety of dishes – be sure to try spaghetti and veggie haggis balls if you get the chance!

       

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      Is Haggis a Real Animal?

      We wouldn’t blame non-Scots for thinking that haggis is some sort of animal with the way it’s referred to. Any Scottish tour guide will regale you with stories of wild haggis, a fluffy creature roaming the Highlands, said to have one leg which is longer than the other so it can easily run uphill, but only in one direction.

      You can go see a stuffed “specimen” at the Kelvingrove art gallery, alongside a mock cooked haggis. Although much fun has been poked at a limited study in 2003 that reported that a third of American visitors to Scotland believed haggis to be a real animal, a 2019 study revealed that 1 in 10 of Londoners was equally uninformed….

       

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      Meet the Author: Meike van Krimpen

      “Having grown up travelling across the world I’ve developed an addiction to all things spice and to travel! When it was time to go to university I wandered off to Scotland for a new adventure and have not managed to leave yet!”

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