Irish Food: A Musing Inspired by my Classroom


This morning on the radio as I was driving to or from somewhere there there was a discussion about how Irish people are becoming the most unhealthy in Europe if not the world, and how diet related illnesses are going to cause more and more problems in the coming years and decades. There were mentions of the cost to the taxpayer and where was the leadership to direct us away from making our own conscious adult decisions. There was talk of a cultural change and how we as Irish people need to look at what we are eating and make a big difference. As someone who takes pride in eating a varied and at times luxurious diet, I can do nothing but coil and terror at the thought I am being singled out as a bad eater.

I probably am, although I try my best to avoid unhealthy binges, my fondness for cured pork products, cheeses, and it has to be said the occasional pain au chocolat is something I try to address by not actually having them in the fridge in the first place.

My kingdom for a pain au chocolat… (image via flickr)

Just yesterday while teaching an exam class I spoke in depth about Irish food with the students, from Spain and Italy, and the major problems with the Irish diet. The observations continued most of the time with assertions that Irish don’t eat fruit and don’t eat vegetables. I recoiled in horror and expressed that I certainly do, and I take pride in the amount of fruit and veg I eat. Granted I’m borderline obese – in normal persons terms at least, some dieticiany kind of people would say I’m so far over the border I’ve set up residence, but I digress.

The thing is that despite my pride in my diet, I suppose that they are not wrong. They explained that much of the vegetables were boiled – often too much but anyway – and the meat (always meat they expressed) was usually doused in gravy, and gravy which had nothing to do with what they were eating. I’m imagining it was Bisto, which isn’t really gravy, it’s just rehydrated brown stuff with flavourings. At times they had a sandwiched and both seemed to believe that Irish people lived off sliced white bread, and with a tiny slice of ham and a healthy spread of butter or spread. There was much more recoiling at this.

I do think that the food situation has improved remarkably in Ireland. The variety available, and the quality as well are streets ahead from what was once the case. But it is only so deep, and our old habits prevail.

When I first came back to Ireland I couldn’t get over the lack of variety in lunch options. The entire city seemed to operate purely on sandwiches. I traipsed all around Grafton Street and environs just looking for a big bowl of hearty soup – yes it was July but I knew what I was doing – but to no avail. Group after group of foreign students, from the age of fourteen to fifty have all expressed dismay at the Irish diet. It does not help that these are people from Europe, who aside from the culinary, are having a memorable time in Dublin. But food is important, in fact it’s a lifestyle in places like Italy and Spain (not to mention Korea).

I empathised, and told them that we don’t have a food culture here, then in typical Irish fashion I went on to blame the famine and poverty previous to this. Both Italy and Spain were certainly poor in the past, and definitely as fuedal as Ireland so that excuse was stepped out fairly rapidly. I then explained that for some reason we don’t have a food culture, which I can’t understand why, but we don’t. I struggled to explain why we are averse to eating fish, being on an island and all. As a last resort I forced all my blame on the weather, which seemed like a reasonable enough excuse with regard to the inability to cultivate a variety of fruit and vegetables, with the exception of root vegetables.

It goes deeper than that though, and we as a nation do deserve criticism for our diets. Whatever about the past, this is 2014 and Ireland has access to more than its fair share of markets, especially when it comes to vegetables and fruit from the EU. In fact if you visit the supermarket now you will struggle to find fruit or vegetables grown in Ireland. Fortunately we have a thriving beef trade here which more than makes up for the amount of food we need to import.

No shortage of fruit or veg in Ireland (image via flickr)

My students elaborated though on the problems. In the fridges, all you’ll find (for the most part) is line after line of cheddar cheese and ham, both for sandwiches. There is no reason why cheap, pre-packed cheddar should be more available than cheap pre-packed gouda, or edam, or something else interesting. Indeed, the same could be said for other meats and dairy. In Ireland we seem to have a fascination with the ordinary banal diet which everyone else subscribes to. In this case ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch.

Even locally you can see things being just done wrong. In my local Supervalu close to Halloween they put out a large display of nuts, as these are traditionally eaten over Halloween, as are apples and other fruit. As it’s 2014 and Ireland is one of the most wealthy countries in the world – don’t argue, it is – now we give all the kids sweets at the door, and this is grand I suppose, as it’s only one day a year after all. What got to me though was that the local Supervalu thought it prudent to sell all their Halloween jellies and lollipops right in the middle of the fruit and veg. Huge big tubs stacked ten high and five thick were packed into the fruit and vegetables section. Tell me there isn’t something wrong with this, regardless of what time of year it is.

Some of you reading this will be near to forming a lynch mob and hunting me down, but only because I’m offending your own culinary sensibilities. There are no shortage of people in Ireland who know what good food is and how to cook, but for the most part the majority of people on this island are kind of clueless, or perhaps kind of lacking a little inspiration. Is food that complicated that we cannot understand how to make it more diverse, and indeed interesting?

Our unhealthy diets are probably based around a lack of fruit and vegetables in our diet. The most likely reason we don’t like to put vegetables in our diet is because we don’t know how to make them taste good. If we aren’t going to make vegetables taste good, short on dousing them in salt and a ladelful of bisto, then why would we bother eating them? People turn their nosess up at salad because all they see is lettuce and half a slice of tomato, but lets be clear, you are right to turn your nose up at salad if that’s all you get. If that’s all you can make at home, well then you’re missing out. My point here is that if people can’t find enjoyment in food like fruit and vegetables, which are delicious and exactly where we get our notions of taste from, then they are going to resort to unhealthy and processed food to satisfy them, be that from the snack and sweets isle of the supermarket, or indeed the local chipper.

Take the carrot for example. Other than the potato, you’d do well to imagine a more typical vegetable on an Irish dinner table. Yet, if I were to picture the carrot in Irish cuisine, it would be boiled, and boiled to an all but spreadable texture. I can just imagine it now. In fact the idea of a boiled carrot actually makes me half wretch, and for years I wouldn’t touch carrots because they were boiled. Yet if you roast your carrot, or cook it then put it in a blender and make soup, or just serve it raw with some tomato and cucumber, you’ll find one of the most delicious and least complicated vegetables out there.

It’s that simple. (image via flickr)

I honestly believe it’s a lack of understanding about how best to approach food. I may be a lack of creativity, but it can’t be a lack of money, because vegetables and fruit are the cheapest thing in the supermarket. I’m going to give you some simple things to do with readily available vegetables and fruit, that you can do and they are instantly more satisfying and tasty. In most cases all you will need is a sharp knife, maybe a peeler, some salt and pepper, and olive oil.

The Tomato: Where would we be without the tomato? Wash one, slice it, put it on some nice soda bread, dribble a decent dobble of olive oil, then sprinkle salt and pepper on, once this process is complete put it in your mouth and chew. Fantastic and flawless every time.

The carrot: As explained above, put it in the oven. First peel it, chop it into long sticks, place on a backing tray, a bit of olive oil and seasoning, then into the oven at about 200 centigrade, take it out when the skin colour has darkened and the ends are starting to go a little black and gooey – or carmelising if you want to be smarmy.

The Onion: The onion goes well with beef and lamb, but especially a great addition to hamburgers and steak. The onion is also incredible in the amount of nutrients and antioxidants, so you should try to eat some. Slice the onion into rings then fry it until brown on a pan. What you can do is add a tablespoon of balsamic vinnegar and the same again of brown sugar, stir it well, then allow them to go really dark. In fact doing this way may actually kill all the nutrients in them, but they taste really good! If you find the taste or texture of regular too strong I suggest going for challots, which are smaller versions but a good deal milder and easier to eat raw.

Mushrooms: I was afraid of mushrooms until I went to Korea. I don’t know why, but I was. These guys are simple, and all you need to do is rinse them off, slice them, then put them in towards the end of the cooking in any dish. As they’re really delicate if you cook them too long they go to much and taste crap. Again, if you’re having beef, or lamb, or even pork, just add some to the pan and fry them lightly until they change to a light gray. Olive oil doesn’t work great with them, but salt and pepper does!

Peppers, Courgettes, Brocolli, Aubergine: Please, please, don’t boil these. Either try some of the examples I gave above, or just simple chop them up small and add them to your favourite pasta or curry sauce you might use. Every jar of sauce never recommends adding any vegetables to them for some stupid reason, but you should. Don’t let them cook too long though, just leave them until they’re nice and tender.

Another great thing you can do is make soup with all of these ingredients. Just prepare and equal part of each type of vegetable, or more of one if you want a stronger flavour for one, fry them a little, then add water or stock and let them boil away for a good while. If you have any dried herbs like basil or some Italian herb mix sprinkle in some too as these are best used in soups and stews because they bring the flavour out more. Once it has cooked long enough stick it in a food processing and puree it.

Some combinations will be better than others, so experiment a little. Head over the fresh herbs, even the dry herbs, and try a few out. For some like sage and thyme, you’d be advised to check what they’re best prepared with, but ones like oregano, basil, and parsley shouldn’t cause too much consternation. If you’re not sure, give it a sniff and if it doesn’t seem right for you then don’t use it.

If you’re not sure what you’re doing, take your time, check some recipes online (the BBC Good Food site is a great no nonsense source of tasty ideas), cook at a low heat so that you don’t lose control, and keep and open mind.

The more you try, the better understanding you will get of the food’s taste, what goes better with what, but most importantly, what do you like! Cooking and food is not that complicated, but it can be intimidating – I know I never experimented before. However, once you get the hang of it, it’s incredibly satisfying, and great fun. And then once you’re happy with what you cook, you can pay more attention to important things, like what wine are you going to have with your delicious home cooked meal.

What are your most simple go-to recipes at home? Got any tips for budding cooks, or experienced chefs?

If you are so inclined you can listen to a podcast about Ireland and its diet taken from this morning’s radio broadcast here.

10 Things About Korea…


So I won’t be along here much longer, so I thought I’d give this a shot.

There’s plenty about Korea that I’m going to miss, without a doubt, and then there’s a fair amount of things I won’t miss about Korea. It would be fair to say the same about anywhere, of course.

So here goes nothing…

10 Things I’ll Miss About Korea (in no particular order of importance)

  1. The ajjumma-ajjeoshi cult – forget about how you spell the bloody word auf English, the reverence paid to these two pillars of society is beyond impressive. I often long to be one myself, just so I can get stuff done. I have looked for a  temple to worship but have only found people pushing me out of the way because a worshipped one is oncoming. I challenge my readers to find a more ubiquitous beacon in honour of how to get shit done than the lowly, and not so lowly Uncle and Auntie.
  2. Food – Yum. Season care me not, belly always happy. Tasty with or without MSG, the local tucker satisfies beyond compare, and at a price to match my much unencumbered wallet (in that it’s empty of cash). I still amaze my Irish brethren with the fact that four strapping lads could fill themselves with deadened meat and a decent skinful of schoops (an Irish dialect for pints) for about 20 blips, or there abouts. That is merely the tip of the iceberg.
  3. The weather – I’m going to Ireland, a country not renowned for it’s tropical beaches and balmy breezes, and after an afternoon where I strolled into work in short sleeves, spent an hour under a tree reading in the shade, and then dozzily cantered home in anticipation of me din-dins all in glorious sunshine, it will be hard to compare. In fairness, you would do well to better yon land of the morning calm for it’s months of May and June, and September through to even November. Regardless of when you go to Ireland, the advice at the best of time is ‘bring a good jacket’.
  4. Deliveries – You could spend your whole life in your home and never, ever, ever have to leave. I mean it. Think of the luxury of, in theory, only having to put clothes on when the delivery guy turns up, and even then it wouldn’t be much more than a bed sprawl thrown over your shoulders to cover your jiggly bits! Can you do that with as much a degree of comfort elsewhere as you can with as much success as in Korea? I sincerely doubt it – although fixing an income would be a a challenge if you were a carpenter or marine biologist… And half the time, if not all of the time, delivery is everyone’s favourite price, free! Did I mention stuff arrives the next day?
  5. Communications – Roads, telephones, internet, taxis, buses, trains, and of course subways, exist in abundance (they’d want to considering how many people live here) and they are all efficient, effective, and extraordinarily everything the public transport or whatever system in your country is not. Don’t try and argue, you’re wrong. Not without it’s faults, of course, but man I couldn’t believe it when I was in London a few years back and I heard that they were excited that they were testing getting mobile signals into the underground. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, in Seoul it was unheard of that your phone wouldn’t have a 3G signal underground, let alone just a regular bar or two on your phone.
  6. English – Ok, so not everyone is fluent and as an English language teaching professional it’s my wont to complain about the inadequacy of the English language ability of such a massive proportion of the population given the time spent on language teaching and yeah so fucking what? Not only has the country provided me with a lifestyle others would aspire too, as well as a family, friends, and many wonderful memories, it’s also the reason that made living here initially so easy, and today it’s not much different. I could go on but I won’t. English in Korea, who’d have thought it was so great?
  7. Health and Safety – Up until about two months ago this wasn’t such a big issue, and in the respect that I am now going to mention, I still thinks it’s alright. There’s not really a penchant for preparing everyone for the inevitable. You’d wonder some times who is more adult about the way that people should be constantly protecting others. Remember, we’re adults, so you know, look where you’re walking down the street and don’t expect everything to be so perfect for you. It’s a welcome thing that the love of suing the shite of some poor misfortunate for not being impeccable has not landed with the same rigour as it has in the Republic of Errors…I mean Ireland.
  8. Silence – One of the great things about being in Korea and not being completely fluent in the language or the whimsicalness of everything about you is that so much moaning and nonsense which your life is better off not knowing about floats gently and tenderly over your head and evaporates into the clouds above. And even if you do understand it, it’s a lot easier to tune out when it’s in a foreign language than when it’s in your native brogue. This lack of generally ignorable bullshittery is a fantastic advantage to being a resident in the land of such placidity in the AM, in my own most humble opinion.
  9. Suwon – It has been my home for over four and a half years, and the place where we live now has been our home for three and a half of those. I haven’t lived anywhere longer but for my folk’s place back in Ireland. I love the view from above everything. I like that suddenly we have a subway station right next to us. I love Hwaseong Fortress and the Jin Mi Tong Dalk  nearby. I like that I can walk to work in twenty minutes, and even more importantly I can walk home and not get stuck in traffic. Did I mention we recently found a butcher who sells decent steaks nearby?
  10. My job – This factor would have sounded offensive to the same me some years back. The idea that me, of all people, would actually like my job is in many respects absolute madness. But aside from the five months holidays a year, and the less than 15 hours teaching I have to do as part of my contract, it’s quite an enjoyable situation. I’ve not only had some fantastic students over the years (really, some real class acts, I’m not lying) but I’ve actually learned from my experience, not just about how I can teach better, but how to deal with people more effectively and also, how to be a better writer. I’m genuinely sad to be leaving this job.

10 Things I Won’t Miss About Korea (in no particular order of importance)

  1. The ajjumma-ajjeoshi cult – Isn’t it nuts? Really! I can’t get over it that someone saggy and poorly dressed can hold a higher position in society solely based on the fact that they’ve had more time in it. It genuinely drives me mad that I play second fiddle to someone who has no genuine advantage to me, in terms of the two of us standing side by side, other than they are a middle aged and Korean. Sure some deserve it, but why can’t I be given the same level of amazeballs for just standing on the corner and being a thirty year old?
  2. Food – Man I long for some variety, and I’m not talking about variety in Korean food, because you can’t beat the variety of Korean food in Korea I’ll tell you that for nothing. I’m talking about the variety of any food that isn’t Korean. I’ve seen enough Pizza and Pasta places to last me a lifetime. And as for Japanese noodles spots, which aren’t bad at all, I can’t handle it, I really can’t. And while I’m at it, I just long for some bread without sweet cream cheese and/or hotdogs (note: I love these things…but sometimes I care not for them). In fact, I wish it was mandatory for every person who opened a foreignesque restaurant to visit the country where it comes from so they can taste the food they’re attempting to replicate and then they will realise that other countries in fact do like to use an ingredient known as salt, and not sugar, to bolster the deliciousness out of the food.
  3. The Weather – Winter and summer can suck my balls frankly. Last winter I went to Thailand because, lets be honest, I like going outside. And to be honest, I don’t like taking the nine showers a day required of summer in Korea. Did I mention yellow dust and or course micro dust? Yeah, not weather, I know, but come on let’s be honest….
  4. Deliveries – If I don’t get killed by one of those lunatics in their vans or on their bikes, I’m going to kill them for me almost killing them as the somersault through another red light. I could say more but after my food rant I’m going to control myself. Deep breaths. Think of happy places. Mmmm, no delivery lunatic bikes in Ireland…that’s nice….
  5. Communications – I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that fast internet speeds and high rates of connectivity aren’t the be all and end all. This is especially the case when the price is censorship and ActiveX/mass rates of identity theft with little to no repercussions for those responsible for protecting said identities. And while I’m here, driving will grow you a thicker layer of skin than is really necessary. You might think it’s alright, that is until you encounter Sunday drivers, a phenomenon quite the opposite from its western counterpart.
  6. English– It irks me that so much of Korea is so English friendly. I’m on the other side of the planet but life here is so cushy that it’s just wrong, to me at least. This is a moral thing, personally speaking. In Ireland we speak English purely because English was the way to communicate and get jobs, essentially if you emigrated, and I personally don’t see why Korea should be so obsessed with this language which has such a foreign baring on everyone’s lives. You may disagree with me, and I’m sure many do, but this is how I feel. I think Korea should be less concerned about having the entire country fluent, and more concerned about giving an even spread to it’s education. Or something to that effect.
  7. Health & Safety – Ok, fuck this, I’ve had enough. Firstly let’s stop by cutting steel on the fucking street, and when you’re down there do me a favour and share the fucking footpath with the people who are using it i.e. those walking from A to B. See those fancy changing coloured lights up in the sky? There’s a reason for them and it’s not because they go well with all the neon. Yes, I am childish in that I need to be protected from your inanity, but please I do in fairness have a right not to take my life in my hand as I walk down the street to buy a carton of poxy milk.
  8. Silence – ‘I heard them say ‘waygook’ …then did they say ‘Conor’…they’re talking about. What? Come here and say that to my face! Arrrrrrrgh!’ and other stories.
  9. Suwon – There is an expression in Korean that basically says you shouldn’t spit into the wind. And in this case I shall not spit into the wind. What I will say is that Suwon, while not without it’s charms it does lack a certain amount of finesse, says the fella who wants to walk around his apartment naked until his dying days.
  10. My job – My job is no better or worse as it is, but I’m in my early 30s and I’ve a family to look after. In ten years, I could be in the same state, and this is not something I am willing to accept. There are ways which I could change this, but to be honest the right move is to stick to myself and Herself’s long term plan and get moving. I hold no regrets and would recommend it to anyone, but for me right now I have reached the point where I new stage must be entered upon.

So that’s it.

Anything you’d miss and wouldn’t miss about Korea?