Before I came to Ireland, I must admit, the extent of my knowledge of Irish food was probably about the same as that of most other Americans. I thought of rich beef stews, Guinness, butter, Irish soda bread, and of course, potatoes. Funny enough, Irish people really do love their Guinness and spuds (and they are delicious here), but I am pleased to report that there is much more to Irish food than delicious carbs.
The other day during dinner prep I asked Jess and Shane what they think Irish food is. It was a bit of a loaded question. Even though Jess didn’t grow up in Ireland, she spoke passionately about how Ireland actually has really rich culinary traditions, but a lot of them were lost during the famines in the mid-1800s when the British took nearly all of what the Irish grew and produced. (Side note, Shane grew up in England and he said they don’t teach students about the famine in schools, no surprise there.)
To learn a bit more about how Ireland’s food is tied to its social history, Jess gave me the book Ireland’s Green Larderby Margaret Hickey. I’m only a few pages into the introduction, but I’m looking forward to digging into the rest of the chapters, each named after a central food group in Irish traditions – “Bog Butter and Sour Milk,” “On the Hoof,” “The Potato and the Famine,” “Strong Drink and Pots of Tea,” and “Food and the Spirit,” to name a few.
I’ll try to share some interesting bits and pieces about Ireland’s food history in a latter post, but for now, I want to focus on what Irish food is today.
I’m in Ireland at an exciting time in its culinary history. While Ireland isn’t exactly renowned for specific dishes, people are starting to realize that what makes Irish food so special is its ingredients. Steady rain, happy animals, and smaller non-industrial family farms help keep Ireland full year-round with a bounty of rich ingredients.
Restaurants and shops in both cities and small towns make it clear when ingredients are grown or produced in Ireland. At Kai, we highlight not only the ingredients, but also the people who grow and produce the ingredients. A daily menu may feature Steve’s Leaves, Ronan’s Chicken, Toby’s Burratta, Jeremiah’s Sourdough, Pirouette Apples, Hispi Cabbage, or Offaly Pumpkins, to let you know you’re not just eating something grown on the other side of the world.
And yet, despite Ireland’s past and present “green larder,” it’s food is just now gaining recognition from food writers and travelers. I think part of that is because it’s still hard to define “what (modern) Irish food is.” On a basic level, many food writers and food-drawn travelers like to be able to simplify a region/country’s “authentic” foods into basic categories. France – bread, croissants, wine, cheese… Japan – sushi, udon, ramen, tonkatsu… Spain – tapas… New Orleans – beignets, po boys…etc.
But for Ireland, potatoes, stews, and butter are only so enticing. The amazing ingredients and the farmers, the real stars of the show are harder to reduce into a one or two sentence tag-line.
I actually see a few parallels between modern Irish food and California cuisine, particularly that of Los Angeles. Not too long ago, California was laughed at by more prominent US food destinations like New York, New Orleans, and Chicago. That was, until pioneering chefs like Alice Waters, Jeremiah Towers, Wolfgang Puck, and others showed the world that California has something nowhere else can rival – damn good produce. Since then, California cuisine has been defined by a use of seasonal, and local ingredients where preparations that let the ingredients shine through trump classical French techniques.
Another similarity between California and Irish food (that I haven’t totally thought through yet) is the immigrant experience. While the whole of Ireland is not nearly as ethnically diverse as California is, major cities like Dublin and Galway welcome people from diverse backgrounds. You might not see a Turkish Kebab or Vietnamese noodle shop pop up on the Ireland Michelin Guide, but I’m curious to see how the growing international population influences the direction that modern Irish food takes.
I don’t want to make it seem like every restaurant in Ireland is like Kai and uses strictly Irish ingredients, and I certainly don’t want to belittle Ireland’s past food history, but I do want to think through why, in the US many people (myself included) are not giving Ireland the credit it deserves when we think of Irish food. Why people automatically questioned why I chose Ireland as one of my Watson countries. And why it’s important that people both in and out of Ireland see that the strength of Irish food is in the ingredients and the people who produce the ingredients.
Like I said, I’m still thinking through all of this, but I’m pretty confident that you’ll be hearing more about Ireland in food news and media in the future.
In the meantime, please enjoy some pictures of me frolicking with goats, chasing mushrooms, and just generally enjoying life in Ireland (sorry for the poor formatting on the pictures).