Gastro: Cad é? Considering what ‘Irish food’ means today

Posted January 12, 2022 in Food & Drink Features

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“Irish food” is something many of us struggle to define. Today it’s a marketing buzzword adopted by the food plutocrats and deployed as a marketing tool. The term can be used in a cynical way to attract hordes of tourists and export vast quantities of livestock and their byproducts. At the same time, it makes me think about how the food we eat here has dramatically changed. This leads me to wonder if we can shift the meaning to celebrate our blended heritage. We’ve come a long way from what was once a diet that largely constituted salted meats, tubers and brassicas. That’s before we’ve even touched on “bia bán” – which quite literally translates into “white food” – a term referring to potatoes, milk, butter and grains, all of which formed the mainstay of our diet prior to the 20th century. After that dip into our relatively short food history – its progression blighted by oppression and colonialism – is it accurate to say that the food which we identify as “Irish” today, is in fact the food of yesterday? If we focus solely on the indigenous food of our past (albeit there are many wonderful things about it) we are at risk of ignoring the diverse community and cooking styles in practice in Ireland right now.

It might sound contradictory to regard dishes of foreign origin as local or ‘typical’. However, ingredients such as sugar, spices, dried citrus, currants and tea (each a product of globalisation) have long been staples in our culinary larder. Despite hailing from distant shores, these provisions ironically form the basis of many of our traditional recipes. Our speckled fruit loaf, known as Bairín Breac or Barmbrack, is an example of that. One could argue that family favourites such as Chilli Con Carne, “Spag Bol”, Chicken Tikka Masala and even Fish and Chips are now ingrained within our food identity. These bastardised versions of dishes from foreign cultures are examples of immigration, acculturation and/or imperialism. Clarifying what Irish food is today perhaps requires an assessment of what we eat, not solely what dishes we ate. Who knows, Feijoada might be the next generation’s Tuesday night favourite…

I’m often asked who serves the most authentic Irish food? In response to this conundrum, “bia bán” never crossed my mind. Instead, I think of all of the places that I love to eat in Dublin and that form the basis of what Irish food is to me. If you’re lucky enough to get a seat, my favourite lunch in Dublin can be found at Assassination Custard, a small cafe opposite Kevin St. Garda station. While the owners Ken and Gwen place Irish produce centre stage, their recipes are inspired by provincial Tuscan dishes and Middle Eastern flavours. A dish of locally grown Crown Prince pumpkin with a tahini-yoghurt-cinnamon sauce and fermented black beans will stick with me for longer than most.

There must be something in the water in Dublin 8 because The Fumbally is not only my favourite café in Dublin but on this planet. At this stage, it’s a second home to me and a melting pot full to the brim of people I adore. Here resides a community, a coming together of cultures whose collective goal is to offer good food, great craft and ideas to people. The cafe itself is aesthetically beautiful in a way that each repurposed table, chair, bench or brick, feels hand selected by the very same people who make your bread and coffee or pass you that arancini in the morning. It’s no wonder that during covid, when they decided to adapt their café into a grocer, they did it in a way that felt as if it were always like that. Not only can you get the most heartwarming beans on toast with fried egg, Parmesan Reggiano and fresh basil (an acculturation if there were any), you can also pick up your weekly quota of organic vegetables, low intervention wines and conserves made by a host of locally based cooks and food producers.

Then there’s the humble sandwich; mine comes in the shape of a Bahn Mi found on Capel street. My first encounter with this sandwich was in Canada over 8 years ago. I was cooking in Toronto with my friend Harry Colley who is now the nut butter epicure of Ireland. We were invited as part of an Irish congregation to cook “Irish food”. I don’t quite recall what we made, but it probably involved a dust of bacon on a crisp of cabbage or something extremely innovative like that. What struck me about Toronto was the cultural diversity of the city. The 250 different ethnicities and over 170 languages spoken daily were reflected quite literally on the streets. Each footpath we strolled down was awaft with enticing aromas from eateries which awakened the senses. I remember wandering into a small sandwich shop on Dundas Street, following a constant revolving line of hungry customers who eagerly awaited for, what was to be, the perfect lunch. As we approached the counter, four Vietnamese ladies were skilfully operating a production line that started with what looked like a puffed-up crispy French baguette. Each baguette was sliced open, its pillowy centre slathered in fresh liver paté and topped with thin slices of aromatic Vietnamese pork. Protruding from the sandwich was julienned carrot, thinly sliced pickled daikon and coriander (with stems ’n all), finished with fiery slivers of fresh chilli. A great sandwich expertly executed for a fiercely loyal clientele. It was everything I searched for in a gastronomic experience. When France obtained control over Vietnam in the 19th century, they too brought elements of their own culture, which is why a baguette and paté are as Vietnamese as they are French (and also why they are right at home in Toronto).

This leads me to one of my favourite roads in Dublin: Capel Street. It’s a microcosm of our city’s culture. The street starts with Pantibar which has been welcoming the LGBTQ+ community since 2007. Brazilian stores operate harmoniously with Turkish bakeries, a Korean barbecue and a Moldovan store, which I have no doubt could feed the entire nation on their pickles alone. There’s a hemp store, hardwares and old world pubs like McNeill’s (where I once witnessed a barman reaching over the counter with a teaspoon to give a customer a sample of the soup). At the head of the street is a rather small Vietnamese restaurant not dissimilar to the one in Toronto. It’s called Aobaba. For the lunch hours it’s absolutely thronged – filled with locals of all ethnicities who are happily gobbling down bowls of hot Pho, Happy Pancakes and crispy Banh Mi, worthy of any city. In my mind, it’s the ultimate lunch for something “traditional”.

As a chef, I feel I have a responsibility to honour the food of our past and make use of cooking traditions that are now endangered and becoming extinct. I spend time travelling to farms in search of flavour that’s found in rich, organic fields, grown by wonderfully inspiring people. While I am predominantly inspired by ingredients that are cooked on the day of harvest, I believe that embracing global techniques and flavour combinations – that make sense from an ecological and cultural standpoint – can only heighten dishes. Our landscape has been enriched by non-native food and to restrict ourselves to the food of our past could mean missing out on the flavours that make up our cultural food scene today. My thought is not to ignore our past as we risk losing it. I want to continue the story of our country’s progression by embracing our own cultural diversification which exists as a product of immigration and with that, continue to value the indigenous produce in Ireland today.

Words: Cúán Greene

Cúán Greene is a Chef and Founder of ÓMÓS.

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