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.

Opening Day


For the past month or there abouts we’ve been fondly eyeing the monstrosity that is MAYA on the corner. MAYA, to those unfamiliar, is a(nother) shopping mall/centre that has just been built in Chiang Mai, this on the corner of Nimmanhaemin and the Super Highway.  It’s a large cuboid buiding with a funky honeycomb-like wavy pattern snaking around its exterior, with a screen blasting colourful and flashing advertisements into the Chiang Mai sunlight. It certainly stands out from the competition, which is mostly two or three storey buidlings, and the odd tall apartment or hotel not far away.

The opening day, January 23rd had long been announced, and from speaking with the other long term residents in the condo complex we’re staying I got the impression that most people were looking forward to it. It’s a bit of black hole in terms of proximity to everything, the nearest real amenity is a 7-Eleven and street of funky little shops with over priced restaurants around the corner. I suppose most people though were looking forward to the Starbucks and the supermarket, because the one a five minute drive away was just too far.

Also in relation to the opening day, we pretty much saw little to no activity around what looked to be a shell of a building for days, until the week before it was due to open. All day and late into the night trucks and pickups were pulling in weighed down with all kinds of boxes, sacks, and shop fittings, desperately trying to get set up for the deadline. I was convinced it wasn’t going to happen and enjoyed explaining these doubts to Herself, but yesterday there was complete chaos on the corner where MAYA is situated, and I suppose they got their stuff done.

This morning we headed down to see what all the fuss was about. Opening was set for 11AM but we were there before 10, and fortunately it was going to be a long drawn out opening. Anyone familiar with Thailand will know that it’s a fairly religious country when it comes to it’s Buddhist faith. In fact it seems like for even the opening of a packet of crisps they need to bring a monk or two around to give it the go ahead and wishg it good luck, because it’s all about luck, as opposed to medieval practices like marketing and business strategy. Even as you walk down the streets you can see little shrines offering snacks and drinks to the spirits in the hope that it will bring them favour. Of course a certain amount of this probably has to do with keeping up appearances, but it’s still a fascinating display as many of the shrines are colourful and well serviced.

I liken much of this to Ireland’s necessity for bringing a priest around to bless whatever it is that’s opening. While not as common a sight these days (I think/hope/wonder), getting the Church’s seal of approval was an important part of any opening ceremony. Whether there were crucifixes or portraits of the Virgin Mary lying around afterwards depended on the proprietor of course.

Thailand though seems to do it with much more vigour. There were prayers by a gentleman dressed from head to toe in white, who then proceeded to toss colourful flower petals over people’s heads, and then there was a line of monks who sat covered from the sun in a white tent who chanted away for a short while. We, to be honest, were far from enamoured by this performance, so we went looking for breakfast.

By the time we came back we were just in time to catch the opening of the doors. We piled in with everyone else full of oohs an aaahs, looking up at the large skylight full of dancing silver balloons dangling from some invisible tread. Everything was nice and shiny, with the exception of the odd tile or two which had not received the appropriate amount of grout, as Herself discovered when she kicked a piece ten yards down a half empty make-up aisle.

To our disappointment the supermarket wasn’t open, so we went to check out the food options. While there is always an excellent variety here in Thailand, we have become increasingly concerned with the lack of high-chairs for +1. At this stage she is 100% wriggle and run, and anything we can do to save our arms and allow us to enjoy some aspects of our meal takes precedence. We have discovered however that Thailand, to it’s detriment, is not a baby chair place. Maybe they just don’t take their kids out or something…

Anyway.

It’s a fine place this MAYA. We only hung around a short while just to get a feel for it, but we’ll be back I suppose, many times I imagine. Having something like this so close to where you live always makes you feel like you’re living a better life. Still as I walk through there even just window shopping all I can hear is my wallet contorting in agony as I pass buy another thing I think would look great in my possession, or stomach.

For more photographs from the opening of MAYA please follow this link to my Flickr page

All writing and photographs © Conor O’Reilly January 2014

Typical


It wouldn’t be a snow day in If I Had A Minute T0 Spare Towers if I didn’t have a stream of photographs of the lovely traffic jam inducing whiteness.

Hark! Here they cometh. Snow photos from Yeongtong-dong!

(Yes, I know I’m spoiling you)

The real fun begins tomorrow when all this is frozen, of course.

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All photographs © Conor O’Reilly 2013

Flea Marketing


Myself and Herself have half a kind of a hobby these days. By these days I mean Autumn, as its kind of a seasonal thing. We go to flea markets and sell our *ahem* stuff.

The reason why we say it’s kind of a hobby is because we’ve only ever done it three times, and at the same time we only have so much to sell. But yeah, we’re well into it. We’ve a big black suitcase packed full of old but decent clothes, a few other bits a and pieces, as well as our mat for sitting on, and we head off and start selling our stuff. It’s good fun, social, and we usually come out with a few quid in our pocket.

I think it’s kind of a fad at the moment, because there seem to be flea markets for all sorts of occasions. There are a couple of charity ones, and of course there’s one in Hongdae, and for some reason they seem to be getting a lot of attention of late. Don’t ask me why. Probably because of Hongdae, but who am I to presume?

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We got into it last year when our local neighbourhood, 4 danji (4단지), in Yeongtong organised a small one in between the three main apartment complexes. There is nice treelined laneway which cuts in between the three big apartment complexes. Here vendors set up their stuff on one side, while people were free to walk up and down checking out what people had to sell. There was also a stall selling noodles, or to be specific 잔치국수, and a person with a long table full of pickled roe and squid.

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We did alright that day. In fact we did so well that we set our sights on next year as we headed up the steps to our appartment double counting our thick bunch of 1000 won notes.

It was also good fun. We paid for dinner that night, but we also found a rare sampling of community which is hard to find in the often bland and solitary apartment complex. As it was a Saturday, there were all kinds of people out getting involved. Of course there were familys selling all their household bits and pieces, like clothes, books, toys, and of course ornaments, jewelry, and kitchen wares. There were also plenty of the same kind of people walking up and down haggling for the best deal. It was really just a bit of fun, and I don’t think we sold anything for over 5000 won.

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This year we thought we had our secret weapon, the diamond we could sell for millions and retire off the takings. We had for the past ten months building up a bounty of baby clothes and other baby related goodies, which had gone beyond their use for obvious reasons, and we now planned to put their former owner through university with the proceeds from their sale.

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Ready for our onslaught of the flea markets of Suwon, Herself found our first battle ground. There would be a flea market on a Friday on the roof of the AK Plaza at Suwon was our destination, and the customers were sure to be women, but more importantly young or expectant mothers keen to snap up a few bargains in the hunt for appropriately equipping their little bundles of joy – and by appropriately I mean with as much stuff that the other kids don’t have and at as cheap a price as possible.

We set the bar high, asking for high prices on most of what we had. We had done some research and found stuff in no where near as good quality as the baby clothes we were selling on the internet, and it was going for what we thought to be unreasonable prices. Let’s not forget we had some good stuff, especially for a baby about to be born in October or who wasn’t that old. +1 was born in November and we needed as much winter clothes as possible, and now that they were too big we needed to make room for more. There were some other things as well, nice stuff that you couldn’t find in Korea, including some fancy brands and the likes.

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What I gather now is that people go to these things expect everything to be 1000 won. That’s the only explanation as any time we quoted a price people would turn the nose up, complain it was expensive, and then trail off. The odd time they’d come back, showing interest, ask about the price, expecting us somehow to suddenly go “oh that one, oh, sorry we meant to say it was free, not 10,000 won”. I gather that these things are suppsed to be a good way of getting your hands on some cheap stuff, but clearly the notion that people were also trying to raise a little cash was beyond them. I won’t even start a discussion on value.

We persevered and came out relatively well. We didn’t sell half the amount of things we hoped, and we left with a very full and heavy suitcase. Regardless, we made almost 200,000 won. I’m not really sure how much stuff we sold, but if we were to do a comparison, I sold about 15,000 won’s worth of stuff whilst herself, a shark in her previous life, seemed to do better. Despite our attempted tenacity our prices probably quartered from what we had discussed the night before, and to add insult to injury (not that there really was any), herself’s friend who sat next to us sold four things and nearly made as much as us. I suppose in the end it depends on what you’re selling not how much you’re selling it for.

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Today we were ready to go again with another flea market. This time it was again our local 4 danji neighbourhood annual event. We brought down our wares and set things up. Unfortunately, baby clothes were not considered to be as hot a commodity as we’d hoped. Most of the people there had kids who were actually doing the selling while the mothers and fathers stood around chatting and drinking coffee mix.

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The location for this flea market makes it nicer, as it is covered over by trees, and pretty much everyone has to follow the same route. The people are mostly friendly, inquisitive, but also keen not to spend more than 1,000 won on anything. I don’t think we were much better. As was to be expected we sold a few things, but we didn’t have the diversity of bric-a-brac which are suitcase had last year, and the clothes we were trying to sell just weren’t suited to the customers. As Herself said, we’ll have to go to Hongdae ot sell half of this.

But these things aren’t all about selling stuff, because people have to buy things right. We did a little shopping of our own and came out in good nick with a bread maker which we scooped for 10,000 won, and I picked up a stack of baby story books in English for +1 as they’re pretty hard to find here without forking out top won for them. We had some more nice noodles, chatted, met some people we hadn’t seen for a while, drank coffee, joked with customers, and at the end of the afternoon we trudged back home and the three of us collapsed on the bed for a hour and a half long nap.

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(All photographs were taken today in Cheongmyoung Maul 19/10/2013)

Photographs and text copyright Conor O’Reilly 2013©

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I want to add to this post that perhaps the best flea market you can visit in Seoul has to be the one around Dongmyo Station. It probably sells nothing you will ever want to buy, unless you need half an obsolete mobile phone or a violin with only two and a half strings. This one is purely for those who wish to explore, and it is a mecca for that resource.

Seoul Suburban gives a more in-depth analysis:

“The median age of both vendors and buyers is somewhere north of 50, and interested parties stroll through the spillover from the larger area of flea market near Sindang Station: cleaning supplies, power cords, remote controls, artwork, comic books, portable cassette players, bass guitars, and just about whatever else you could throw on a pile, which, in some cases, is exactly how things are organized.  Not everything here is junk – a few antique shops can be found in the back alleys nearer the stream, and even some decent vintage pickups are available; the shop just outside of Exit 3 sold L.L. Bean flannels, which I haven’t seen anywhere else in the city.  And even if you aren’t looking to buy anything, simply wandering through and taking a close look at what’s there is sport enough.  My favorite spotting was a sheet of stamps from Sierra Leone featuring the Disney characters, including one that pictured the head mouse himself operating a backhoe underneath the tag, ‘Mickey mining bauxite.’”

Seamus Heaney


Seamus Heaney died today. He was 74. By no means a young man, but in this day and age it cannot be denied that one of the world’s greatest poets has left us early, and this is to say nothing of the feelings I can barely imagine his family and friends are suffering under as we speak.

I was once in the same room as him. That is the best that I can say of my personal relationship with him. It was in UCD and he was presenting on a reworked version of the Antigone, where he spoke about the challenge of translation and representing the Ancient Greek classic in the twenty first century. To tell the truth, I can’t recall if we went up and introduced ourselves or not. He struck me as I did not expect someone of his significance to strike me; down to earth, honest, and light hearted, with a deep and warm voice from which words seemed like they were happiest coming from.

I wanted to post a poem that I thought would symbolise how I felt about Heaney. One that would allow me to think of him and his place in the world, and my position next to him. I don’t really know much of his poetry, and by much I mean probably about a percent of his thousands of published works.

When these unfortunate situations come around it’s always appropriate to find the right poem, and maybe the right poem is the one we always remember first when we think of a poet, or artist, novelist, or whoever it is to be remembered.

The poem I remember is Digging.

As I read this poem I read about a man who could not match his familial talent for digging. Potatoes. Turf. Earth. These were all buried deep his background, but he found himself buried deep in books and writing, struggling to see how he could emulate his father and grandfather.

When I was thirteen or fourteen we read this poem in school. I enjoyed it and understood it, but perhaps that was all. Little connection with this seems to have been made between the poem and the man who wrote it who won the Nobel Prize for Literature a couple of years later. This connection was not established until many years later.

In the poem, what Heaney teaches me here is that it doesn’t matter how distant or untraditional your direction in life may find itself verging. Always do your damnedest and dig deep always for the good turf and your labours will be rewarded. If you feel you are not doing them justice by not following in their footsteps, there are fewer finer displays of gratitude than dedicating your success to the influence of family who went before you.

It seems like a simple message because it is, that’s why it is so effective. The idea behind this has not been lost on me despite being so far away from Ireland and my own father and grandfather. We all take different paths in life but we need good guides to show us where best to tread or footsteps.

Rest in Peace Seamus Heaney, you have finished digging. And the hole you dug is good, very good.

Digging

by Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with.

(poem courtesy of the Poetry Foundation)