We do spend much of our years in Asia these days, so I find myself occasionally craving for the unlikely comforts of Northern Ireland food. Where in SE Asian cooking it is rare to find even an oven in a home kitchen, and I can think of few regional beef dishes other than Thai Massaman, Indonesian Rendang, and maybe a Filipino Bistek. And I have of course been introducing Fanfan to the culinary “delights” of traditional Northern Ireland food during our recent stints back in Bangor. Where her general thoughts of the Northern Irish cuisine is fat, greasy and unhealthy. Or that is at least the words she says a lot. Otherwise I have omitted some of the more obscure Northern Ireland Food from this list, like dulce for instance, which is a dried seaweed, which I have never seen in my life. So the chances of tourists coming across them are slim. As this list instead shares the more traditional Northern Ireland food and drink that are found in the chip shops, pub grub, cafes, and bakeries, common throughout Northern Ireland. This is our essential eating guide to Northern Irish Cuisine.
The Greasy Spoons
Greasy spoons are pretty much “cafes” in Northern Ireland, which are also slightly different to “coffee shops” given they’re more food-focused, and are geared more towards serving breakfasts. The drinks they serve are also just basic “tea” or “coffee” in most places, with milk and sugar set on the side. And both will occasionally be included with the meals. Top-ups as well with some. Meal-wise, there is generally a short menu of mostly fried foods, although this does vary these days with more health-conscience and fancy cafes popping up. The typical opening hours are from early morning (08:00ish) to around 17:00 PM, and “All Day Breakfasts” should be going all day long. Which include the traditional Northern Ireland food below.
The Ulster Fry
This is by far the most common breakfast in Northern Ireland, by a long distance. And it’s not so different to the Full English Breakfast, or the Full Scottish Breakfast, only it’s obviously better. Where it brings a handful of regional twists including soda bread, potato bread, and black pudding. Otherwise they will always have the traditional breakfast staples of pork sausages, rashers of bacon, and a fried egg. However, each cafe will likely be different these days, and many will include additions of mushrooms, tomato (horrible), as well as baked beans, which help bring together the sometimes bread-heavy plate. And HP sauce will always be a nearby alternative.
Black Pudding is one of the traditional ingredients of the Ulster Fry (it’s good gear too), and it’s like a savoury blood pudding with a blend of onions, pork fat, oatmeal and pigs blood. Although it is mostly oatmeal, meaning it really is ridiculously cheap at about £1 for that entire pudding below. And this is quite similar to most Traditional Northern Ireland Food which is cheap locally. Then there is white pudding, which again is similar to black pudding, only it does not include the blood. But it really is better with the blood. However I feel that I shouldn’t really include white pudding here as Northern Ireland food, as it’s rarely found in the north when compared to southern Ireland, or even over in Scotland. As it’s otherwise more common in other regional fry-ups.
Sounds healthy right? Don’t be silly. This is Northern Irish food we’re talking about. And only 4% of the Sainsbury’s recipe for “vegetable roll” is in fact vegetable. And that’s rehydrated leeks. Otherwise it is no more than a spiced beef pudding/sausage, which, after tracking down a roll at my local butcher in Bangor, I can say that it tastes a bit like a spiced beef paddy. And they’d probably do well in a cheeseburger slider. However vegetable roll is 100% Northern Ireland food, almost impossible to find outside of the country, which may be to do with the ridiculous irony in its name. And even here it can be hard to find, given most people favour cuts of black pudding, or white pudding even, so don’t expect it in your breakfast fry.
‘Baps’ are the Northern Irish equivalent to ‘buns’, as in burger buns, meaning you can put pretty much anything between them. Including breakfasts. So if you’re in a hurry in the morning, and you want your breakfast on the go, you just stuff it into a bap and go (but obviously not cereal). Otherwise anything from an Ulster Fry works, and breakfast baps inevitably vary these days, to the point where they almost transcend into common sandwiches. But my favourite will always be the simple bacon buttie (bacon in a bap), having eaten dry, skimpy, and crap bacon in hundreds of hotel buffet breakfasts through the years. Northern Irish “back bacon”, which slices both pork loin from the back, and a bit of the pork belly, will infinitely beat them all (Cookstown the big Northern Irish brand). Add a squeeze or two of HP sauce, or my new local alternative Northern Ireland Hot Sauces (the extra hot barbecue sauce is good gear), and it’s hard to beat.
I’ll be lazy and lump Northern Ireland’s breads together, because they are more of a sideshow to the grease filled delights of Northern Irish cuisine. And two of them I have already mentioned above in the Ulster Fry, with potato bread, a flat wheat bread mixed with potato, and soda bread, another soft wheat bread, only this time leavened with baking soda. But these breads are rarely seen outside of the Ulster Fry (although soda farls do well in a toaster). Otherwise there are two more popular breakfast breads in Northern Irish Food. One is Veda Bread (Sunblest for the win), a sticky malt loaf made with black treacle that is perfect when lightly toasted and glistening with melted butter. Then there is wheaten bread, which is like a wholemeal version of Northern Ireland’s soda bread above. I guess it’s also the healthier option.
Chip Shop Takeaways
Chip shops are found in pretty much every local neighbourhood, and this is obviously a great thing given chips can be cheaper than microwave ready meals. But it’s also worrying given much of the food they fry should probably be illegal. Although we’re still not close to Scotland. However we do our best when it comes to weirdness in chip shops, and we hold our own with some ridiculous unhealthy twists on the traditional Northern Irish chip shop menus. Such as chips covered with melted cheddar cheese and thousand island dressing. Or the “cowboy supper” with chips and fried sausages covered in baked beans. And I wouldn’t recommend either tbf. Anway, the word “Supper” in Northern Ireland more or less means “with chips”. And mushy peas always make a great side.
A “Fish supper” in Northern Ireland, is chip-shop slang for “Fish and Chips”. Which is obviously synonymous in British Food, but they are forever better in Northern Ireland (at least from my own tastes). As we are on the coast, with fresh fish never far away, when in Bangor. And I personally always prefer fish suppers deep-fried at chip shops, rather than at restaurants, as the batter for some reason feels fuller and fluffier straight from the frier. And instead of tartare sauce and lemon wedge at restaurants, I much prefer the generous lashings of chip shop salt and vinegar, as well as side sauce of curry. But I would give the restaurant option a go as well. They’re both good gear. Otherwise there are two common Irish sea options; with fried cod a winner for me, and haddock in a close 2nd. They’re also better wrapped, not boxed, although newspaper’s no longer allowed (You gotta wrap them up in Newspaper – or the chips just never taste right).
The Northern Ireland pasty shares little in common with the better-known pasties over in Cornwall. For a start, they are almost always deep-fried, while Cornish Pasties are baked, and in comparison, Cornish Pasties would probably be considered health food. But of all chip shop food, the Pastie Supper is about as Northern Irish as will ever get, to the point that even sectarian songs are sung about them. Otherwise it is not much more than a spiced minced pork, onion, and potato pie, that has been dipped in batter and deep fried in oil. I am also proud to be from Bangor where the pastie supper is deservedly celebrated in a seaside sculpture known as the “Pastie Supper Lover” (at Pickie Fun Park).
Pub grub is grub that is found in pubs. Or at least most pubs. As some pubs don’t really sell food other than crisps (potato chips), peanuts (KP Nuts here), and drinks. So this is really just a traditional restaurant menu, given most restaurants in Northern Ireland were originally found in pubs. Hence pub grub. If that makes sense. Anyway, there is more of a varied menu these days in pub grub menus (which I will likely share further down the line) including popular international foods such as lasagne, and “curry”, which for some reason have become as common as many traditional Northern Ireland foods.
Ulster Irish Stew
As expected, Ulster Irish stew is similar to traditional Irish Stew (below left), only it is more specific to the Ulster province of Northern Ireland. And it generally doesn’t include carrots. Otherwise, at its most basic, it’s a stew of lamb, potatoes, onions, and maybe a garnish of parsley to make it look fancy. But there will always be regional and cultural variations, traditionally brought from English and Scottish settlers, so nowadays you can really just add any meat and root vegetable to the recipe, and call it a traditional stew. To share our own family recipe (below right), which has been passed down from our gran’s gran etc, uses the lamb, with potato and onions, only we cheat these days with a beef stock using OXO cubes, and some Bisto gravy used to thicken the stew. It’s now lazy stew.
Steak would be our go-to western food in Asia, with a well-marbled cut of Wagyu beef, imported from Australia, obviously. And it is still hard to convince Fanfan to explore further when it comes to the pub grub menu. Therefore surf-and-turf made the perfect compromise, sharing a pairing of seafood (surf), and steak (turf), with the usual options of potatoes or chips. As most pub grub foods will include in Northern Ireland. Locally “surf” would more-than-not be battered prawns, known here as scampi, and the prawns are commonly sourced from the small fishing town of Portavogie (Portavogie Prawns). Or else a similar fishing town called Kilkeel which hosts an annual Prawn Festival. Otherwise, with the turf, Irish beef is okay. I guess.
Steak and Guinness Pie
I think of Steak and Guinness Pie as a mix of British and Irish cooking, where your traditional British steak pie, has been updated and improved with a generous pour of Guinness stout. Because alcohol makes everything better. Normally the fillings of the pie will be of a stewing steak, or occasionally chuck steak, which has been cooked in a Guinness stout and beef gravy. Before it is then topped with a baked pastry shell. Although these days I do occasionally find the Guinness served separately, in a shot glass for instance, like some partly deconstructed pie. Or something. With chips in a metal bucket, and chopping boards, and Edison light bulbs, and metro tiles … and unfortunately these irritating, outdated fads are rife in Northern Ireland. But an Irish Coffee (with Bushmills) helps with dessert.
Potatoes will always be the obvious staple in Northern Ireland food, prepared in all shapes and sizes, fried, deep-fried, roasted, baked, boiled, and mashed….etc. And chips will always be the obvious side with most meals, for most people, but there will always be a range of potato options available for your perusal. Before most people lump for the chips. Anyway, champ would be one of the tastier potato alternatives in Northern Ireland food, and it is 100% local, although there are similarities to Colcannon from down in southern Ireland. And it’s literally, and traditionally, just mashed potato with milk and butter, along with chopped scallions and cheese. Yup, it’s pretty much just mashed potato with chopped scallions. But mashed potato is awesome when down right. Anyway, I said it was Northern Ireland food. Not exciting food. Recipe here.
The carvery is like the “meat and two veg” option found at cafes and restaurants, and they remind me of home cooked “Sunday Dinners”, including steamy kitchens, dry meats, and hangovers from the night before. But they are as traditional as food comes in Northern Ireland. Normally served canteen-style with your choice of meat, and choice of potatoes, and choice of veg as well. “Would you like some gravy with that?” The carvery menu is more of a rushed lunch-time meal, which is easy to serve out to crowds, instead of cooking meals individually. They will also likely change from day-to-day, following a varied rotation of meats, potatoes and veg. Just to keep them exciting. Although they rarely are.
Sweets and Snacks
I find an obvious dilemma with Northern Ireland food, as you really can’t eat greasy spoons, chip shop takeaways, and pub grub, without packing on a hell of a lot of weight. Therefore sacrifices need to be made, and the obvious sacrifice for me is the local sweets and snacks. As I’d forever take an extra portion of battered mushrooms or onion rings, before I would order a dessert. But then there’s my near-daily home-cooked Asian food, the occasional Chinese and Indian takeaways, and obviously kebabs. So I’m literally gaining 15 kilos every 6-months in Northern Ireland. Followed by 6 months of cycling in Thailand’s rice fields to rid of it. But convert that to stones (as used here) and I’m gaining 2.34 stone each time. Which is similar to airport baggage allowance. In short, I don’t eat many sweets or snacks, and this is more from research purposes.
Traybakes are more or less cake/bun-like sweets, baked in bulk in trays, before they’re cut and served in individual pieces. And while easily found at your local bakeries, or at the cafe counter, they will always be best found at community bake sales and coffee mornings. And then served as elevenses. In short, grannies love their traybakes. However there are seemingly infinite variations these days, so to share some of the more traditional traybakes, found in every granny’s cookbook, they will include Caramel squares (pronounced carmel), rice crispy buns, and raisin squares (aka flies’ cemetery). But there is one truly Northern Irish tray bake called Fifteens, which are a bit like Rocky Road, only without the chocolate. Fun fact, they’re also called fifteens because they use equal portions. 15 chopped marshmallows, 15 crushed digestive biscuits, and 15 halved glace cherries. They’re not baked either, or made in a tray. So instead they’re classed as a no-bake traybakes.
I feel like I’m scraping the barrel with content here, but Jammy Joeys undoubtedly deserve a mention in Northern Ireland Food, given they are very much a homegrown treat. They will also be found in most bakeries, as well as at the local convenience stores, and I almost always find them hanging around the counter lines of the local Spars. Teasing the local fatties. So the big brand here would be Howell’s Jammy Joeys, where each year they will celebrate Saint Paddy’s day with limited edition Green Jammy Joeys. And then there’s the Snowy Joey’s found more around Christmas time. I also remember a similar dessert in my primary school days (jam and coconut sponge cake) which were a little bit awesome when covered in custard. Anyway, the Jammy Joey is simply a moist Madeira sponge covered in jam and grated coconut.
I hadn’t planned on sharing “Yellowman”, given it is pretty much just honeycomb, as found anywhere else. Including the inside of your Crunchie Bars. But I found a tub at my local Bangor butcher when searching for vegetable roll, and was excited when it was labelled as “Honeycomb for Gin”. As I was at least getting a bottle a gin out of it. Because there is, apparently, a local cocktail here which infuses Yellowman with ginger ale, and Northern Irish Jawbox Gin. Only I did opt instead for cheap, generic gin, because I really just want whisky, all the time. I like whiskey. Anyway, it’s really not a bad cocktail, where the yellowman literally melts in your mouth. Meaning it’s like a smoky syrup honeycomb when added to gin. Also, fun fact, there’s an annual Festival in Ballycastle (The Auld Lammas Fair) which celebrates both Dulce (seaweed) and Yellowman, only the Yellowman is apparently yellower in Ballycastle, and chewier.
Tayto are better known these days for their hideous marketing campaigns (Bout Ye!), as visitors will likely be greeted at the airport, or pretty much any transport hub in Northern Ireland, with their brash, annoying, and in-your-face advertising. But their crisps are quite good otherwise. And they would probably be Northern Ireland’s equivalent to Lays (or Walkers as they’re known in the U.K.) as the most popular crisp variety in Northern Ireland. And they’re also just handy to pick up when travelling, or on-the-go, with vending machines at stations. I would personally start with the Cheese and Onion, and then maybe move to Salt and Vinegar, as these are the somewhat iconic crisp flavours known in this part of the world. Which are seen as weird abroad. And I’d also give Spicy Bikers a go (all Tayto products here). Otherwise my only problem is that they now cost 70p? When they were 10p a pack in my grammar school days. Are you nuts?
Okay, alcohol isn’t exactly ‘Northern Irish food’, but it is otherwise part of most balanced diets here in Northern. And we are somewhat famous for our homegrown boozers, like George Best and Alex Higgins just making two claims to Northern Ireland’s hall of boozing fame. And while most of what has been found in the bars and liquor stores are from the UK or Ireland to date, there is more interest in craft and small-batch distilleries and breweries recently, as well the somewhat “hip” nightlife scene in Belfast City Centre. If that’s your thing.
There are two big differences between Irish Whiskeys and Scotch Whiskys. The first is that Irish Whiskeys are triple distilled, making them smoother, and arguably more enjoyable. The other is in the spelling, where Irish Whiskey is spelt with an extra ‘e’ for it’s “Excellence”. At least that’s what I was told at the Bushmills distillery tour when visiting on a road trip along Northern Ireland’s world-famous Causeway Coast. Which I of course highly recommend to anyone visiting Northern Ireland, as the distillery is like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” with a whole lot more malt. And of course there will be whiskey sampling at the end of the tour, one glass per person, so it’s best to bring your whisky loathing friend, to steal their dram, and blag a much-needed lift home at the end.
Most beers on tap in Northern Ireland will be imported from next door in southern Ireland (RoI), including the seemingly local “Harp Lager “, which is a former Guinness creation, currently brewed down south in Dublin. But Northern Ireland has somewhat adopted it as their own. Although, to be fair, it was at one time brewed in Ulster (Dundalk). Otherwise, if you’re going with Irish beers, there is always Guinness and Smithwicks, along with the more modern Guinness/Diageo creations like “Rockshore” and “Hop House 13”. However the better bars of Northern Ireland, like the Crown in Belfast, will have local beers on tap, as well as craft beers. And two of the more common draughts include Belfast Ale, and Belfast Lager, from the Whitewater Brewery range from Castlewellan. Where water comes sourced from springs of the Mourne Mountains, or something. It’s just proper local Northern Irish beer.
Buckfast Tonic Wine originates from Devon England, where it was first brewed by French Benedictine monks, of Buckfast Abbey, and to this day it remains under licence of the monastery (my pilgrimage below right). But it is still barely known in England, while in Northern Ireland it has reached almost cult status, with its somewhat synonymous reputation with antisocial behaviour. Which is partly due to the effects of high caffeine and alcohol content on the local steeks (neds) that drink it. It’s not really your traditional wine either, despite its loose French connection, where it’s made from unfermented grape juice, fortified with ethanol. But there was a time when it was a respectable drink, sold to local grannies from chemists/pharmacies as a tonic for ailments. Only these days Tescos and supermarkets refuse to stock it, due to the obvious aggressive stereotype. Anyway, Buckfast is best enjoyed outdoors, on a street corner maybe, or a park bench. It is also now available in tins. “Down the pipes”.