Irish Food: More than Meat and Potatoes

Irish cuisine has long been given a bad rap as being bland and boring, but modern-day Irish food redeems the nation's culinary standing. Today, the use of fresh, local produce and a booming interest in farm-to-table dining give you a new reason to go for a pint.

Pub Food and Culture

The pub, a cornerstone of Irish culture, has been serving customers Irish food and drink for centuries. Quaint country taverns with thatched roofs and snugs evolved into the Victorian dark wood-paneled establishments of the late 19th century in a style that has been replicated by many American establishments today. Regardless of era, the pub is a place where you can go to talk politics and sports, relax, kill time, listen to music and enjoy a pint of beer with some Irish comfort food. All major cities boast Irish pubs, especially Boston, where approximately 20.4 percent of the population claims Irish ancestry. And these days, the food is just as important as the drink.

According to Mikey Crawford of Ennistymon, County Clare, who owns The Druid in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the pub makes its own brown bread and serves it with all its main courses, from shepherd's pie to beef stew and seafood stew.

"People don't drink like they did 15 years ago," said John Blake, The Druid's general manager. "If you don't have good food, [the customers] aren't going to come in here. It's Irish food, but we put more effort in the quality. We use all fresh ingredients. Our fish gets delivered every morning. The scene has changed for everyone. If you don't have good food, you won't last."

New Irish Cuisine

This seems to be the consensus in Ireland, as well. The new forward-thinking approach to cooking Irish food came at about the same time as the rise of the "Celtic Tiger" economy of the 1990s. Prior to that time, Irish chefs were trained in classic cooking, but the chefs-to-be of the '90s went abroad for training. Just like the Vikings, Normans and Spanish, who invaded Ireland and left traces of their cuisines behind, the modern chefs returned and invaded the Irish kitchen. They brought with them new methods, flavors and adaptions of traditional dishes, with a focus on using fresh, organic ingredients.

Because Ireland has a very wet climate, few crops thrive. Those that do are potatoes, cabbage, leeks and other root vegetables. Seafood is also good and plentiful, with offerings such as salmon, trout, cod, mussels, prawns and oysters. Thus, chefs must make the best of what they have to work with — and the results are amazing. The new cuisine mingles traditional Irish food with an innovative approach to its preparation and presentation.

Modern Takes on Old Favorites

Even today's publicans and restaurateurs are putting their personal marks on old favorites. What once was just boiled potatoes is now potato pie in a puff pastry. Bacon and cabbage, as tasty as it is in its traditional recipe, is diced and used as filling for a boxty (potato pancake) and topped with a parsley cream sauce. Bangers and mash are upgraded to venison sausages over cheddar mash, topped with crispy fried leeks. Fish and chips is, well, fish and chips — and perfect just as it is.

As Irish pub food continues to undergo a significant change, it is clear that it's the quality that counts, and Irish food has it in spades — or is it spuds? If you want to learn how to put new twists on some of your favorite dishes, follow your passion and consider enrolling in a top culinary school.

Photo credit: Pam Niequist Wehbi