Jan has been cooking and writing about food for over 20 years. She has cooked on multiple television stations, including the Food Network.
I’ve heard it said that on St. Patrick’s Day, everyone is Irish. It does seem to be a holiday that almost everyone loves to adopt—regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. Most Americans whip out a batch of corned beef and cabbage in homage to the Auld Country.
But . . . I hate to be the one to break it to you, since many of you will hold this dish as authentic and beloved, but corned beef and cabbage is just not traditional Irish fare. I’m so sorry.
“How can this be?” you might now be wondering. It’s actually a very simple answer.
In Ireland the cattle were highly prized, but kept primarily for the milk production. That’s not bad—think of the glorious Irish Cheddar and butter. What beef was consumed was by the wealthy, and in Ireland, that just wasn’t very many people. Today Ireland raises some of the best beef cattle in the world, exporting it all over.
Prior to the Norman invasion in the 8th century, the Irish subsisted on hunting, the occasional vegetable matter, and the abundant seafood. After the 8th century, they were no longer free to hunt as they wished, and began keeping dairy cattle and kitchen gardens. The Irish kept other crop animals besides the cow though, including umpteen bajillion sheep, as well as chickens and pigs. So while beef wasn’t common on the table, the Irish were by no means strangers to meat. Mutton, chicken and pork often made their way into the Irish cookpot.
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After the mid-1600s, the potato had made its way to Ireland from South America, where it was welcomed with open arms. It joined oats, cabbage and onions as staples. It could be the Irish reliance of these foods that has led to the Irish cuisine being described as "bland," but that’s only by those who can’t appreciate a lovely bowl of Irish poundies.
While the cuisine of Ireland did rely heavily on a few staple foods, there was certainly more variety than Ireland normally gets credit for. Not only were the Irish clever and creative in making the most of their staples, giving beautiful sausages, breads and dairy products, but the predominance of the Irish coastline meant that cod, haddock, salmon and gorgeous shellfish were also available and widely used.
Modern Irish cuisine has entered the modern age with the rest of Europe of course. Modern Irish chefs are known for the elegant simplicity of their dishes, utilizing local ingredients with flair. Many traditional favorites have gotten gourmet upgrades and makeovers, with delicious results.
If you wish to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with an authentically Irish menu, try one of the following dishes at your house. While you’re at it, give some of the liquids a try, as well. Imbibe a bit—to toast old Ireland, of course.
Traditional Irish Foods
- Apple Mash: Savory apples and potatoes mashed together
- Bacon and cabbage: Boiled Irish Bacon with cabbage, served with a sharp mustard or parsley sauce
- Bangors and Mash: Slightly lumpy mashed potatoes with Irish sausages and cheese
- Bap: Large soft yeast roll, often with currents or raisins
- Barmbrack: Fruited yeast bread
- Beef and Guinness: An Irish Stew made with beef slow-braised in Guinness stout
- Blaa: Soft floury yeast roll
- Boxty: Traditional Irish potato pancakes
- Carrageen Moss
- Champ: Similar to Colcannon, but done with cream and green onions, Northern Irish, and also known as poundies, colly or pandy
- Coddle: Casserole made of ham, sausage, potato and onion
- Colcannon: Comfort food at its best, made with mashed potatoes, scallions and cabbage
- Crubeens: Brined and then slow-roasted pigs' feet, done like an American pot roast. Renowned as a hangover cure.
- Drisheen: Irish blood sausage
- Dublin Lawyer: Lobster cooked in whiskey and cream
- Dulse: Edible Irish seaweed
- Fadge: Potato bread
- Goody: Dessert made by boiling bread in milk with sugar
- Irish Breakfast or Fry-Up
- Irish Stew: Stew of mutton or lamb, with potatoes, carrots and sometimes Guinness
- Oysters and Guinness: Just what it sounds like!
- Potato Bread
- Potato Farls: Potato bread flattened and cooked on a griddle, then quartered
- Poundies: See Champ
- Shepherd’s Pie: Meat pie, usually lamb or mutton, topped with mashed potatoes instead of a pastry crust
- Skirts and Kidneys: Pork dish with skirt steak and kidneys
- Slieve na Mbam: Carrots in cream with parsley
- Soda Bread: Quick bread with baking soda for the rise instead of yeast
- Soda Farls: Soda bread flattened, cooked on a griddle and quartered
- Wheaten Bread: Similar to regular soda bread, but with whole wheat flour
If you find that you simply can’t make it on St. Patrick’s Day without corned beef and cabbage, don’t worry. When the Irish immigrated to America they applied many of their cooking techniques to the foods more available here. In this case, it was beef vs. mutton. So while it’s not traditionally Irish, it is Irish-American.