7 Myths About Irish Food, Busted

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At Ballyknocken House, her B&B in Wicklow, Ireland, chef Catherine Fulvio meets lots of visitors from abroad who always seem surprised by one thing: the food. “Everybody says to me that they’re amazed at how good the food is in Ireland,” she says. “They can taste the goodness in the food – that’s really important.”

Fulvio says it comes down to the quality ingredients that are produced here, no doubt thanks to the damp, mild climate that allows plants to grow year round. She jokes that Ireland has “grasstronomy,” since the cuisine is so strongly linked to the land, with local foods ranging from locally grown cabbage, parsnips, and other vegetables to cuts of flavorful, grass-fed beef.

Top-notch produce and a few other factors—better-trained chefs and greater public interest among them—are responsible for the vibrant food revolution happening in Ireland. The way people cook and eat on the Emerald Isle has been transformed over the last decade, and what constitutes modern Irish food is moving further away from the stereotypical dishes of the past.  

To inspire your St. Patrick’s Day celebration, here are seven things about the Irish cuisine of today that may surprise you.

1. Nobody eats corned beef and cabbage

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Suzanne Goin’s Corned Beef and Cabbage / Photo: Food52

“Oh my god, I don’t think we’ve made corned beef in Ireland for about 200 years,” JP McMahon, and owner of Michelin-starred restaurant, Aniar, says, chuckling. “We used to make a lot of corned beef out of Cork. I think we supplied the whole British Empire with it.”

Still, McMahon insists this old-fashioned dish can be brought into the 21st century by reducing the salt used for the beef and lightly cooking the cabbage. “Corned beef and cabbage, as my granny would have cooked it, would have been really heavy and cooked for a very long time,” he explains. 

To make a St. Patrick’s Day dinner just as today’s Irish would, though, Fulvio recommends lamb prepared simply with rosemary and garlic, although she may be biased given the herd of sheep that is a permanent fixture at her B&B. Regardless, she says a traditional holiday meal always includes “a big roast in the oven” complete with all the trimmings.

2. It’s not a bland cuisine

While the Irish were once notorious for boiling veggies into tasteless lumps, they now know how to let their ingredients shine. “Cooking cabbage to within an inch of its life is not very pleasant, whereas a fresh savoy cabbage lightly sautéed is something gorgeous,” says Rachel Firth, general manager of Fallon & Byrne, an award-winning food hall, restaurant and wine bar in Dublin.

Beyond the newfound respect for vegetables, many Irish food products, such as rich chutneys, smoked fishes and farmhouse cheeses, capture a real taste of the landscape. “For example, the flavor you get in a Durrus cheese is kind of wet and mushroom-y – it’s an Irish flavor,” Firth explains. “The cheese comes from a damp country and you get a taste of that.”

3. There’s plenty more than just meat and potatoes
“My father would probably disagree with that,” McMahon says with a laugh, showing that Ireland’s food revolution has come from the younger generations. Yet he knows first hand about the variety of local produce since his restaurant, Aniar, uses only ingredients from within a 150-mile radius.

McMahon says today there are more restaurants in Ireland going against the tradition of plain meat and potatoes than there are ones sticking to the old ways. For example, Aniar’s always-changing menu has featured fresh crab and scallops, 40-hour cooked beef cheek and duck heart.  

4. Soda bread is a staple – but not as you know it

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Irish brown soda bread / Photo: Food52

Fulvio, who regularly travels abroad as an ambassador for Irish food, says people often inquire about soda bread. “One man asked me, ‘Why don’t you put caraway seeds in your soda bread? And I looked at him and I asked back, “You do put caraway seeds in your soda bread?”

She explains that the international interpretation of Ireland’s most loved bread likely comes from an old recipe carried abroad with emigrants who left in the early 1800s. In Ireland, though, today’s typical brown soda bread is a dense, subtly sweet whole-wheat loaf that is free from caraway seeds and raisins. As Fulvio says, you’ll almost always find a slice or two served—with Irish butter, of course—on the side of a bowl of soup.

5. Heavy dishes are no longer the norm

People in Ireland are preparing and eating much lighter dishes, so a good meal no longer comes with a guaranteed food coma. 

“You’re not feeding people who’ve been working in the fields for hours and hours—that’s a definite change,” Rachel Firth explains. “If people were out working for six hours before they even had their lunch, they needed a big, heavy Irish stew with a load of potatoes to give them the energy to go on.”

She adds that more people are discovering alternatives, with a big focus turning to Ireland’s coast. “There’s nothing nicer than an amazing Irish seafood platter with Dublin Bay prawns, smoked salmon and mackerel, and nice fresh scallops,” Firth says, enthusiastically. “You really wouldn’t want to do very much to them; their simplicity is gorgeous.”

6. Whiskey isn’t a key ingredient

Whiskey? That’s a good one,” Fulvio says, laughing when asked about the spirit. “They better be using Irish whiskey—that’s my first point. None of that Scotch stuff, please!”

Jokes aside, whiskey really isn’t a prominent feature in Irish cooking, although it’s sometimes used for special occasions. For example, both Fulvio and McMahon say combining it with cream to make a rich steak sauce is a nice treat.  

“But I don’t know if whiskey makes food any more Irish,” McMahon adds, advising people to at least “make sure it’s a good Irish whiskey, because there’s a minor revolution going on with artisan whiskey as well.”

7. Green icing doesn’t make a dessert Irish

Like the main courses that precede it, dessert also takes inspiration from Ireland’s produce. McMahon says things get particularly interesting in the winter when fresh, locally grown fruit isn’t available. “Then you think, ‘Why do they make carrot cakes in Ireland?’” He explains that they often serve the dessert at Aniar, but with “a few little twists and turns” to defy people’s expectations.

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Photo: StockFood / Johnny Taylor Photography

Another tried and tested Irish dessert is rhubarb crumble, which is particularly fitting around St. Patrick’s Day, since the jewel-colored main ingredient is just coming into season. Fulvio says she combines the rhubarb with a bit of ginger or orange zest (or both) for added flavor. The crispy topping also makes use of a typical Irish product: porridge oats. “It’s a very traditional dish and very old fashioned,” Fulvio says, “but it’s still one of the most popular desserts in pub food in Ireland.”