Burns Night

Is Scotland’s National Dish Haggis More Than a Joke?

Just in time for Burns Night, we demystify the traditional dish and the traditions surrounding the Scottish holiday.

Kean Collection

Tonight, I’m going to be eating haggis. While the dish is a standard in Scotland, in America it’s usually served up as the punchline to a bad joke.

But I’ll be eating it for a good cause, the 259th birthday of Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns. (You can also thank him for the song “Auld Lang Syne.”) I will be pairing it with, of course, drams of single malt Scotch, while listening to recitations of his poetry and traditional bagpipe music.

Burns Night suppers are pretty much a national holiday in his homeland and have been for well over a century. But these birthday celebrations have become increasingly popular around the world as drinkers get ever more interested in single malt whisky. But generally, when I mention the event to friends and colleagues, I get a puzzled look, which leads to a speed round of questions.

So, in order to make these conversations a bit easier and hopefully get more people to join me in indulging in haggis and Scotch, I thought I’d try to demystify Burns Night.

Q: What is haggis and is it edible?

A: Good haggis is very good. But bad haggis is, well, very bad. It should taste like a gamey loose meat casserole. I’ll be brief about its recipe, since you really don’t want to know what goes into it. Suffice it to say it’s a mix of ground meat (don’t ask what kind) and oats, which is stuffed into and cooked in a sheep’s stomach. That’s all you need to know.

Q: What do you drink with haggis?

A: Scotch, of course. I say that not just because both items are from Scotland but because the whisky helps to cut through the fat of the meat and is bold enough to stand up to its flavor. At many Burns dinners, the Scotch is even poured over the haggis before it’s ceremonially cut open.

Q: What do you eat haggis with?

A: While most steakhouse favorites would probably work, in Scotland the popular side dishes are “neeps” (mashed turnips or turnip relatives) and “tatties” (mashed potatoes). This is a famous triumvirate, which was immortalized in Burns’ poem Address to a Haggis, which, you guessed it, is usually read at a Burns Supper.  

You can find out more about Robert Burns and the traditions surrounding his birthday on a special episode of podcast Life Behind Bars.