What is haggis anyway?… It does sound terrifying to the uninitiated: a hot gooey mix of sheep’s “pluck” (the whole esophagus, lungs, liver, and heart yanked out in one go, then finely ground), oatmeal, onions, and black pepper. The filling is cooked inside a sheep’s stomach…and then steamed slowly, covered in the oven, then served with “neeps and tatties” – mashed turnip and potato. As with so many dishes, it originated with the leftovers of the rich landowners – turned into a proud classic by an enterprising and desperate peasantry.
– from A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain
Most people in this country tell me I have an adventurous appetite and will not shy away from things that would give the average Filipino diner the squicks. I will not – I will never – deny that because it’s absolutely true. I love trying new things and sampling new flavors. Who knows? I might end up with new favorites.
Case in point: haggis.
For those of you who don’t know what a haggis is, let me be blunt and say, “You bloody don’t know what you’re missing.” As described, pretty much in detail, by Anthony Bourdain in the quote prefacing this entry, it is a massive kind of sausage – think loaf-sized and loaf-shaped as opposed to being tubular and sold in either rings or links – that is a specialty of Scotland, home of all things good (single-malt whiskeys, proper shortbread made with real butter, Aberdeen Angus beef, deep-fried Mars bars, Gerard Butler, Ewan McGregor, David Tennant, and James McAvoy – to name a few).
To describe it is to compare it to such uses of offal in Philippine cuisine as bopis (finely minced pork or beef lungs, heart, and liver sauteed with tomatoes, chilies, and onions) and sisig (coarsely chopped pigs’ heads, ears, liver, and crackling flavored with vinegar, onions, and garlic before being fried up and served on a super-heated cast-iron plate). Since it uses lamb offal rather than pork or beef, the taste and aroma are significantly gamier and more savory than either of those more commonly used meats. Haggis is made of a sheep’s pluck – which is to say are its liver, lungs, heart; in short, its more vital organs. A bit of lamb suet (fat) is thrown in for flavor, oats – that most Scottish of staples – to bulk it up and add a nutty flavor to the dish, onions for a hint of sweetness and sharpness, and generous amounts of black pepper to give it zing. It is deliciously robust: meaty, peppery, and most savory – which is why I have no freaking idea why people aren’t so keen on trying it.
The first time I tried haggis was when I had dinner with some friends over at the Union Jack Tavern (as shown at the top of this post). UJT’s haggis was served with tatties – a large, generous helping of creamy mashed potatoes which provide bland contrast to the rich flavors of the dish. However, what was missing were the neeps – turnips boiled and mashed with butter – that are supposed to be the third component of a classic haggis meal. Turnips, you see, aren’t common in this part of the world and the sugary jicama (singkamas) usually used in their stead just won’t do.
Anyrood, as my Scots friends would say, I liked the haggis so much that I actually ended up hankering for it from time to time. Fortunately, UJT’s Brit grocery keeps tins of Grant’s Haggis on stock.
Tinned haggis is not as pretty as its fresh counterpart in terms of its looks. In fact, to be brutally honest about it, it’s pretty damned ugly: it looks like a grayish-brown loaf of sheer and utter horror. But as with such visually hideous things as octopus, sea urchin, sisig, and bagoong, looks are no indication of how delicious this is.
Made with oats, sheep lungs, suet, and plenty of black pepper, Grant’s is pretty decent – more than decent, as a matter of fact – for a tinned product. Ideally, the instructions on the label say that one should crush the haggis up and fry it in a pan till the edges have gone all crisp and crunchy; pouring over a wee dram of Laphroaig, Glenmorangie, or – if it’s all you can afford – the locally-produced plonk called Embassy Whiskey is optional but certainly won’t go amiss if you’re eating it on Burns’ Night.
I sliced off a couple of rounds off my loaf of haggis and stored the rest away in the chiller section of our fridge. The folks over at the amazing Game of Thrones-themed food blog The Inn at the Crossroads say that haggis ought to be cooked in the oven till it gets all crispy on the edges. Seeing how I planned to bring the haggis to work for lunch, I didn’t have the time to faff about with preheating my oven for it. Instead, I put the slices on a small metal tray and chucked them into my toaster oven for about eight minutes – after which, it was crunchy on the edges and smelled seriously heavenly.
I didn’t have any leftover mash on hand to go with my haggis, so I lumped it onto some rice in my lunch-jar and added a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce. My Scots friends would balk at this; my “evil twin” Floyd would most likely start screaming bloody murder. But really: the sharpness of the sauce works well against the peppery, meaty dish that moved that great Scots poet Robert Burns to name it “the Great Chieftain of the pudding [sausage] race”.
And, since I still have some chilling in the fridge, I think I can experiment with croquettes, sausage rolls, meat-toasts – och, the possibilities! 😀
Nice seeing your honest, chubby face,
Great chieftain of the sausage race!
Above them all you take your place,
Belly, tripe, or links:
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my arm.
– Address to a Haggis (Idiomatic English Rendering) by Robert Burns