There's no question that haggis is a cornerstone of Scottish culture, right up there with kilts and whisky. The national dish of Scotland, haggis is actually classified as a type of pudding, but in the British sense of the word, rather than the American.
A British pudding, of course, can be either sweet or savory and cooked by being steamed or boiled inside of something. In the case of haggis, that "something" is a sheep's stomach bag.
What Is Haggis?
"A traditional Scottish haggis is made with the [animal's] liver, kidney and lungs, which are first boiled in a pot then chopped up very finely and mixed with oatmeal, onions, seasoning and spices," explains Scottish food writer and historian Catherine Brown in an email. "The mixture is stuffed into the stomach bag, which is then stitched-up and put in a large pot and boiled." Typically, sheep offal (organ meats) is used to make haggis, but sometimes the offal of calves or other animals are substituted.
Of course, there's a wide variety of haggis recipes out there, so no two versions taste exactly the same. "All Scottish butchers make their own haggis and are very protective of their recipes," Brown says. "Some are very spicy, some have more liver, some more kidney. Some butchers make a vegetarian haggis with oatmeal, spices, beans, lentils and nuts."
So, um, whose idea was it to stuff a sheep's stomach bag (also called the bung) full of stuff and serve it up as supper? "Legend has it that it first originated during the Viking raids of Scotland (794 C.E.); however there are reports of an offal type of food being regularly eaten throughout Scotland well before this period," says Scottish butcher and haggis expert Joe Callaghan in an email. "Most people assume that this period is significant because it's the first time the word 'haggis' appears and this is a Viking word for bag."
So, What Does Haggis Taste Like?
For less adventurous eaters, the delicacy is often best enjoyed blind, at least until you develop a taste for it. "I ate it in Scotland in middle school and loved it. I thought it was meatloaf," explains Cristy Daly, of Cumming, Georgia. "When I found out what it was, I equated it to a hot dog so I could continue eating it."
Michelle Brownlee, of Spring Hill, Tennessee, was less enamored. "It was like someone married creamy oatmeal and meatloaf," she says. "The texture is all kinds of wrong."
Love it or loathe it, haggis isn't likely to become a stateside staple anytime soon, as the authentic version has been banned from import in the U.S. since 1971. This is because the U.S. Department of Agriculture decreed that livestock lungs cannot be used as food for humans because they can contain stomach fluid, which is a serious foodborne illness risk. (You can buy haggis in the U.S., albeit one made without the all-important sheep's lungs.)
Still, some Americans with Scottish roots attempt to make or buy lungless haggis every year in recognition of Burns Night (January 25). The event is widely celebrated in Scotland, and is named in honor of beloved Scottish poet Robert Burns who penned "Address to a Haggis," following a 1786 supper in Edinburgh, Brown says. In the poem, he refers to haggis as "the Great chieftain o' the pudding-race." "After the poem, the pudding is slashed open, and the supper begins," Brown says. "For a Burns Supper it is served with mashed potatoes and turnip. Along with drams of whisky."
The Scottish fondness for this delicacy has not faded with time. "Haggis is massively important to the Scottish culture. It is one of the most popular words used on the internet when people are looking to visit Scotland — almost as popular as the whisky industry," Callaghan says. It's so appreciated that it's eaten throughout the year, not just on Burns Night, he notes.
How to Make Haggis
Haggis probably isn't the easiest dish to try on your own, but far be it from us to tell you not to give it a go. "If you wanted to make your own, I would buy all the ingredients for a good quality independent family butcher. They would supply you with the correct spices and Haggis skins and give you instruction on how to make your Haggis," Callaghan suggests. Bonus points if you can find a Scottish butcher. Check out this recipe from Callaghan for authentic haggis, and "lang may yer lum reek," (that's, "good luck and good fortune" in Scottish).
- 1 lamb's heart
- 1 lamb's liver
- 1 set of lamb's lungs (known as "plucks")*
- Minced lamb fat
- Pinhead (steel cut) oatmeal
- 1 onion, diced
- Salt and pepper
- sheep's stomach (or cooking bag)
- Place plucks in a pan of water and bring to a boil.
- Simmer for approximately one hour until thoroughly cooked. Reserve the stock.
- Whatever the weight of the cooked plucks is, add 50 percent weight in minced lamb fat, 30 percent pinhead oatmeal, and 30 percent fresh diced onion.
- Mince the cooked plucks, and mix in the fat, onion and pinhead oatmeal.
- Add hot, reserved stock to mix.
- Season to taste with salt and pepper
- Fill sheep's stomach (or cooking bag) with haggis mixture.
- Tie up stomach bag securely with cooking string and place in pot of simmering water. Cook until haggis begins to float, approximately 40 minutes. Don't overcook or haggis could burst open.
- Remove from water and serve immediately.
*Note: American readers who can't get hold of sheep lungs can try this simplified recipe from Caroline's Cooking that uses ground lamb and chicken livers.