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.

The Koreans of Europe


No two cultures are the same but every one is similar, right? You could certainly say that about much of Europe, where thousands of years of breeding, trading, warring, traveling, and sharing across ever-shifting borders has caused a mixology of international characteristics of which one can be difficult to discern from the other.

In Asia, it is a little more difficult to separate the differences because the continent has suffered less fluctuation of its borders, and in terms of today’s map, colonialism for the most part decided on today’s borders. But still you can throw in the changes, regardless of actual influence, of international trade, development, colonialism, the sharing of ideas, television, and migration, and the wind at the weekend if you wish, and you will soon realise the stark similarities between peoples and cultures there.

Now that might seem like a simple notion, and it is, but if you take away cliché comparisons such as the idea that your culture and my culture are very musical, or that we have a distinct cuisine, or family is central to the social contract, then you have to get off your armchair and take a look a little closer.

When I first came to Korea from Ireland I was fascinated by the notion that the Koreans were called by someone as the Irish of the east. I thought to myself as I spent more time here that this was something to connect me with the country, that it was something stronger than the bonds which other nationalities might ascribe to their connections with Korea. But those reasons for which Korea is lauded for its Irishness really didn’t appear to be that strong.

Of course there are very strong reasons for calling Koreans the Irish of the east, such as our tenacity for drinking, our colonial history, the fact our country is divided by a significant border, we’re stuck between two significant world powers, we both have a distinct national cuisine, and we’ve a social structure which focuses on both age and gender hierarchies… oh wait forget the other two.

You see, the whole comparison thing between Ireland and Korea seems to be done by someone who sat down with Wikipedia one day and got this notion into their head that Ireland and Korea are very similar. I suppose they are in some respects but in many respects they are far from complimentary. For example if you considered the alcohol consumption aspect you run into problems. Anyone who has ever drank knows that there is an etiquette to drinking, sometimes very formalised and other times apparently informal, but there is always a way to drink. When we think about drinking, in countries that drink a lot, how we drink and what drink is far more important than how much (because we already know that’s a fair amount).

Now if you’ll excuse me if I turn to some reliable Wikipedia statistics. In terms of thirst Ireland and Korea are ranked quite closely together , but you can’t help but notice that Ireland is not the only country on the top half of that list with a dark history linked with its geopolitical situation. Yes, being fond of a drink is a stereotype both countries fall into, but it is by no means an exclusive club, and if anything it hardly characterises the entire culture and people (but in fairness it probably does).

There are of course many similarities between the people of Ireland and Korea. In the same respect, similarities exist across the entire planet and to single them out as unique to Korea and Ireland, or indeed only to Ireland and to Korea would be selling things a little short.

Take for example Italy, or indeed Italians. For the past four weeks I’ve been teaching Italian high-school students in a summmer camp just outside of Dublin. This isn’t the first time I’ve done it, and if I do come back to Ireland for the summer I use this work as a means of earning a little pocket money for the adventure. It’s generally good fun, and interesting from a teacher’s perspective to meet students from another country where English is also considered very important for university and employment prospects.

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A building on the university campus where I taught for four weeks under typically Irish summer skies.

First impressions present Italians as completely the opposite as Korean students. They are lively, opinionated, and vocal, very vocal. The stereotype of a Korean high school student is anything but this, and I come across the remnants of their much discussed experience in the university students I teach. They are generally shy, reserved, and for the most part quiet, very quiet.

Now I recall that when I was in university that we were also quiet but that was probably more out of fear that we would be asked a question. We were not afraid that we might get the question wrong, but because we knew we would have no idea of the answer to the question asked. Anyone who ever took a foreign language class in secondary school probably cannot recall the classroom being abuzz with Irish/French/Spanish/German/whatever. I think that this is probably close to the same case with the majority of Korean English language students.

Yes, for a person who goes from teaching very quiet and reserved students to a class of lively and mostly enthusiastic students, with the added benefit of being western (even more western than myself I’d hasten to add) it is easy to offer immediate stark contrasts, many of which are likely to have been formed from well established national stereotypes. I’m sure if I stood at a bar in Itaewon or Haebangchon and professed that in fact Koreans were not that different from Italians, and they were in fact more like Italians than actual Irish, I would be shouted down for such a ludicrous assertion.

Before I go into detail here, please take into account my experiences. Firstly and most importantly, I don’t really know Italians in any way as well as I know Irish or Korean people. Most of my experience with Italians stems from teaching them over a number of summers in fairly relaxed situations, and I’ve never even visited Italy, let alone lived there, like I have being doing in Korea since 2005. I think that it’s also important to explain about the students I have been teaching; for the most part they all appear to be middle class, relatively well schooled teenagers, mostly of high-school age as far as I could discern. With these things in mind please ascribe your own prejudice to the study sample.

Anyway, this isn’t a scientific expose, but more a reflection on my past experience teaching Italians in Dublin on my summer holidays, which may also have some significance as you read this words. I did come across some worthwhile comparisons which allude to national character more so than the demographics and historical comparisons which plague Irish-Korean analysis.

At the top of the pile has to be food. Now don’t expect me to give a foodie’s detailed description of each respective nationality’s cuisine. That’s near impossible for me, for now at least. What is significant is that each country is obsessed with food (yeah I know, what’s the big deal?) but more importantly, with their own national cuisine. It could be reasonably argued that a large portion of each country’s economy is powered by its tenacity for its own cuisine. Ireland, unless you count the local chipper on a weekend night, would not fit in here.

I know how good and how diverse Korean food is, and while it may have its critics there is little doubt in how much Koreans miss Korean food when they leave the country. Yes, we can all poke fun at the flocks of ajjumma with instant noodles and gochujang stuffed into their suitcases as they travel, but can you blame them when much of what they know in terms of food is Korean food (and Chinese take-away). Expecting them to revolutionise over the space of one-flight, probably in a tour group full of similar minded folk, is probably asking to much. Anyway, they’re happy so what does it really matter?

It’s always easy to point the finger at people who do things differently, and especially in Korea where many are particularly reserved. I know that it’s easy to praise younger people who are keen to experience new food from around the world, but again it’s equally easy as one who enjoys variety but dislikes expense to notice that much of the international cuisine enjoyed by many young Koreans is indeed spaghetti with seafood and a cream or tomato sauce, or worse, the evil brunch made up of a sausage, an egg, some salad, and some other concoction. Despite this attempt at snobbery you’ll do well to find Koreans who don’t have a list of Korean dishes they crave after so many days away from a suitable supply, and if all else fails you’re bound to find somewhere to stock up on the always reliable ramyeon. I’d warrant that Italians aren’t that far off, at least the ones I was teaching weren’t.

Now granted that the restaurant in the university they were staying in was far from haute cuisine, which could have influenced their thoughts. but a day didn’t go by without some lamenting for “Italian” pasta, or “Italian” food. Their own food of course, which many will tell is fantastic, and rightly so – much like Korean food – but it still bothers me a little when people who apparently obsess so much over food, when given the opportunity to try something other than the stainless steel served chicken and potato slop they’d been divvied out the first port of call for sustenance in Dublin was either McDonalds or Bugger King.

Travel broadens the mind and when it comes to food this is especially the case. Koreans, in their defence, were not really allowed to travel up until the 1980s, and even then it was not on their own that they all began to encroach on the UNESCO heritage sites of the world. This way of traveling is only slowly leaving the mass conciousness of the the country, and independent travel is becoming a thing, especially for university and post-university aged people who are eager, for the most part, to acquire stronger English and also to have a good time before they end up having to sell their soul to a full-time job.

And I suppose my wonderful Italian students, many of whom had only traveled with their parents (I did a survey) and even then only to neighbouring countries on school excursions or lanugauge exchanges, would be far from an acceptable sample to base my argument on, but I can’t help but find this issue which has been recurring over the past number of years when I have taught Italians in the summer.

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One of my classes of Italian teenagers from all over Italy, with their certificates of completion…and me, grinning stupidly!

The other area which struck me a bit more thunderbolt like, and is something which is certainly a recognisable trait in Korea, and that’s image.

What always struck me is that the youngsters I’ve taught have always been for the most part, despite the bags under their eyes from self-imposed sleep depravation, very well groomed and image conscious. I won’t say whether they were well dressed or not, but they did obviously take the time to wear what were nice clothes and spend some time fixing their hair in the morning. Now they were teenagers so you can’t expect too much variety from their attire, but that being said even though they were away from their parents they didn’t come in with their clothes hanging off them, unwashed and smelly.

I had a conversation about Irish fashion with these students one day and we went on about how Irish people dressed and whether or not we were considered stylish or not. The general consensus was that it was hard to know because they hadn’t seen too many Irish people, and when they were in Dublin it was hard to know who was Irish and who wasn’t. I told them next time just listen to them.

The conversation developed over the coming days as I tried to get more information from them on their experiences. It turned out that they were impressed by Irish dress sense (not style or fashion mind you). In Italy, I was told, people always had to take into consideration their appearance among others. That their look was always being scrutinised, and that there were in fact many ways to dress in Italy which were socially unacceptable, especially for women. Does this sound familiar to my readers from Korea?

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My final class of Italian teenagers before they packed their bags and headed back to Italy.

I told them that this was also the case in Korea and I gave them some examples, such as keeping shoulders covered, not showing too much skin or clevage, and some others. These youngs adults explained to me that they were impressed by the general social acceptance of one’s own way of dressing. I explained that sure enough plenty of people probably thought they were stupid looking or whatever, but they empathised that this did not stop them wearing what they wore, and it was accepted that this is how some people dressed in public.

I explained to the Italian students, as I was a little misled at first, that don’t be put off by the people on the street who seem scruffy and who don’t apply as much time in the mirror as they may, they probably spent just as much time making sure they looked suitably unwashed. They understood this, but what was important was that they were allowed to do this.

I know that Herself has expressed the same feelings about living in Ireland also. She enjoys being in Ireland because there is less pressure to dress a particular way, and to meet a certain standard. This is not to say that she dresses less fashionably or doesn’t apply herself with as much care, it’s just that she has more options in the wardrobe than she would have in Korea. Of course image is important for every country, and Ireland is definitely the case.

I found this to be, well honestly, fantastic from an Irish perspective. I don’t think the Irish go out and win too many acclaims from the armchair fashionistas of the world, but too me this seemed to be something to be proud of. Now, I’m sure if they were in another part of Ireland this idea would be slightly less obvious, but still the more I think about it the more likely it is the case….maybe.

I know that in this rather drawn out comparison between Korea and Italy may seem to have holes all over it, and I don’t doubt that my arguments and assertions here are quite week. Let me reiterate, they are mere observations, and I hope when you read this, like when you read anything else I read, it gives you the inclination to search around a little more to find another opinion.

What I will assert though, to conclude, is that if anything my loose comparison here should be seen as a way of firstly drawing attention to the ridiculous notion that two countries would be so alike as to be compared as twins. But more importantly I hope that I can give you a decent example of how similar every human being is, and that despite thousands of miles seperating us our different upbringings and cultures do have similarities which are indistinguishable, and even when that is not the case, the differences are what make being a person interesting. In the end let us forget that all our blood is red.