October 28, 2007

Haggling over Haggis

Ask someone you know if he or she wants haggis for dinner. You’re more likely to get a blank stare and a “what’s haggis?” than a “yes” or “no.”

You wouldn’t be alone. Even in Scotland, the home of this dish, the policy on haggis seems to be to eat it without thinking much about its contents.

Unfortunately, my self-imposed job is to ask the tough questions like “what is haggis?” After spending a research-filled day in Edinburgh, I can safely report back that haggis is made of … well … it depends.

That’s right, haggis is a lot like a hot dog in that pinning down a set of ingredients can be both difficult and stomach-churning. Canned haggis in the grocery store informed me it contained beef-filler. “Haggis” statues in a souvenir shop look like bloated sausage links, and might represent a stomach or lung. Grill a few Scots, and they’ll likely give you different opinions. The only definitive answer is to say that haggis is minced.

I think the waiter in the pub where I eventually sampled the flagship Scottish food put it best after I asked him whether it contained beef.

“No,” he answered. “It’s lamb.”

He paused a minute and bit his lip in concentration.

Then, to reassure himself, he repeated: “Haggis is lamb.”

Don’t press any further. Accept that it is pieces of lamb you don’t want to know about – probably containing large portions of lung meat. Bear it, grin and dig in.

Of course, if your haggis is traditional you’ll be eating it with tatties and neeps, also known as potatoes and turnips. Yum, turnips. Not the most appetizing of ideas, but it’s another tradition you must indulge.

Surprisingly, tradition knows what’s cooking. Haggis, tatties and neeps is a great combination. My haggis had a sweetness to it that I couldn’t quite place and certainly wasn’t expecting. Maybe (mostly) lamb lung is naturally sweet. Maybe it was soaked in brown sugar to cover up the flavor of something like ground aorta. Maybe turnip juice ran into the meat. Whatever the case, it worked.

The tatties and neeps were good, too. They were each mashed up a bit, but not to the point that there were no solid particles. Tatties are always good, whether they are called tatties, taters, potatoes, fires, spuds or chips. But the turnips were unexpectedly good, with a taste not unlike sweet potatoes. The whole collection was smothered in a slightly peppery gravy that contrasted nicely with the meal’s sweetness.

My meal didn’t just surprise my tongue, it surprised my eyes. I was expecting lumps of meat and starch on a plate. I got a layered cylinder that resembled the candle I made in elementary school by melting crayons and pouring a layer of hot wax on top of a layer of cool wax from a different color crayon. Throw in the garnish and fancy square plate, and it was like the cook was trying out for Iron Chef: Scotland.

Though it was a point of curiosity, the presentation certainly didn’t hurt the meal. If anything, the layered design allowed me to scoop up haggis, tatties, neeps and gravy in one forkful, letting the different tastes compliment each other.

The only drawback here is the same drawback that all traditional foods seem to have in pubs: price. The cheapest haggis I could find was £7.95 – a little pricey for a meal of mystery meat.

But, really, there are foods that are worth shelling out a few extra quid. And if paying extra means you are getting the best of the leftovers of what is probably lamb meat, you should be willing to crack the wallet in no time.

Get me a set of bagpipes and a kilt. I’m a believer in Scottish cuisine. Aside from the price and the minor fact that you really have no idea what you’re eating, there is no downside. Four tartan-patterned sporks out of five!

October 1, 2007

Of Money and Meatballs

“Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch.”

That was me paying for food in Stockholm. You would think that traveling from London, where the dollar-to-pound ratio is roughly 2/1 to Sweden, where the dollar to Kronor ratio is 1/6, would be a little cheaper.

You’d be wrong. If you want to sit down in Stockholm and enjoy some native Swedish meatballs, expect to shell out close to 200 Kronor – 30 bucks.

Fortunately for the meatballs, they are simply scrumptious. I never knew a meatball could be so good until I stepped into a bar and restaurant just north of Gamla stan and ordered the Swedish meatballs. Imagine, if you can, a perfectly seasoned meatball that is neither overcooked nor undercooked. That means they’re moist on the inside without being hard on the outside. From what I understand, the meatballs actually contain mashed potatoes, which might explain their propensity for perfection.

But the thing that makes these orbs of meat most desirable is their sauce. They’re doused in a cream sauce that is somewhere between brown and yellow and carries the flavor that makes the meatballs so distinctive. You’ll probably like this stuff even if you’re foolish enough to not like gravy like substances, so make sure your meatballs are thoroughly covered.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this dish is that the cream sauce is not used to cover up for inconsistent cooking. Often, when I eat at restaurants, I think the food is doused in gravy or sauces to cover for the fact that it’s only the chef’s second day on the job. But with Swedish meatballs, the gravy adds more than a little moisture, it adds its own distinct flavor. The meatballs would be plenty moist on their own anyway, so you know the gravy has to be there for another reason.

Any self-respecting restaurant will serve you your meatballs with boiled potatoes and Lingon berries. My potatoes were the only potatoes of their type that I’ve ever eaten that were boiled to perfection. It’s quite difficult to get them just right so that they are fully cooked but don’t fall apart. I can now say that getting them just right is quite the reward.

Lingon berries would probably deserve their own post if I had eaten more of them. Those that were served with Swedish meatballs were mashed and had one of the best sweet flavors I’ve tried. It was sweet enough that it should have been sickening, but somehow it wasn’t. I chalk that up to the fact that they had a natural sugar, rather than the processed sugar that usually creates such a strong sweetness.

The only real regret I had after finishing my meatballs was that they were so expensive. If you judge the meal against other sit-down meals in Stockholm, the price was actually good. If you judge it against meals in other countries, it will make your skin crawl.

But if you judge it on flavor alone, you’ll want to crawl back to the restaurant and order another plate.

Thank goodness I’m not spending the semester in Stockholm. I might be broke.
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