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Photo: The Scotsman

What is Haggis?

Haggis, the national dish of Scotland, a type of pudding composed of the liver, heart, and lungs of a sheep (or other animals), minced and mixed with beef or mutton suet and oatmeal and seasoned with onion, cayenne pepper, and other spices. The mixture is packed into a sheep’s stomach and boiled, as cited by Britannica.

Haggis is inexpensive, savoury, and nourishing. In the 21st-century haggis is served with some ceremony, even bagpipes, particularly on Burns Night (held annually on January 25, Burns’s birthday) and Hogmanay, as the Scots call their New Year’s celebrations.

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Haggis served on Burns Night. Photo: The Telegraph

Origin of Haggis

Though regarded since the mid-18th century as a distinctively Scottish dish, it was long popular in England, as English writer Gervase Markham (c. 1568–1637) testified in The English Huswife (1615). Its origin, however, is still more ancient, for Marcus Apicius, Aristophanes, and even Homer allude to dishes of similar composition. The derivation of the term haggis, first attested in the 15th century, is unknown.

Perhaps more than any other food, haggis has an exceptionally bad reputation. This Scottish national dish—a mix of sheep’s innards, oatmeal and spices, all wrapped up in a sheep stomach—has been the butt of jokes for years. It’s a dish that people love to hate, even if some of those critics haven’t had a chance to taste it in over 40 years. That’s because importing real Scottish haggis to the United States has been illegal since 1971, thanks to a ban on foods containing sheep’s lungs.

Although now haggis is a thoroughly Scottish tradition, its early history could be French, Roman or Scandinavian. Some say the word “haggis” derives from the French term “hacher,” which means to chop up or mangle. Others insist a similar dish appears in sources as old as Homer’s “Odyssey,” while English food historian Clarissa Dickson-Wright claims that haggis came from Scandinavia “even before Scotland was a single nation.”

But while the dish’s exact provenance remains in doubt, food historians agree that it was peasant food. Encasing hard-to-cook cuts like lungs and intestines along with undesirable muscle meats like liver and kidneys into a convenient stomach packaging would have been a wonderful way to feed a group—while making sure no meat went to waste.

According to History.com, Haggis languished uncelebrated until 1787, when poet Robert Burns penned his great ode “Address to a Haggis.” In his poem, Burns declares his love for the “great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race” and glorifies what was a poor man’s food into a dish greater than any French ragout or fricassee. Burns was already a national hero, and haggis’ profile soon soared. After Burns’ death, a group of his friends began commemorating him every year on his birthday, January 25, and so began the “Burns Supper” tradition. The suppers continue to this day, featuring Scottish food, Scotch whiskey and a grand presentation of the haggis to the assembled guests.

While Burns Suppers are haggis’ main opportunity to shine, the dish is still widely enjoyed throughout Scotland.

How to make Haggis?

Adapted from Visitscotland.com, this recipe gives a classic approach to making a traditional Scottish haggis. The first step, cooking the sheep’s pluck, should be done a day in advance.

Ingredients (for 6 servings - 180 mins)

sheep’s stomach

sheep’s pluck

suet

sage

thyme

rosemary

salt

ground pepper

onion

oatmeal

chopped parsley (for garnishing

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Pluck is a combination of lamb's heart, liver and lungs. Photo: Great British Chefs
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Sheep's stomach. Photo: The Art and Mystery of Food

Instructions

1. Place sheep’s pluck in a large bowl of unsalted water. Simmer gently for two hours until tender. Remove from heat and let cool overnight in the water it was cooked in.

2. The following day, strain and reserve the stock. Chop the meat finely, transfer it into a large bowl, and season with salt, ground white pepper, rosemary, sage, and thyme.

3. Chop the onion and lightly toast the oatmeal. Mix them with seasoned meat. Add the suet and a pint of stock and mix until combined.

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The offal is mixed with oats and spices to make the filling. Photo: Great British Chefs

4. Fill a sheep stomach with the meat mixture so it is half full. Use a strong thread to sew it up and make a few holes with a skewer, so it doesn’t explode during cooking.

5. Cook the haggis for 3 hours in boiling water. If necessary, add more water during cooking, so the haggis is always covered.

6. After the haggis has been cooked, transfer it to a serving plate, cut it open, and garnish with chopped parsley.

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Photo: BBC America

Cooking Tips

1. Sheep’s stomach

If you decide to prepare haggis the traditional way, you’ll have to start with a sheep’s stomach. Most recipes suggest soaking it in salted water overnight and turning it inside out before filling it. Alternatively, you can also use industrial sausage casing. Whichever you choose, make sure you fill only half with filling, since the filling expands during cooking. To prevent the casing from exploding, poke some holes with a fork, toothpick or a skewer, and remember to sew or to tie it firmly with a kitchen thread.

2. Sheep’s pluck

Also known as offal, this noun usually refers to the animal’s lungs, heart, and liver. Cook them in unsalted water until they become soft and let them cool. Depending on the preferred texture, you can grate, mince, or chop the sheep’s pluck finely. Do not discard the water they were cooked in since it will be used for later preparation of haggis.

3. Oatmeal

The meat to oatmeal ratio depends on the particular haggis recipe, but they all have one thing in common — the oatmeal should be lightly toasted in the oven before being mixed with other ingredients. Place the oatmeal in a shallow baking pan and toast it for a few minutes in a medium oven, so it becomes lightly golden.

4. Suet

A common ingredient in Scottish, British, and Irish cuisines, suet is the beef or lamb fat which encloses the animal’s kidneys and other organs. It can be replaced with shortening, which should be frozen and grated or pulsed in a food processor, although it does lack that specific rich, meaty taste.

5. Seasonings

The traditional haggis recipes season the meat mixture with a basic combination of salt and pepper with finely chopped onions. Herbs, such as rosemary, sage, and thyme, are also more than welcomed. To spice things up a bit, add some cayenne pepper, soy sauce, or even garam masala.

6. Cooking

The most common way to cook haggis is to simmer it in the stock left from cooking the sheep’s pluck. If necessary, add more water, because haggis needs to be submerged in water during cooking. It usually takes 3 hours to cook the haggis fully.

7. Baking

An alternative method of haggis preparation is to cook it in the oven. In this case, pre-made haggis is most commonly used. For instance, a package containing 450 g of haggis should be pricked with a skewer, toothpick, or a fork, wrapped in foil and baked for 1 hour. When it comes to temperature, bake haggis at 180˚C in a fan oven, at 200˚C in a conventional oven, or set a gas oven to 6. Make sure you follow the butcher’s or the producer’s instructions carefully, since the baking time may range from 15 minutes to 1 hour.

Haggis is usually accompanied by turnips (called “swedes” or “neeps”) and mashed potatoes (“tatties”) and paired with a glass of Scottish whisky. What haggis lacks in appearance it certainly makes it up in its taste!
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