2016 is guaranteed to be a different year for us, where, after five years in Asia, we will take our travels to Europe. For some of our favourite foods of Asia from the past years, check here, otherwise we’re now off to Northern Ireland, which will be our base for travel in the coming year. We have a lot planned already but, for now, our only priority is to catch up on my home country, and of course its food. While these wouldn’t exactly be the top 10 foods in Northern Ireland, they are my top 10 cravings on my return. But, given 2016 is Northern Ireland’s Year of Food, I promise to explore further. Ever heard of dulse for example? It’s like a dried and uncooked seaweed, which I’ve never eaten before, ever, because it’s seaweed. I’m more of a barbecued meat person. But I will do my best to share more. Anyway, there are reasons for my cravings of Northern Irish foods and it’s mostly because they aren’t easy to find in Asia. Also, when I travel, I always avoid international comforts such as Irish Bars, or English Pubs, as foods are always so much better back home. Anyway, these are my Top 10 Foods in Northern Ireland. The foods I’ve not eaten in years, and Fanfan is my guinea pig on our return.
Food in Northern Ireland is often known for being greasy and fatty, because, a lot of times, it is. The Ulster Fry would be the ideal example of this, where most mornings will begin with this grease filled masterpiece. It’s a bit like the Full English Breakfast, only better, with traditional pork sausages, back bacon, fried egg, and mushrooms. But the the Ulster Fry includes some less familiar additions of soda bread, potato bread and black pudding. Black pudding would be what I most look forward to. It’s like a savoury pudding with a blending of onions, pork fat, oatmeal and pigs blood. Next would be the potato bread, unique to Northern Ireland, which is a flat wheat bread mixed with potato. Lastly there’s the soda bread, another soft wheat bread, only this time leavened with baking soda. I would eat my Ulster Fry with Heinz baked beans, which is arguably not traditional, but, given they’re not available, HP brown sauce makes a good substitute. Maybe some tomato for healthiness. If you do miss your fry in the morning, don’t worry, the Ulster Fry is also found as an “All Day Breakfast”. The example below (top) is at ‘Fed and Watered‘ on a scenic spot along Belfast’s Laganside (near the Big Fish).
“Fish supper” in Northern Ireland is chip-shop slang for Fish and Chips which is synonymous with British Food. But they are better in Northern Ireland, or at least from my own experience. In Northern Ireland we’re found in the top corner of a small island, meaning fresh fish are never far away. The preferred fish is Cod, haddock running up in second place, which is dipped in a thick egg batter before deep frying to give a beautiful, golden coating. For fish suppers I do prefer them from chip shops, wrapped (not boxed) and with lashings of salt and vinegar. I think this is to do with deep frying at chip shops, which makes the batter fuller and fluffier than those at restaurants. At restaurants they also serve fish and chips with tartar sauce and a lemon wedge. Actually, I’d probably give them both a go. Also, mushy peas. Mushy peas make a great side.
Ulster Irish stew is similar to traditional Irish Stew, only it originates from Ulster province, and it has no carrots. At it’s most basic it is a stew of lamb, potatoes, onions and maybe a garnish of parsley. But there will always be variations due to influences in the province from English and Scottish settlers. But nowadays you can really just add any meat and root vegetables to the recipe. Our own family recipe was passed down from our gran, and further, and it uses the original ingredients of lamb, potato and onions. The only difference is that the lamb is first flavoured with beef stock cubes (OXO), and is thickened with a gravy (Bisto). We’d probably eat stew at least once a week back home, and it is the one recipe I brought with me to Asia. I can replicate it fairly well. It is also a food which can be hard to find in restaurants, where it’s more of a home cooked favourite. I did once try Irish stew in Dublin, Ireland which I found oddly soupy in comparison, with carrots, and it was disappointing. It was also served by an Australian lass, so the whole experience wasn’t overly authentic. Anyway, my gran’s recipe wins hands down, any day.
I think of Steak and Guinness Pie as a mix of British and Irish cooking where a traditional steak pie has been updated with generous dollops of Guinness stout. Pies and alcohol, the perfect combination. Normally it will use a stewing steak, or chuck steak, which is cooked in a Guinness stout and beef gravy. It is then topped with a baked pastry shell. It does make for perfect pub grub and, given we have a soft spot for alcohol in Northern Ireland, it also goes well with a pint of Guinness, and maybe a Bushmills Irish Coffee for dessert. But I really do miss pies in Asia where ovens don’t really exist in kitchens, whatsoever. Occasionally there are specialty kiln-type cookers, used for roast ducks or whatnot, but in home cooking, ovens just don’t happen. Therefore pies and pastries aren’t easy to come by and the only time I’ve scoffed one was a cottage pie in the British colonial region of the Cameron Highlands (Malaysia). Before that it was the Steak and Guinness Pie below, which was at Daft Eddys Restaurant along a scenic spot of the Strangford Peninsula.
Steak was always my go-to western food in Asia, because it is the one food easy to replicate. But beef isn’t really common to the region, probably due to slow cooking times, and most beef I do find will have been imported from Australia (e.g. Wagyu). The local cuts are also typically tough and chewy. There is the occasional slow cooked dish in Asia like Thai massaman curry, Indonesian rendang, or the Filipino bistek, otherwise I really miss beef. Steak is therefore what I go for on pub grub menus and, to making the most of the opportunity, I would mix it up a bit with surf and turf. This is a pairing of seafood (surf) and steak (turf), served with potatoes or chips, as are most foods in Northern Ireland. The surf will more-than-not be scampi, which are battered prawns, and the local favourite is Portavogie prawn scampi, from the small fishing town of Portavogie. The example below is a bit more fancy, however, found at Saint George’s Market Bar and Grill. It’s got scallops and whatnot.
I find bacon to be at it’s best between two buttered bits of bread. So I know this is a very simple sandwich to replicate worldwide, but I can say that I have eaten bacon, all over the world, through hundreds of hotel buffet breakfasts, and every time I find their measly attempts at bacon to be crap. Maybe we are spoiled in Northern Ireland. Back home we go less skimpy, and more meaty, with back bacon which is somewhere between streaky bacon, and a gammon steak. Actually it’s sliced to include both pork loin from the back, and a bit of pork belly, bringing the best of both worlds. The popular enclosure would be soft flour baps (shown below), but slices of bread or toast will do. Also, a squeeze or two of brown HP sauce goes well. A good start for both back bacon and streaky bacon would be Cookstown, the big local brand.
Breads are staple foods in Northern Ireland and, in Asia again, bread isn’t commonly found. When I do find bread it is typically basic sliced white loaves, which weirdly last for months without going moldy. So I now get excited by the bread shelves of home. For this post I’m lumping a lot of Northern Ireland’s local breads together where, other than those mentioned with the Ulster Fry, my morning favourite would be Veda bread, which is a sticky malt loaf, which is slightly sweet because it’s made with black treacle. It’s really is perfect when lightly toasted and glistening with melted butter. The other big local bread would be wheaten, which is probably the more popular of the two, and is like a wholemeal version of Northern Ireland’s soda bread. It’s also the healthier bread option. The big local bread brand would be Belfast’s Ormo bakery which should cover them all. Note, toast in Thailand is called “Kanom Pang Ping”.
My first stop on arrival will almost always be the chip shop and, while we may not be on par with Scotland with battered weirdness, I do feel we do hold our own. My local chip shop is called the Frying Squad, and it’s found pretty much across the road from me. This is of course a great thing, and a terrible thing, as it would probably be quicker to get a cheap bag of chips, than to microwave a ready meal. Anyway, I could write a post on chip shop food alone, and probably will, but for now I’ll stick to the Northern Irish favourite of pastie suppers. The pastie is a spiced minced pork, onion and potato pie deep fried with a crisp batter. Add the word supper to have it with chips. So, similar to the fish supper, it goes well with lashings of salt and vinegar, and maybe a squeeze of red (ketchup) or brown (HP). In fact the pastie supper’s so good, it is celebrated in my hometown in a seaside sculpture named the “Pastie Supper Lover”.
The first thing I will reach for after long haul flights is Bushmills which, unlike Jameson’s of Ireland, isn’t easy to find in Asia. I’ve only really found Bushmills a handful of times, and every time it was at a duty free, and it was ‘Green Label’ instead of my preferred ‘Black Bush’. Okay, I know this isn’t exactly ‘Northern Irish food’, but whisky is part of many a balanced diet here where we’re well known for our boozing culture. George Best and Alex Higgins are just two claims to our boozing fame. There are also differences between Scotch and Irish Whiskeys, where Irish Whiskey is triple distilled which makes it smoother. It is also spelled Whiskey, with an added e’, where, as I was told during the grand distillery tour, the ‘e’ stands for ‘excellence’.
On my last visit home I remember being greeted by Tayto’s Bout Ye! banners which were plastered throughout the airport, and every transport hub, and billboard on the route home. But, despite hideous marketing campaigns (which are a norm in Northern Ireland) their crisps really are quite good. They’re at least handy to pick up on the go and on travels. So Tayto would be the Northern Ireland equivalent to Walkers (or Lays as they’re known outside the UK) only they’re probably more popular here than any other crisps. They’re easy to find at all transit stations and every local shop throughout the country. Personally I’d begin with Cheese and Onion, then maybe move to Salt and Vinegar. Both are favourite flavours here, although they aren’t really known abroad. Also, Spicy Bikers, although they used to cost 10p a pack from my grammar school tuck shop. They’re 70p now? Get out of here.