Before I left for Scotland, one of my friends said, “I’m going to live vicariously through you. You have to eat the haggis.”
My mouth said, “Okay,” but my brain asked, “What are you trying to pull on me?”
Having decided to go to Edinburgh rather on a whim, I had little to no time to research, and the time I did have I dedicated to finding things to do and a place to sleep. I decided to save the haggis question for when I was on the ground and could actually look at the stuff. Then, and only then, would I make the fateful decision of whether or not to fulfill my friend’s vicarious Scottish food-related aspirations.
After wandering around Holyroodhouse, I found a tea house nearby offering lunch plates. I saw ‘haggis, neeps, and tatties’ on the menu, looked around the dining room to see if anyone had it, and thought, What the heck. When in Scotland, right? I ordered myself a plate, and sipped some tea while I waited for it.
Haggis, Neeps, and Tatties
As it turns out, my friend might have thought he was pulling something on me, but he wasn’t. Haggis is actually quite tasty, and it made a great lunch. It also happened to power my climb to the top of King Arthur’s Seat, so I decided it must have been good stuff. It was only after I got home, though, that I looked up what was in it.
If you’re morally opposed to eating offal, it might be wise to skip the haggis. If you don’t know whether or not you like offal (or what offal is), you might as well give haggis a try. This traditional Scottish food is a pudding (not the American kind, the British more-like-sausage kind), made of minced ‘sheep’s pluck,’ or the heart, lungs, and liver of the sheep, mixed together with onions, oatmeal, and spices. Traditionally, it’s cooked and served inside the sheep’s stomach; restaurants nowadays seem to skip that part of the recipe. Maybe they thought it would freak out the tourists.
Some restaurants serve their haggis with a whisky sauce drizzled over the top and a side of neeps and tatties. For those of you who don’t speak the lingo, allow me to translate: root vegetables. Tatties are mashed potatoes, and neeps are mashed swedes, or Swedish turnips (from what I can tell, in un-mashed form swedes are similar to rutabagas). Wash it all down with a beer and you’ve got yourself dinner.
Pro Tip: Some places offer vegetarian- and vegan-friendly versions of haggis! It’s made with nuts instead of meat and all the same spices. Be sure to ask around to see where you can find some!
Although I do recommend that you give haggis, neeps, and tatties a try while you’re in Scotland, I realize that particular traditional dish might not be for everyone. For the less adventurous among us, another traditional Scottish food that is also quite tasty is the steak pie. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a steak with gravy topped with a pot pie crust and baked until the top is flaky and the inside is gooey. Like I said, the steak pie is good eating, but “I went to Scotland and ate the refined and dignified steak pie” doesn’t sound nearly as impressive as “I went to Scotland and I ate the haggis.” Bear that in mind while making food-related decisions in Edinburgh.
The food isn’t the only thing worth noting in Scottish bars. The brews are, to be completely honest, by and large the best beers I’ve had anywhere. Don’t tell the Poles, Czechs, Germans, or Irish I said that, but it’s true. Every beer I had in Edinburgh was smooth, velvety, rich, and full of flavor. My two favorites were the Caledonia Best and the Belhaven Black. The Caledonia Best belongs to a type of ales called ‘English Bitter.’ It’s between light and dark, and has a hoppy flavor that isn’t overpowering.
The Belhaven Black is a Scottish stout, and it’s delicious. This one may have outdone Guinness, in my opinion; it certainly gives St. James’ Gate Brewery a run for its money. Brewed just outside of Edinburgh, this particular stout has a very distinct flavor. Being an amateur at beer tasting, I sometimes find it difficult to taste the flavor profiles that hard-core aficionados claim to be in the drinks, but this one was different. I could actually taste the chocolatey notes, and I felt the kick of the coffee profile. It was also incredibly smooth and wonderful to drink of a literary evening (I sampled this one at the Jolly Judge, a stop on the literary pub crawl).
To be sure, no American can truly experience Scotland without leaving the realm of whiskey and entering the world of whisky. Scotch is simply whisky that has been made in Scotland (whiskey is American, whisky is European). Each region in Scotland has their own particular type of whisky that they produce, sell, and drink, each as unique as the people in those regions themselves. For a crash course on scotch, I recommend hitting up the Scotch Whisky Experience on the Royal Mile. Inside this adult version of a hands-on museum, you can learn about the distillation process and the different flavor profiles of scotch from around the country. You’ll also learn the difference between single malt whiskies and blended whiskies.
In my humble opinion, Scottish food is guaranteed to please. It’s very homey – like comfort food. This guide should help you navigate through some of the more obscure of comfort-food dishes. Of course, if you’re more the trial-by-fire type, just walk into a bar and order a serving of haggis and a round of the good stuff. See where that gets you.