Fans of true Irish cuisine – and, yes, there are a few – often turn up their noses at people who celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with corned beef and cabbage. Not authentic, they sneer, in the same way chop suey is an unnecessary American nod to traditional Chinese food.
They’re right, but they’re also wrong. The corned beef we know today probably never appeared on Irish menus before gaining favor on this side of the Atlantic. But it does have its roots in the Auld Sod, which makes sneering a wee bit daft.
Corned beef has nothing to do with corn, either. Rather, it describes meat that has been cured with “corns” of salt. There are several styles of salt-cured beef, but the one associated with Ireland’s most famous holiday is made from brisket or round steak “wet-cured” in a brine of salt and spices. In the minds of many, brisket boiled with cabbage, carrots and potatoes equals instant Irish-ness.
The Irish were one of many groups that salt-cured meats before refrigeration was invented in order to have staples to last them over the long, wet winters. Cabbage and root vegetables were plentiful, of course, and the dish we know today most likely began as traditional Irish bacon and cabbage.
A salt-cured slab of unsliced back bacon, usually cut from an Irish family’s own hog, was boiled with cabbage, potatoes and sometimes carrots, onions and turnips grown in the family garden. The bacon was then sliced and the dish served with some of its own boil and, occasionally, a white sauce made of flour, milk, butter and parsley. To most Irish families, this was high living.
Second only to bacon and cabbage in popularity comes Irish soda bread. The “soda” is baking soda, not a soft drink, blended with flour, salt and buttermilk to make one of the country’s most popular hearthside breads. Baked loaves are “cakes,” while flattened wedges baked on the stovetop are called “farl.”
There are variations, including “wheaten bread” (made with whole wheat), “treacle bread” (made with molasses or treacle and sugar), ”damper” (an Australian derivative prepared outdoors over an open flame), “seedy bread” (add caraway seeds to the basic ingredients) and “spotted dick” (soda bread made with raisins that’s also the name of an English pudding with dried fruit).
We’ve already referenced the ever-popular Irish staple – the potato. Introduced to Ireland in the 16th century, the lowly spud became a popular food among the poor. As a complex carbohydrate, the potato is high in minerals and vitamins, including Vitamin C, as well as in the amount of energy produced per unit acre of crop. The failure of the potato crops in the 18th and 19th centuries led to famines in which a million people died and an equal amount emigrated to other countries, but the potato remains central to Ireland’s cuisine today.
Other traditional dishes you may want to try: the appropriately named “blaa” (Ireland’s equivalent of a Parker House dinner roll), “boxty” (Irish potato pancakes), “crubeens” (also known as “pig’s trotters” or boiled pigs feet, most often served as bar food), “colcannon” (potatoes mashed with cabbage or kale) and “disheen” (a “black pudding” of milk, salt, fat and breadcrumbs boiled with animal blood).
If you want to get really authentic, you might think about making fulacht fiadh, a term that refers both to an archeological site and a dish prepared at such sites. Traced back to the Bronze Age, a fulacht fiadh was generally a hole in the ground in which venison and other wild game were boiled in water heated by hot stones. If you’re planning on hosting an Irish dinner, please note that this one takes a while to prepare, even after you dig the hole.