Never eaten haggis? Ten things you’ll want to know first

My partner is half Scottish, and I lived in Glasgow for a wee while. I got to know and love haggis like a local. It’s not just a joke played on tourists, and it really is very tasty. However, I can understand the trepidation you might feel if you’ve never tried it before. After all, it looks weird and its ingredients are an interesting mix.

If you’ve never eaten haggis, here are ten popular questions you’ll want answered about Scotland’s treasured national dish:

1. Is haggis a real animal?

Let’s get the myth out of the way first – no, haggises are not real animals, though it’s an animal (lamb) based product. This is an ever-popular joke played on tourists, or as an April Fool. Some very convincing little furry critters have been made up to look like haggis-sized animals, and of course they have to be hunted in the wild.

A popular version of the joke says that the haggis has its left feet shorter than its right, so it can run around Scotland’s many hills at great speed, to avoid falling over and being caught and eaten. The whole country is in on the joke. For example, this article by Visit Scotland was published stating that the haggis had been spotted in the wild for the first time in years. The Kelvingrove gallery in Glasgow – a highly respected institution – has a stuffed taxidermy haggis on display amid its real animal collection.

If you’re a tourist – expect to be told an intriguing haggis tale in some form or another. Best to play along and be a good sport. You might even get to eat some!

2. What is inside a haggis? What does haggis consist of?

Traditionally, haggis is made from lamb offal, or ‘pluck’ – heart, lungs, and liver. This is mixed with oatmeal, and then spices, onion and salt and pepper are added. Suet, an unrefined fat found near the kidneys, is also included, to add flavour and moisture. The haggis ingredients are traditionally stuffed inside a lamb’s stomach but these days many haggises come in artificial casings.

3. What is vegetarian haggis made of?

Vegetarian haggis contains the same oatmeal, but this is mixed with vegetable oils and other plant-based fats along with beans, carrots and usually a couple of other vegetables like mushrooms and lentils. Sometimes seeds are added for texture. The salt and spicing are the same as traditional meat haggis, but of course the flavour is completely different.

4. What does haggis taste like – does it taste good?

Given the list of ingredients you may wonder if haggis tastes good at all. It’s not too dissimilar to other products made of offal and spices, like sausages or meatloaf. It doesn’t have that ‘rich’ taste that offal usually does, it tastes meatier and spicier than anything else and the strongest notes are pepper, onion and oatmeal.

I’ve served haggis to several people, including many American friends, who were convinced they wouldn’t like it but who ended up loving it. The best way to find out if it tastes good is to try it – most people are pleasantly surprised!

Like many foods, you get what you pay for. Avoid cheap haggis – there are some very nasty versions of it made with more fat than meat. If you’re in Scotland as a visitor then most haggis makers and companies will display any awards they have won on the label, which is usually a good indication of quality.

hagiss bonbons with whisky sauce
Haggis bonbons with whisky sauce – one of the best ways to try haggis for the first time.

5. How is haggis traditionally cooked?

Haggis is already cooked once from raw when it’s made, but it needs a second cooking and heating session before it is served.

Haggis is traditionally cooked by simmering or steaming very gently, or in the oven, placed over a pan of water to keep it humid and steamy, and to stop the haggis bursting or splitting. Most haggises take around 40 minutes per pound of weight in the oven at 190c/375f but check the pack instructions according to its size.

You can pan fry haggis by taking it out of its skin and crumbling it into a dry, non-stick frying pan. Heat it over a gentle heat until the suet begins to melt and the meat and oatmeal crisp up a bit and turn darker.

You can also microwave it by taking it out of its skin (or slicing it into rounds) and zapping it on a medium heat. However, both the above methods of frying or microwaving are not traditional and they take away from the essential part of the presentation whereby you stab the cooked haggis with a knife, to split and serve it.

6. What is served with haggis?

Haggis is traditionally served with “neeps and tatties” or to give them their full name “champit neeps and bash-it tatties”. These two vegetables are Swedish turnips (Rutabaga in the States) and potatoes respectively. They are never mashed as you would mashed potato – they are roughly bashed or crushed with butter, seasoning and perhaps a bit of cream or milk.

The haggis with the two smashed-up veg is how you’ll traditionally receive a dish of “haggis, neeps and tatties” if ordered in most Scots restaurants. Very often the dish can be a bit dry, so it’s usually offered with some kind of sauce – whisky peppercorn is a particular favourite and can also now be bought already made, particularly around Burns’ night.

If you’re eating haggis for the first time and you’d rather not have it on its own, you can get more familiar items stuffed with haggis, such as chicken breasts or beef ‘olives’, which is rolled beef steak wrapped around a filling such as haggis. Haggis ‘bonbons’ are balls of haggis deep fried in a light coating (usually breadcrumbs). These are dipped in a sauce (usually whisky cream) and are delicious.

Many shops and restaurants in Scotland have other foods available with haggis as a topping or stuffing, making haggis more palatable to the uninitiated.

7. How do you reheat haggis?

If there’s any delicious haggis left, it’s best reheated by pan frying or microwaving (see above) as by this time it will already have been taken out of its skin and can be crumbled up to re-heat.

8. How healthy is haggis?

The short answer is that haggis is not particularly healthy. It’s quite high in saturated fat and salt.  However, it’s quite rich, so you can’t usually eat a lot of it, and it does come with two hefty portions of vegetables as standard. It’s also traditionally eaten with a wee dram (a shot) of whisky, which is debatable as to its health benefits!

Like many celebratory dishes it’s not intended to be eaten all the time, although many in Scotland do as it’s available all year round. If you want to be really unhealthy, order it deep fried in Scotland, or as a pizza topping (seriously).

9. Is haggis really banned in the USA?

Haggis itself isn’t banned in the United States, but the import of lamb’s pluck is. You can’t use lamb’s pluck as an ingredient in food in the US either. Therefore you can’t import a haggis from Scotland to the USA, for example, but you can buy a USA-made haggis that has been made without the lamb’s pluck.

McKean’s (known as McLay’s in the UK) make traditional haggises without the lamb pluck. I haven’t tried them, but they have a good reputation. If you would like to have the presentation of stabbing and slicing the haggis (e.g. for Burns’ Night) then this is the type of haggis you’ll have to get.

If you just want to taste haggis, there are a few canned versions of it in the USA, but many of them seem to contain beef, which isn’t traditional and won’t taste the same.

10. Where to get REAL haggis in the USA?

Since my boyfriend is half Scottish, we often celebrate Burns’ Night wherever we happen to be. Many times, we’ve been in the USA and I have either taken or bought a can of Grant’s haggis, which is made in Scotland AND has all the traditional ingredients in it including the lamb’s pluck.

Despite the regulations I’ve not had any issue bringing it into the States, and it’s also available to buy on Amazon for USA delivery – possibly because it’s canned. It tastes just like the haggis you get in Scotland because it IS from Scotland (Ayrshire). One can serves two people.

Ith gu leòir! (Scots Gaelic equivalent of ‘Bon Appetit!’)

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