On January 25, Scots and people of Scottish descent all over the world celebrate the life and work of the great 18th century bard Robert Burns. At “Burns suppers” from Nairn to Nashville to Nizhny Novgorod, they’ll make speeches, recite poems, crack jokes, and raise a dram or three of whisky to the immortal memory of Rabbie. And, of course, no Burns Night supper would be complete without the centerpiece dish: a “groaning trencher” (large plate) filled with steaming haggis. Despite the fact that this dish is actually the humble stuff of various parts of sheep anatomy, it has become the stuff of legend—and more than a little puzzlement. To clear up any misconceptions, here are a few facts about haggis.
1. HAGGIS IS A SAUSAGE.
Despite its shape and girth, haggis is a sausage. Like many other types of sausage, an outer casing of intestine holds it together. Traditionally, that casing is a sheep’s stomach or a “beef bung cap” from the end of a cow’s large intestine, but nowadays many haggis manufacturers use synthetic casings made of plastic or cellulose. Into that casing, the intrepid haggis maker stuffs minced-up sheep’s liver, lung, and heart. In with that offal lot goes oatmeal, beef suet (fat), onions, and seasonings including nutmeg, mace, and cayenne.
2. TO MAKE HAGGIS "GUSH," YOU HAVE TO COOK IT RIGHT.
To get the best out of your haggis during the traditional Burns supper reading of “Address to a Haggis,” you need to cook it carefully. Ideally, its “entrails”—as they are colorfully described in the poem—should “gush” out when you stick the knife into it. For a quick, tasty, satisfying meal, many Scots and haggis fans now cook their haggis in a microwave oven. It’s simple: you just cut open the casing, tip the contents into a microwaveable container, and nuke it for around six minutes (for a standard-sized haggis). However, for a gushing haggis, you must boil it. After boiling (gently, or it will burst in the pan!) submerged in water for around an hour, the contents of the haggis will swell up somewhat, stretching the outer casing. So when you cut into it with the knife, it bursts open and gushes in a fashion that would make Burns proud.
3. SOMETIMES, HAGGIS PLAYS HARD TO GET.
This isn’t because it’s running wild and lopsided around a heather-covered mountain—that’s one silly tale Scots sometimes tell tourists—it’s because, since 1971, the US has banned haggis imports. Therefore, it’s literally hard to get. Americans can buy US-made haggis on home soil, but it will exclude one of the main ingredients: sheep’s lung. The USDA worried that stomach fluids might get into livestock lungs during slaughter, so they banned animal lung as a foodstuff in 1971. This ban hit other traditional foods as well as haggis, but it came to be known as the “haggis ban.” The USDA may lift the ban as early as next year, but we’ve heard that before.
4. NOBODY IS SURE OF THE ORIGIN OF THE WORD HAGGIS.
Haggis may have come from the Old Norse word höggva, meaning to hew, cut, or hit. That would tie in with the fact the ingredients are chopped up finely before stuffing into the casing. However, etymologists often reach for Old Norse whenever they are unsure of an English word origin. Hageys—also connected with chopping or hashing— found its way into Middle English. And the Old French word hacheiz, meaning “minced meat,” is similar. Alternatively, for a more “out there” origin of the word, consider the Old French agace, meaning "magpie"—in the sense that magpies like to collect up various odd bits and pieces.
5. HAGGIS IS A PUDDING.
OK, now to backtrack a little on that earlier assertion that haggis is a sausage. It is also a “puddin’” (in Burns's words) in the sense that black pudding—traditionally made with pork blood and oatmeal cased in pig intestine—is a pudding. Confusingly, though, black pudding is known in some countries as “blood sausage,” or “black sausage.” Another variant—one that excludes the blood and replaces it with copious amounts of pork fat—is the predictably named "white pudding." So, haggis is in fact a sausage and a pudding, in the grand tradition of offal sausages and puddings made the world over since at least Roman times ... and yet it is also something deliciously enigmatic and unique. No wonder Rabbie waxed so lyrical about it.
6. HAGGIS IS VERSATILE.
Because haggis is also a tasty stuffing, it makes an excellent multipurpose ingredient in modern cooking. When visiting Scotland, expect to see haggis on high-class restaurant menus all year round. A modern favorite is Chicken Balmoral, which is chicken breast stuffed with whisky-soaked haggis and wrapped in bacon. Slightly less nouvelle cuisine is haggis pakora, a flavorful Indo-Scottish fast food made by coating haggis in light batter and then deep-frying it. And haggis is no longer for meat-eaters alone; vegetarians and vegans can now buy good quality offal-free versions of this humble-but-versatile pud/sausage. Oh, and you can also get haggis-flavored potato chips.
7. YES, "HAGGIS HURLING" IS REAL (BUT SILLY).
As if stuffing a haggis, boiling it, having it bagpiped into a dining room, saying poetry over it, and then stabbing it with a big knife isn't sport enough, you can also throw it. However, please note that this is not a sport that normally takes place at Burns suppers. This unusual pursuit is normally reserved for Highland games, which take place in Scotland during the summer months. This started only a few decades ago as a kind of practical joke. It’s certainly not an ancient sport—why would Scottish ancestors wantonly throw away good food? Or, worse still, toss it over to their enemies?
8. IF BLACK PUDDING CAN BE A "SUPERFOOD," MAYBE HAGGIS CAN, TOO.
First off, there’s no such thing as a “superfood.” There are foods with greater or lesser nutritional value, of course, but who gets to decide which ones are “super,” and based on what criteria? Anyway, for the last few weeks, the internet has been abuzz with the “news” that black pudding is a superfood—apparently because it’s low carb, packed with vitamins and minerals, and so on. If you're going by similar criteria, then haggis could qualify as a superfood, too, as it’s mostly protein and (nicely saturated) fat, contains supposedly cholesterol-reducing oatmeal, is highly calorie-rich and nutritious, has a low carbohydrate content, and contains iron, vitamin A, vitamin B12, and copper, as well as other vitamins and minerals.
But that’s not the reason Scots love it—the real reason is because it's delicious. Just remember to eat it hot, before all that saturated fat congeals. Cold haggis is definitely an acquired taste.