Like lots of misunderstood cuisines with peasant-driven tendencies, Scottish food gets a bad rap. That’s largely on account of haggis. The national dish happens to be a staple ingredient in Burns Suppers, or Burns Night Dinners, which started in 1801, when a group of men who knew the famed poet Robert Burns gathered together five years after his death to pay homage—and offer a toast. The popularity of the dinners grew, and Burns Clubs began to form. The first one outside Scotland popped up at Oxford University, five years later. Historically, these events typically include raising a toast, eating haggis and, of course, reading Burns’ work, thanks to his poem, “Address to a Haggis.”
In Scotland, it’s easy to find haggis (sheep’s stomach stuffed with the lungs, heart, and liver of the sheep, along with spices and oatmeal as a binder) at the supermarket or a butcher, and recipes abound on the Internet. Burns Dinners are usually a three-course affair, starting with Scotch broth or cock-a-leekie soup. It’s then followed by neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes) and concludes with dessert, which is often cranachan—raspberries folded into whipped cream with honey, whiskey and toasted oatmeal.
But here in the United States, not many people are likely to make haggis, right?
People around the world will mark the 257th birthday celebration of Robert Burns on January 25. Photo by Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty
American chefs have stepped up to the plate, as Burns Night celebrations have come a long way in the 250-plus years since Robert Burns was born. These days, the more organized versions tend to take the splashy form of multi-course chef dinners with twists on traditional fare, often with Scotch pairings, of course.
Toronto Chef Daniel Holloway of Urban Acorn catering regularly throws “vegan supper clubs” at their commercial kitchen space. His business has been taking a vegan/vegetarian approach to Burns Night for the past three years. According to Urban Acorn’s co-founder and event manager, Marie Fitrion, chef Holloway does clapshot with turnips, thickened with coconut milk instead of cream.
Holloway and Fitrion both share a link to Scotland, so this four-course event comes from a place of deep love. The main event, “Our Beloved” vegan haggis, is comprised of pearl barley, apricots, turned veggies and fried shallots, with a “clapshot” turnip sauce. Oh, and dessert is a housemade deep-fried Mars bar with a dulce de leche drizzle and Earl Grey Crème Anglaise dip. Untraditional for Burns Night, yes, but very Scottish. “By removing the anxiety around eating traditional fare cooked in a sheep’s stomach, the supper club allows us to preserve traditional Scottish undertones while introducing them to a new audience,” says Fitrion.
Kelly Thos. Shay, a self-described “Anglo-Hibernophile chef” behind the catering business and blog Kilt and a Cuppa, once put together a special haggis familiarization menu when he worked at McCarthy’s Tea Room in Bethlehem, Pa. He took turns with different staple dishes from world cuisines, including haggis spring rolls with chiles, cilantro and a peanut dipping sauce, and Haggis pakoras—Indian fritters with mint and yogurt sauce. There was even a haggis flatbread pizza, topped with sausage, ricotta cheese, mushrooms and an herbed pesto, served on a soda bread crust.
The Scottish government recently created a series of videos with its country’s chefs, designed to show modern takes on its food. Some of these include Jacqueline O’Donnell of the Sisters Restaurants in Glasgow, who put together savory Dingwall Haggis Bon Bons, which are breaded and accompanied with a wholegrain mustard and whiskey sauce. The approach looks rather elegant—considering it passes through a deep fryer.
Haggis Bon Bons by Jacqueline O’Donnell of The Sisters Restaurants, Glasgow.
At an event sponsored by Laphroaig whiskey at Dinner Lab in New York City, Chef Patrick McCandless will put forth a more “refined” five-course meal. There will be specific Laphroaig cocktails available—or you can have it neat or on the rocks. For the dinner, the goal is to pair each course with Scotch. His haggis course will be comprised of smoked lamb meat—not offal—“with traditional spices and stuffing in casings instead of sheep’s stomach,” served with neeps and tatties and sour cabbage. The courses include a Scotch broth with pearled barley, charred onion, root vegetables and tallow toast; the broth is poured over the top, upon serving. The dinner includes Whisky Oatcakes for dessert. “Oat cakes are common as well, but not always used as a sweet course. The smell of oats baking always reminds me of popcorn, so I will be pairing them with a custard made from popcorn,” he says.
The bonus courses are modern complements; think cured Scottish salmon with sunchokes and potatoes, and a charcoal-roasted cauliflower with a rustic farmer’s cheese.
Finally, if you’re not into savory haggis or any of the above, Chocolatier Michael Klug of L.A. Burdick has something sweet instead: a limited-edition release of bon bons and truffles infused with single malt scotch whiskeys. It’s called, naturally, “The Robert Burns Collection,” with treats that include Lagavulin, Macallan, Talisker, Springbank, Highland Park, Glenfarclas and a Lagavulin Honey Truffle, available in stores and online through January 28. It was borne out of Larry Burdick’s love of the poet and creating truffles for Burns dinners at its Walpole, New Hampshire restaurant.
Robert Burns in a 1790 portrait by Archibald Skirving. Image via Getty.
If your appetite is piqued yet you don’t have any Burns Night events happening in your area, you can do a micro-observation by reading Burns’ “Address tae the Haggis” or watching a performance of it online. These videos inevitably feature the dramatic haggis-stabbing that has become a centerpiece of trad Burns Night dinners. Purists may balk at tinkering with the time-honored menu of a Burns Supper, but adapting beloved dishes to be sure they stay relevant to today’s tastes ensures both a wider audience and another few centuries of Burns Nights to come.
Carrie Havranek is a recovering music critic and part-time baker who writes about food, farmers’ markets, chefs and restaurants—and sometimes travel—from her home in Easton, Pennsylvania. You may have seen her work elsewhere in Edible Philly, the Kitchn, or Frommer’s.