“Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer
Gie her a haggis!”
– Address tae a Haggis by Rabbie Burns
What is in Haggis?
To understand what haggis tastes like, you first need to know what is actually in Scotland’s most famous dish. Bear with us, it might not be what you were expecting but we promise it’s worth it!
Traditionally, haggis is made from chopped up sheep’s pluck, which is the heart, liver, and lungs of the sheep. This is mixed with oats, onions, suet and spices before being cooked inside the sheep’s stomach.
Modern haggis often has a mix of lamb and beef, oats, onions and spices and is in a synthetic coating rather than the traditional sheep’s stomach.
When you wander through the shops, you’ll spot haggis easily – it looks like a short, fat sausage.
What does Haggis taste like?
The question on everyone’s lips is always: what does Haggis taste like? It is probably the most common food-based question that tourists ask Scottish people. And, in truth, it’s not an easy one to answer.
But we were never one’s for taking the easy road! So, here goes…
Haggis has a very meaty flavour which is rich and even slightly metallic due to the offal. The oats and onions add both sweetness and texture. Then you get a nice punch of heat from the black pepper and the other spices used.
To compare to other dishes, haggis tastes like a cross between blood sausage and regular sausage. The main difference is the uniquely crumbly texture, and there’s more of a spicy, peppery hit.
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We have worked in the food industry for 30 years combined and are set to travel the world to continue learning about the food of the world.
Origin of Haggis
Like most dishes, the exact origin is unclear. The first appearance in writing is in a 15th century English cookbook. At the turn of the 16th century, there was further mention of haggis by Scots poet William Dunbar.
There is another theory that haggis was imported from a Scandinavian nation. The “hag” in haggis could be derived from old Norse, haggw, or old Icelandic, hoggva, meaning “to chop”.
There are suggestions that the Ancient Romans prepared a similar dish, and even that it dates to prehistoric times. The theory being that, whilst out hunting, the hunters would chop up the offal immediately as it would otherwise spoil quickly. They would then add dried grains and spices to the meat, then boil it in the stomach, using the leather as a pot.
Personally, I prefer the last suggestion as it makes the most sense to me. Even now we save weight when hunting deer by removing the organs immediately. Although we don’t cook them on the spot anymore. So, the idea that they wouldn’t want to waste any part of the animal, and also not carry back extra meat which would spoil before they returned, makes perfect sense to me.
In the 1960s, various producers started offering “vegetarian Haggis”. They replaced the meat with various pulses, mushrooms and grains. I know many meat eaters who prefer the vegetarian version and would actively choose it over traditional haggis if offered. Although how much of this is flavour based and how much is squeamishness about the ingredients is up for debate.
There are a few myths about haggis. Some involve the ingredients, but my favourite has to be that it’s actually a small animal.
As legend has it, these small woolly creatures live in the Scottish Highlands. They have one set of legs shorter than the other, allowing them to run around more easily on the steep hillsides. There are two different types of haggis – one whose left legs are shorter and the other whose right legs are shorter. Having one set of shorter legs does make catching them much easier – all you have to do is run the opposite way around the hill!
This story is so widely told that 33% of American tourists believed it to be true. Sadly, this isn’t the case. But it is really fun to keep telling people or to send them “haggis spotting” whilst out camping.
Haggis and Robert Burns
Haggis’ mainstream appeal has a lot to do with Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert “Rabbie” Burns. Burns wrote an 8 verse poem called “Address tae a Haggis”. Almost all Scottish schoolchildren, ourselves included, were forced to learn the poem by heart.
After his death in 1796, his friends organised a “Burns Supper” in his honour – a tradition which continues to this day on 25th January. Usually, the haggis will be brought in to the sound of bagpipes and presented to the top table. Someone will then recite the Burns poem whilst cutting into the haggis. It’s then eaten with mashed turnips and potatoes (neeps and tatties) and washed down with whisky. Then, once everyone is feeling the effects of the whisky, the traditional Scottish dancing kicks off (sometimes quite literally). The dancing is something we were also forced to learn at school, but comes in handy at weddings! The dance part is known as a Ceilidh (kay-lee).
If you’re in Scotland in late January, we cannot recommend highly enough going to a Burns Supper. It’s comfortably the most Scottish celebration you will see and it’s great fun too, once you’ve knocked back a few whiskies of course. Most ceilidh bands will walk you through the dances before starting, so you won’t feel lost. Just wear comfortable shoes and don’t be surprised if you wake up with a few bruises!
Best ways to taste Haggis
The classic way to enjoy haggis is with mashed potato and turnips – neeps and tatties. Whilst the most heard of, it’s comfortably the least interesting way to eat it. It just doesn’t show haggis off to its full potential.
Personally, we love everything battered and deep-fried, we’re Scottish after all. So getting a sausage-shaped haggis from the chippy is a great way to enjoy this, with salt and vinegar too. I enjoy some chip shop curry sauce on mine but Katie doesn’t because she’s weird.
Haggis bonbons are another great way to enjoy Haggis. You’ll see these as starters in lots of pubs and bistros. If you’re not sure about haggis then getting some to share is a great way to try it! They are breaded and deep-fried little balls of haggis, usually with some tasty dips.
If you’re staying at a hotel that does a buffet cooked breakfast you may find little, round pieces of haggis amongst your selection. Now, these probably won’t be of the highest quality but if you’re hesitant to try it, taking a little piece at no cost is a win-win.
If you visit one of the many Burrito places that have popped up in Glasgow and Edinburgh recently, you’ll find haggis as an option as the meaty filling for your burrito. Another way to perhaps gently introduce yourself with tentative steps if you’re unsure. Just remember it’s quite peppery when you add your salsa’s etc.
If you’re eating out in fine dining restaurants in Scotland, you may see Haggis as part of a dish or two. Now, generally speaking, if you’re unsure about an ingredient these top chefs should be the ones to try it from as they have the knowledge to make the best of it. Though I understand it’s a lot of money to eat at these restaurants and you may not want to risk a dish you won’t like. If it’s a small element it might be there to add depth, spice and umami to a dish, rather than haggis being the centrepiece. So, just ask your waiter how “haggisy” the dish is. You may well be pleasantly surprised.
Scotland is abundant in beautiful landscapes, perfect for creating a diverse and exciting food scene.
Click here to read all about the top Scottish foods and drinks to enjoy on your next trip.
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The Plate Unknown is an educational food blog. Here we share information about world food culture, the origin of dishes from around the world, and tips for taking a food-focused trip.