While Scotland isn’t exactly known as a foodie destination, there’s no doubt that some of its traditional dishes are recognized around the world. Who hasn’t heard of haggis or fried Mars bars? Others are definitely a more local affair and offer plenty to explore and try.
Wherever I travel I try to try as much of the local cuisine as possible, as each traditional dish tells something about the region, the people and their history. Surrounded by sea on three sides, Scotland definitely has a lot of fresh seafood, but it’s the quintessentially Scottish meal I’ve been looking for, with more or less success.
Here are some of the quintessential Scottish food and drink you must try when you find yourself in the UK’s most northerly country, for better or for worse. Be brave and you will be rewarded.
Haggis is undoubtedly the most famous Scottish food, perhaps second only to whiskey – see below – and is Scotland’s national dish. Now you’ve got to be brave: Haggis is made with minced sheep’s lungs, heart and liver, mixed with minced beef or lamb, oats, suet and numerous spices like nutmeg, cinnamon and coriander. The finely ground mixture is then wrapped in a sheep’s stomach and cooked. Still upright?
Having a vegetarian daughter makes my stomach churn at the ingredient list, but when I’m in Scotland… And you know what? It’s really good. There are no chewy lumps or greasy meat; instead, the fine mince tastes almost like Christmas, nicely seasoned but not spicy and very tasty. I enjoyed it so much I had it again and would highly recommend it to anyone. Just don’t think about the ingredient list, that’s all.
Where to try: Ardnamurchan Scottish Restaurant in Glasgow is a hugely popular restaurant in a contemporary setting and the dishes are affordable, well presented and really tasty.
2. Neeps and tatties
If you eat haggis, also eat neeps and tatties; They go together like fish and chips. What sounds exotic are simply pureed swedes and/or turnips, called neeps, and potatoes, the tatties. Finely mashed again, but not mashed, they’re prepared with butter, salt, and pepper, and that’s about it. Simple, warming, hearty and delicious. And together with haggis not a dish that trains the teeth but a perfect combination that is a lot of fun.
Where to try: I had them in the same place as the haggis, the Ardnamurchan in Glasgow, but you’ll find them on every menu in Scotland as they’re a staple.
3. Cullen skink
What sounds like a pouting lizard is in fact one of the world’s most delicious soups, and it’s official, loud taste atlas, who rated the soup 4.8 out of 5. And for my part I tend to agree. Nothing beats a steaming hot bowl of soup on a cold winter’s day unless you can snag a steaming hot bowl of Cullen Skink. Made simply from milk, potatoes, leeks and onions, with the magic ingredient smoked haddock, the soup is creamy and has a wonderful smoky flavor from the fish. Hailing from the north-east fishing village of Cullen about 180 miles north of Edinburgh, smoking fish was a popular way of preserving a fresh catch and it makes a lovely, hearty dish.
Where to try: I’ve eaten it pretty much everywhere I can find it, which is most restaurants that serve local fare, but to anyone who knows, it’s the Rockpool Cafe in Cullen, which still uses the absolutely original and best recipe becomes.
Ask any Scots and they come together because of their love for Irn-Bru. This neon orange fizzy soda is famous but rarely available outside Scottish borders. Personally, I hate fizzy drinks and certainly any that glow in the dark, but in the name of research I went for it. Tense and with a glass of water nearby to wash away the taste, I sipped and liked it. Very sweet, very orange, but not as terrible as Lucozade (my apologies Lucozade maker), it has a taste that I can’t describe, but it’s certainly not as harsh as it looks or you would expect. I would drink it again on an occasion when I needed a sugary caffeine hit but didn’t have coffee on hand.
Where to try: I conducted my taste experiment in the beautiful surroundings of the café in the imposing Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum in Glasgow. Buy a can of the drink and give it a try. It’s surprisingly good. Another surprise point for Scottish food and drink.
5. Fried Mars Bar
Okay, if you think haggis is weird, you haven’t tried it yet. About 20 years ago it was reported in the world press and on television that people in Scotland began whipping and deep-frying the chocolate bar made from caramel and chocolate, the Mars bar. Not sure why, but even now when talking about food in Scotland the Mars fried bar pops up.
I love chocolate, but I don’t like Mars bars (my apologies, Mars Wrigley), but I’ve had chocolate spring rolls before and they were So It’s good that I decided to do this, again in the name of research. Honest? It’s one of the worst things I’ve ever eaten. I had two bites just to confirm my first impression and threw away the rest. That said, my husband found it greasy but not too bad. And for what it’s worth, he likes Mars bars, too. So be sure to give it a try.
Where to try: Whilst every fish and chip shop in Glasgow city center has them, I can’t bring myself to recommend the place I got mine from.
Now, after Haggis and Cullen Skink, we come to probably my favorite. This is a sweet treat served in a glass made with layers of cream, rolled oats, honey and fresh raspberries with a dash of whiskey. It is a dessert served on special occasions such as B. Burns Night celebrations when I first tried it and is from the harvest festival that takes place after the raspberries are picked. It’s absolutely delicious, light and healthy to taste, and so flavorful you might as well try to snag another one in a heartbeat.
Where to try: Head straight to Edinburgh’s beautiful Café Royal, which also serves the Macbeth Toastie, a toasted sandwich filled with haggis, smoked bacon, cheddar and caramelized onions.
Stovies is a dish based on potatoes. Usually served in a single casserole dish or portioned from a larger casserole dish, this recipe is individual, with each location being prepared slightly differently. Small cubes of potato are slowly sautéed and prepared with onions, vegetables, and usually some kind of slow-cooked meat, or actually a cold slice of meat, on the side. Very wintry and warming, almost ponderous, but good ol’ comfort food, to be sure. It’s so warming that it’s served up at the Edinburgh Christmas market to be enjoyed with a glass of mulled wine. And that’s pretty much perfect.
Where to try: If you’re in Glasgow instead of the Edinburgh Christmas Market, head to Curler’s Rest Pub near the Botanic Gardens.
You can’t talk about Scottish food and drink and you can’t talk about whisky. It’s the national drink, it’s an important part of the country’s income and it’s quite simply the lifeblood of Scotland. Distilling whiskey, like making champagne, began in a monastery. Where would we be without the old monks?! The name whiskey derives from the Old Gaelic expression, uisge beathaand can be translated as “water of life”, not to be confused with the clear aquavitthe Scandinavian water of life.
Where to try: There is whiskey everywhere in Scotland and the differences in taste are enormous. And the best way to find one you like is during a whiskey tasting. Slightly touristy, but comprehensive and informative, the Scotch Whiskey Experience on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile will turn your head for so many reasons.
9. Scottish porridge
I’m not usually a breakfast person, but when I have time and leisure I love a freshly made porridge. Especially when it’s cold outside. Scottish porridge is made from ground oats, so it’s much finer than most porridges around the world, giving it a creamy texture. It’s not a traditional Scottish dish as such, as many countries have porridge, but the way the oats are treated varies so I thought I’d include it here.
Where to try: Many cafés offer you porridge on the breakfast menu. I enjoyed the porridge at Pep & Fodder at 11 Waterloo Place near Calton Hill in Edinburgh. Unpretentious and budget-friendly, they’ll happily top up your cinnamon or syrup while you work your way through your bowl of porridge.