I saw a wonderful photo of the Victoria Falls the other day and it took me back to when we lived in Livingstone, just next to Mosi-o-tunya, or the ‘smoke that thunders’ in the Lozi language of that area of Zambia. This was the first place I lived in continental Africa and for a teenager was by turns absorbing, bewildering and exciting. But one of the strangest things I encountered was not Zambian in origin, rather it was Scottish. And that was the yearly importation of haggis for the celebration of Burns night by the Caledonian Society. This necessitated a special import licence and even one year an accompanied flight which cost so much more than any haggis ever could. Such was the importance of this event and dish to the Scottish expatriate community.
So what is a haggis? We will leave aside the description that sees people enquire regularly as to the location of the enclosure for the haggi at Edinburgh Zoo. Rather, we will just skip straight to the culinary version. Haggis is a Scottish dish made from sheep’s offal (windpipe, lungs, heart and liver), which is first boiled and then minced. It is then mixed with beef suet and lightly toasted oatmeal. This mixture is placed inside the sheep’s stomach, which is sewn closed. The resulting haggis is traditionally cooked by further boiling for up to three hours.
Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet, celebrated the haggis in an ode. Here is one verse of the eight from the poem (keep in mind the culinary rivalry between France and Scotland at that time):
Is there that o’re his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi’ perfect scunner,
Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view
On sic a dinner?
(Notes: o’re = over. olio = stew, from Spanish olla/stew pot. staw = make sick. scunner = disgust)
|Is there that o’er his French ragout,||Is there one, that over his French ragout,|
|Or olio that wad staw a sow,||Or stew that would make sick a sow,|
|Or fricassee wad mak her spew||Or fricassee that would make her vomit|
|Wi’ perfect scunner,||With perfect loathing,|
|Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view||Looks down with sneering, scornful view|
|On sic a dinner?||On such a dinner?|
Why is it then that haggis is found so far outside of Scotland? Scottish society has always been a mobile one; sometimes just to find work within the country travel was necessary; sometimes movement was forced, as during the English land clearances; sometimes, perhaps as a consequence of displacement in their own country, they became colonisers, immigrants and expatriates in many other countries of the world. The Scottish Diaspora has been extensively studied, and as most transnationals do, wherever they went, they took a strong sense of their country of origin with them, often creating associations in their new home countries. For instance you can find various forms of Scottish Societies throughout the commonwealth countries but also in China, the USA and in, for instance, the Scottish dance groups of South America, such as the St Andrews Society of the River Plate in Buenos Aires.
In all of these societies, worldwide, a haggis is sacrificed, perhaps at Hogmanay, and certainly once a year on Burns Night (January 25th) in a ceremonial which begins with a bagpiper Piping in the Haggis; it proceeds to, usually a man, addressing the haggis with Ode to a Haggis, the poem written by Robert Burns; and culminates in the haggis being stabbed by a ceremonial dirk before being sliced open for consumption. It is traditionally eaten with neeps (turnip) and tatties (potatoes). I am always struck by the opposition of the reverence, even affection for the haggis, followed by the clear and violent manner of its dispatch.
But as well as exporting people from Scotland, Scotland has also been the destination for people from many other countries. From the Celtic, Vikings to the Medieval input from European countries, a range of different influences have all played their part in creating the cuisine of Scotland.
More recently, the John Gray Centre tells us that, immigration from Ireland began in the 1840s as a result of the Great Famine and continued until the 1920s. Polish immigrants also came to work in key industries that experienced a shortage of workers (e.g. coalmines) and to train in the armed forces in preparation for the Second World War. In the period between 1890 and 1914, approximately 4,000 southern Italians came into Scotland to evade the growing poverty in their country. Other immigrants, particularly from eastern Europe, arrived in Scotland to escape from religious persecution (e.g. Jews), from Hitler’s tyranny (Poles and Lithuanians) and to join family members who were already established in Scotland. In the modern day, migrants originating from China, Asia, Italy or the Middle East have all brought with them their cultures, traditions and especially their foodways and all have contributed to the changing face of food in Scotland. Chinese contributed their distinctive national, but-adapted-to-local-ingredients-and-tastes, dishes. Others brought spices. Italians reintroduced the standard of fresh produce and gave us ice-cream parlours and cafes – and good coffee.
Many have made adaptations to the humble haggis. And this has especially been the case with the Asian community who make up the largest ‘visible’ ethnic minority in the country. These days there are lots of ways to eat the Haggis. It is primarily from the Pakistani and Indian community that we see the most impact on the traditional haggis, with haggis samosas, and haggis pakoras. But there is also haggis pasty, haggis spring rolls, haggis wontons, haggis lasagne, Haggis tostados, haggis Tex Mac nachos, haggis quesadillas and even haggis wraps with winter Tzatziki.
It’s only been in the past few years, says Shaheen from Allotment2Kitchen, that Scotland has begun to recognise the rich contributions made by its ethnically diverse communities. Most notable is the visibility of Scottish Sikh communities ‘whom whilst proudly retaining their own cultural and religious identity, have openly embraced aspects of Scottish identity’.
She notes that such cultural influences have also impacted on cuisine and says that in the cities of Scotland, you will often see a Punjabi-style haggis on menus at pubs and restaurants. To the traditional haggis recipe additional ingredients such as onions, cumin seeds, garlic, ginger, green chillies and other spices are added and Naan bread, rotis and chappatis replace the traditional ‘neeps‘ and ‘tatties‘.
And so to what many will never consider Haggis – a vegan haggis recipe.