The evolution of traditional Irish cuisine

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You’re missing out if you’ve been eating Irish food without knowing its rich history. Enjoy Ireland’s hearty and comforting dishes to their fullest with an understanding of how events like the Great Famine shaped the culinary landscape. Get ready to uncover the evolution of Irish cuisine while learning about traditional recipes that you can share at your next St. Patrick’s Day celebration.

Corned beef and cabbage on a plate.
You can’t enjoy Irish food to its fullest without knowing its rich history. Uncover the evolution of this cuisine. Photo credit: Depositphotos.

Roots of Irish culinary traditions

A fair share of different cultures have added their flare to Irish cuisine. From the Vikings, who introduced smoked fish and pickling, to the Normans, who brought new agricultural practices and popularized staples like peas, beans and pork — Irish cuisine wouldn’t be what it is today without these cultural influences. 

Potatoes, the star of Irish food, were believed to have been introduced by an English explorer. It was easy to grow in Ireland’s climate and became the main source of nutrition for poorer families. The potato’s versatility led the Irish to put it in everything, or at least try to. Potato puddings, potato breads and even potato apple cakes were all common at this time.

The impact of the potato

However, over-reliance on potatoes caused the Great Famine when the blight, a potato disease, spread across Ireland, leading to major crop failure and starvation. The famine caused many people to emigrate in search of a better life. Irish immigrants carried their culinary traditions with them, including their love for drinks, which prompted them to open pubs where they settled. Irish pub culture quickly gained popularity worldwide for its lively and welcoming atmosphere.

The Irish Pub Company seized this phenomenon as a business opportunity. Specializing in designing and building Irish pubs worldwide, they have opened up over 2,000 establishments in over 60 countries. People can’t seem to get enough of the infamous Guinness beer and the warm community found in these bars. 

The Irish also brought over traditional dishes that have gained mainstream popularity, like the Irish stew. Commonly made with lamb, carrots, onions and potatoes, this dish is hearty and warm with simple but nutritious ingredients. The stew makes for a perfect meal on a cold winter day, especially for families on a budget.

Irish cuisine post-famine

According to the National Nutrition Surveillance Centre, people turned to cereal grain products and vegetables like turnips and cabbage post-famine. The Irish diet gradually diversified with more meat, fish and dairy. Interestingly, even with greater food options, the middle class continued to eat large amounts of potatoes when the blight was over. 

The transition from open-fire cooking to wood-burning ovens changed cooking techniques and the flavor and texture of food. When it came to roasting, ovens allowed for a more even cooking process than open fires, offering controlled browning and an enclosed space that helped retain moisture.

For the Irish, known for having world-renowned beef, this meant that Sunday roast beef dinner could be cooked without the flavor infusion of burning wood, allowing natural, juicy flavors to take center stage. If there are leftovers from the Sunday roast, it’s common to make a leftover roast beef shepherd’s pie. This savory dish, also known as cottage pie to the Irish because of its beef filling, is easy to assemble — just mix together peas, carrots, chopped beef and layer some mashed potato on top.

Modern twists on traditional dishes

Younger chefs are intertwining their Irish heritage with flavors of new cultures. Soda bread bruschetta is a modern twist on Irish soda bread, which is known for being a quick way to make bread without yeast. Bruschetta, or a flavorful mix of tomatoes, basil, garlic and cheese, can be served on toasted slices of soda bread makes for the perfect Irish-Italian appetizer.

Colcannon croquettes is a Parisian spin on colcannon, a traditional Irish dish made of mashed potato and green cabbage. These make for delicious crispy bites of the colcannon filling, fried with a breadcrumb coating. Paired with a mustard dipping sauce, you won’t be able to stop reaching for these.

Irish cuisine today

Ireland is experiencing an exciting farm-to-table movement, where chefs are using locally-grown produce in their kitchens. This is a more sustainable culinary approach as it supports local farmers and reduces packaging and food waste. What results is a more authentic dining experience with a fresh, seasonal menu.

Irish chefs are also making a statement that the country’s cuisine isn’t just corned beef and potato soup anymore. Mae is a Michelin guide-recommended restaurant in Ballsbridge named after Chef Gráinne O’Keefe’s grandma. Inspired by her grandma’s cooking, Chef O’Keefe redefines Irish cuisine with a seasonal menu of bold flavors and amazing wine pairings. For example, cod and killary fjord mussels, both common seafood in Ireland, are served with white wine velouté and roe caviar for a unique blend of flavors.

Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with authentic flavors

St. Patrick’s Day probably comes to mind when you think of Ireland. The country’s biggest national holiday is celebrated on March 17th in honor of Ireland’s patron saint, St. Patrick. Irish immigrants from all over the world gather for parades, parties and dinners. 

If you’re hosting an event, put out a St. Patrick’s Day snack board loaded with everyone’s favorites. Make sausage rolls, Reuben sliders and cheese toasties. The toasties aren’t just grilled cheese; they’re buttered baguette slices with a creamy egg and cheese topping. Add some green fun to the board with shamrock-shaped veggies cut with a shamrock cookie cutter. This board will satisfy your guests as they graze on snacks with a Guinness in hand.

Appreciating the depth of Irish culinary traditions

Irish cuisine has evolved from a focus on the potato to a diversification into meats, seafood and other ingredients. Today, chefs blend traditional dishes with a fusion of international flavors and emphasize locally sourced ingredients to create unique, modern Irish cuisine. There’s no better way to appreciate the depths of these culinary traditions than trying out a recipe yourself and enjoying a comforting, delicious Irish dish.

Jennifer Allen is a retired professional chef and long-time writer. Her writing appears in dozens of publications, and she has two cookbooks, Keto Soup Cookbook and Keto Diabetic Cookbook and Meal Plan. These days, she’s busy in the kitchen, developing recipes for various publications and traveling. You can find all her best recipes at Cook What You Love.

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