Irish cuisine can be divided into two main categories – traditional, mainly simple dishes, and more modern dishes, as served in restaurants and hotels.
Colcannon is a good dish made of potato and one of wild garlic (the earliest form), cabbage or curly kale, (compare bubble and squeak). Champ consists of mashed potato into which chopped scallions (spring onions) are mixed.
Other examples of simple Irish meals are Irish stew, and also bacon and cabbage (boiled together in water). Boxty, a type of potato pancake, is another traditional dish. A dish mostly particular to Dublin is coddle, which involves boiled pork sausages. Ireland is famous for the Irish breakfast, a fried (or grilled) meal generally comprising bacon, egg, sausage, black and white pudding, fried tomato and which may also include fried potato farls or fried potato slices.
While seafood has always been consumed by Irish people, shellfish dishes have increased in popularity in recent times, especially due to the high quality of shellfish available from Ireland's coastline, e.g. Dublin Bay Prawns, Oysters (many oyster festivals are held annually around the coast where oysters are often served with Guinness, the most notable being held in Galway every September ) as well as other crustaceans. A good example of an Irish dish for shellfish is Dublin Lawyer - Lobster cooked in whiskey and cream. Salmon and cod are perhaps the two most common types of fish used.
Traditional Irish breads include soda bread, wheaten bread, soda farls, and blaa, a doughy white bread roll particular to Waterford.
List of traditional food and drink
Food in early Ireland
There are many references to food and drink in early Irish literature. Honey seems to have been widely eaten and used in the making of mead. The old stories also contain many references to banquets, although these may well be greatly exaggerated and provide little insight to every diet. There are also many references to fulacht fiadh. These were sites for cooking deer, and consisted of holes in the ground which were filled with water. The meat was placed in the water and cooked by the introduction of hot stones. Many fulacht fiadh sites have been identified across the island of Ireland, and some of them appear to have been in use up to the 17th century.
Excavations at the Viking settlement in the Wood Quay area of Dublin have produced a significant amount of information on the diet of the inhabitants of the town. The main meats eaten were cattle, sheep and pigs. Poultry and wild geese as well as fish and shellfish were also common, as were a wide range of native berries and nuts, especially hazel. The seeds of knotgrass and goosefoot were widely present and may have been used to make a porridge.
From the Middle Ages, until the arrival of the potato in the latter half of the 17th century, the dominant feature of the rural economy was the herding of cattle. The meat produced was mostly the preserve of the gentry and nobility. The poor generally made do with milk, butter, cheese, and offal, supplemented with oats and barley. The practice of bleeding cattle and mixing the blood with milk and butter (not unlike the practice of the Maasai) was not uncommon. Black pudding, made from blood, grain (usually barley) and seasoning remains a breakfast staple in Ireland.
The potato in Ireland
Potatoes form the basis for many traditional Irish dishes
The potato was introduced into Ireland in the second half of the 16th century, initially as a garden crop. It eventually came to be the main food crop of the poor. As a food source, the potato is extremely valuable in terms of the amount of energy produced per unit area of crop. The potato is also a good source of many vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin C (especially when fresh).
Potatoes were cultivated by much of the populace at a subsistence level and the diet of this period consisted mainly of potatoes supplemented with buttermilk. Potatoes were also used as a food for pigs that were fattened-up and slaughtered at the approach of the cold winter months. Much of the slaughtered pork would have been cured to provide ham and bacon that could be stored over the winter.
The reliance on potatoes as a staple crop meant that the people of Ireland were vulnerable to poor potato harvests. Consequently several famines occurred throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. The first Great Famine of 1739 was the result of extreme cold weather but the famine of 1846 to 1849 (see Great Irish Famine) was caused by potato blight which easily spread throughout the Irish crop which was heavily dependent on a single variety, the Lumper. Nearly 1,000,000 people died and another 2,000,000 emigrated, and some 3,000,000 people were left destitute.
Fresh meat was generally considered a luxury except for the most affluent until the late 19th century and chickens were not raised on a large scale until the emergence of town grocers in the 1880s allowed people to exchange surplus goods, like eggs, and for the first time purchase a variety food items to diversify their diet.
Traditional foods such as stews are sometimes disparagingly referred to as "famine food" – suitable for basic sustenance only.
Food in Ireland today
In the 20th century the usual modern selection of foods common to Western culture has been adopted in Ireland. Europe's dishes have influenced the country, along with other world dishes introduced in a similar fashion to the rest of the western world. Common meals include pizza, curry, Chinese food, and lately, some West African dishes and East European (especially Polish) dishes have been making an appearance. Supermarket shelves now contain ingredients for traditional, European, American (Mexican/Tex-Mex), Indian, Chinese and other dishes.
The proliferation of fast food has led to increasing public health problems including obesity, and one of the highest rates of heart disease in the world. Traditional Irish food and diet is also somewhat to blame, with a large emphasis on meat and butter. Government efforts to combat this have included television advertising campaigns and education programmes in schools.
In tandem with these developments, the last quarter of the 20th century saw the emergence of a new Irish cuisine based on traditional ingredients handled in new ways. This cuisine is based on fresh vegetables, fish (especially salmon and trout), oysters, mussels and other shellfish, traditional soda bread, the wide range of hand-made cheeses that are now being made across the country, and, of course, the potato. Traditional dishes, such as Irish stew, coddle, the Irish breakfast, and potato bread have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. Schools like the Ballymaloe Cookery School have emerged to cater for the associated increased interest in cooking.
While corned beef and cabbage is a traditional St. Patricks Day dish in America, bacon and cabbage was historically more commonly had among the Irish not of noble rank due to pork's greater availability than beef to most Irish. Corned beef, rather than bacon, became far more popular in Irish American households than it ever was in Ireland since beef was more readily available than it would have been in Ireland and immigrants had difficulty obtaining bacon or pork.
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