You may know haggis as the national dish of Scotland. But more likely, you know it as one the hackiest jokes in the world. “Haggis = gross” is one of the three or four things everyone knows about Scotland (the others being some combination of Braveheart, Outlander, kilts, Scotch, and bagpipes).
And I totally get it. The combination of offal and ... whatever the opposite of hype is turns us all into toddlers. Even the delightful Alton Brown gets weirdly shitty about it in his recipe for the Food Network, which concludes, “serve with mashed potatoes, if you serve it at all.”
Not even the rise of nose-to-tail Bourdains and McLagans and Hendersons seems to have made much of a dent in our collective perception of the national dish of Scotland. Which is strange, given the challenging, obscure, and otherwise prickly dishes that food writers will delight over these days. It’s anti-Caledonian, dammit.
I’m of Scottish descent and a big fan of the underdog, so once the annual opportunity to write about haggis and Burns Night rolled around (I’d been meaning to do this for years), I figured, what the hell—let’s see if we can’t take back the good name of haggis.
Haggis is the “pluck” (heart/liver/lungs) of a sheep, ground together with trimmings and mixed with fat and cereal (usually oatmeal) and spices before being stuffed into, then boiled or roasted in, the animal’s stomach. It provided an economical way to stretch out the meat from a hunt and make use of the quick-spoiling offal.
The name is generally thought to be of Scandinavian origin (hoggva and haggw in Icelandic, or haguer in Norman French), and the dish first came to Scotland in the early Middle Ages via either Vikings or French soldiers—all per Clarissa Dickson Wright’s excellent The Haggis: A Little History.
Bottom line: It’s a real big sausage with bad PR.
Haggis and Scotland are inextricably linked for a lot of reasons, but one above all else: Romantic poet and cultural icon Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland. In 1786, he wrote “Address to a Haggis” in the Scots dialect he championed. It begins:
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye worthy o’ a grace
As lang’s my arm.
Which, per Undiscovered Scotland, translates to:
Bless your honest happy face,
Great chieftain of the sausage race!
Above them all you take your place,
Stomach, tripe or guts:
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my arm.
It’s a hype song for the haggis: It goes on to describe the decadent aroma and experience, the might of the haggis-fed Scot, and spares a few lines to shit-talk the French, like you do.
After his untimely death in 1796 at the age of 37, Burns’ fans and followers took to throwing elaborate haggis-led dinners on his birthday (January 25) as a celebration of his life and Scottish culture in general. Eventually Burns Night became a de facto national holiday in Scotland and followed Scots to every corner of the globe. Bagpipers, kilts, whisky, ceremonial knives—everything one needs for a fun night out.
As it turns out, getting your friends to come over for a rich haggis dinner is easy. You just tell them they’re coming over for “Scottish food” and leave it at that. That’s how I snagged my friends Rich, Lauren, Ken, and Megan. My very patient wife, Emily, joined too. I was also Twitter-friendly with a Takeout reader named Ashley who had been wanting in on a food experiment for some time. So she got an invite, because that seemed like a very monkey’s paw thing to do. [Ed. note: John is evil.]
Since the main dish is a tough sell in many quarters, I made two kinds of haggis: a traditional Scottish recipe and a new spin I called Hagg-ish that substituted lamb shank for the liver, added a couple new ingredients, and used different spices. And I didn’t have to run to nearly as many butcher shops and specialty grocers as you’d think.
I also had enough for multiple haggises (haggi?), so I roasted two and boiled two to see what cooking method we enjoyed more.
My very first Burns Night menu:
- Bread and that fancy Euro butter that comes in one big chunk
- Green salad with heather honey dressing
- Neeps and tatties (mashed potatoes and turnips)
- Buttered roasted leeks
- Whiskey cream sauce
- Whiskey (ran out of Scotch at one point)
Bagpipers (via iPhone) heralded the beginning of the meal, and I flushed with ancestral pride and also some pre-dinner whisky. After one playthrough of “Scotland the Brave,” we kicked the tunes over to Nujabes because I’m not a monster. Bagpipes are truly the horseradish of folk music: a wee bit, as a treat. If you really can’t do bagpipes, then at least play something that pays tribute to one of the great heroes of Scotland.
For the recitation of the “Address” itself, we wanted a little flourish, and as such turned to local MC and Bad Ambassador Rich Jones. (This is the second Rich involved, for your scorecards). If you ever need to pump up your friends to try an unfamiliar food with a less-than-sterling reputation, liquor them up and get a true artist to recite Scots poetry at them with all the fury of Mad Jack Churchill. It works.
Thus fortified, everyone dug in for a taste of Scotland.
There’s nothing so maudlin as a moment of truth when you’re enjoying a good-natured dinner with your friends, but I did find myself waiting for the first polite indication of “Oh no, not that, no thank you,” an urgent napkin to the mouth, a sudden rapt interest in potatoes, the classic “HEY LOOK OVER THERE!” and accompanying haggis toss.
I’m still waiting.
Eventually, “oh, thank god, this is not even not-bad, this is good” sentiments bubbled up from around the table. The surprised compliments were fun, but what came after that was even better: we stopped talking about the thing we were doing and slipped into regular dinner chatter. The elephant left the room.
It was dinner. Haggis was there. Neither of these two facts was unusual. We moved on to everyone’s holidays, how work is going, the Cubs’ maddening cheapness in free agency. Regular stuff.
We were at ease with haggis.
Of the four haggisises I brought to the table, 3.75 were consumed. That is damn near half a haggis per formerly reluctant eater. Math helps the enterprising host find the line between “being polite” and “eating a goodly amount of haggis.”
I love and cherish each of these people (okay, I don’t know Ashley that well, but she seems like a quality citizen), but none of them would have gone to that length just to indulge this whole Ancestry.com cosplay of mine. So we chatted a bit about the experience over after-haggis drinks.
The spices in the old-school haggis really carried the show, while the balance in the new recipe worked a little better to showcase the meat. “I mean, it’s ground meat, filler, and a ton of spices,” Megan said. “It’s basically Taco Bell, which everyone loves.”
“I would totally eat this with hot sauce in a tortilla,” Ashley said. She was maybe half-joking, but the idea of haggis tacos got some pretty solid traction. Megan suggested a Scotch egg with a haggis sausage base, and so consider this advance warning about an upcoming post.
There’s a reason Burns called this dish “chieftain o the puddin’-race,” and it only took one dinner for us to figure out why.
If you’re in a part of the country where you can find a halal butcher, you should have no trouble finding exactly what you need. (Big shout out to Lebanese Meat Market and Halsted Packing House here in Chicago.) If not, go make friends with a local butcher! At the very least, salted ox bung from Amazon makes a fine substitute for sheep stomach, and you can always just move to large-diameter sausage casings in a pinch (or if you, like me, are not about to buy and clean four lamb stomachs).
You’re going to look at this recipe and say, “Hey John, that’s a lot of boiling.” Welcome to haggis. Now go do the thing.
- 1 lamb stomach, ox bung, or large-diameter sausage casing, prepared and soaked
- 1 lamb heart, gristle and fat removed
- 1 lamb liver, trimmed
- 1 lb. lamb trimmings or ground lamb
- 2 onions, diced
- 8 oz. (1/2 lb.) oatmeal
- 1 Tbsp. salt
- 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tsp. ground coriander
- 1 tsp. mace
- 1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
Fill a pot with cold salted water and bring to a boil. Chuck in your heart, liver, and trimmings and boil for a solid 2 hours.
Remove the meat, strain the stock two to three times into a bowl, and reserve.
Mince or grind the meat and add to a large bowl with the onions, oatmeal, and seasonings.
Work the stock into the meat mixture a bit at a time until the it gets a uniform consistency that’s sticky but still crumbles when you work it with your fingers. (I realize this is a maddening direction because I also once had to make this for the first time once, but work with it a bit and you’ll eventually be like, “Oh, okay.”) It should fall somewhere between a weisswurst and a larb in texture.
Spoon your mixture into the lamb stomach, filling it to 2/3 capacity (you want it to swell the casing but not burst it). Prick it a couple of times with a skewer to give it an outlet for pressure.
Boil the haggis for 3 hours in enough water to cover, or roast it in a 400-degree Fahrenheit oven for 1 hour, wrapped in foil.
Serve ceremoniously at the table with whisky cream sauce. (See below.)
- 1 large-diameter sausage casing, prepared and soaked
- 1 lamb heart
- 1 lamb shank
- Olive or vegetable oil
- 2 onions, minced
- 4 cups chicken or veal stock
- 2 lbs. ground lamb
- 3 Tbsp. tomato paste
- 2 Tbsp. fish sauce
- 1 Tbsp. smoked paprika
- Kosher salt
- 1 Tbsp. freshly ground black pepper (plus more to season)
- 12 oz. bacon, cooked and chopped
- 8 oz. (1/2 lb.) oatmeal
Simmer the shank and heart in the stock for 1 hour. Remove meats and let them cool, then mince or grind them. Strain the stock and reserve.
Heat a tablespoon of oil and cook the onions over medium heat for 10 minutes in a large saute pan or shallow pot until translucent and beginning to brown, then remove from heat.
Add another tablespoon of oil and brown the ground lamb in batches, seasoning to taste with salt and black pepper.
Return the onions to the pan with the meat and add the tomato paste, paprika, and black pepper. Cook 3-4 minutes, stirring frequently, until the meat and onions are coated and glossy. Remove from the heat and stir in the fish sauce.
Mix the meats with the oatmeal and bacon and add stock to achieve a consistent mixture.
Roast, covered, in a 400-degree Fahrenheit oven for 1 hour. Alternately, place hagg-ish in a roasting pan with stock/ale/wine/what have you, bring to a boil, and braise for one hour at 400 degrees, turning frequently.
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1 Tbsp. stone ground mustard
- 2 tsp. Dijon mustard
- 2 tsp. Scotch whisky
- 1 Tbsp. chopped chives
- 1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice (or half a lemon)
- 1/4 tsp. lemon zest
- Salt, to taste
- Black pepper, to taste
Bring the cream, mustard, and whiskey to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes, stirring. Remove from the heat, toss in the chives, lemon zest and juice, salt, and pepper. Taste for seasoning.