JP McMahon: The role of spices in authentic Irish cooking

Spices have been a part of Irish cooking since the Vikings, and their influence lives on today

Spices have been part of Irish cooking since the Middle Ages. Photograph: iStock

Spices have been part of Irish cooking since the Middle Ages. Photograph: iStock

 

We often overlook the role of spices in Irish cooking, or rather we use them unconsciously, adding a little nutmeg here, a bit of mace there. I suppose in recent years their wholesale rejection has no doubt come about due to a “return to the land” or in an effort to examine our own terroir. I too am guilty of this. We use no spices at all in Aniar. But does this make our food more authentically Irish? I don’t know. 

Defining Irish food depends on where one stands. Spices have been a part of Irish cooking since the Vikings, who created trade routes with the east and brought many “foreign” ingredients to Ireland. The Normans followed suit and brought spices by the bucket load, if only just to show off their sophistication. 

Caraway and coriander seeds, cloves, nutmeg, mace, ginger: you’d imagine these ingredients have more to do with the Middle East than Ireland’s ancient east, but they dominated cooking in this country for centuries. 

Nutmeg

The role of spices and Irish cuisine has yet to be thought through in any sophisticated way. Of course, our Christmas pudding is laden with all sorts of spices sourced from many miles away. 

Every time you add nutmeg to your soup or your cheese sauce for your lasagne, you are engaging in a complex historical phenomenon that needs reflection. 

Before the 19th century, nutmeg could only be sourced from the “Spice Islands” of Indonesia. Yet that does not stop it appearing in a multitude of recipes from the 18th and 19th century. 

Ginger too came from afar and yet we never think to discuss its relationship to Irish food and Irish cooking. A 19th-century recipe for carrots roasted with honey, ginger and paprika showcases the complexity of what Irish food is, or was in Ireland.

Irish food will be never be what we want it to be unless we understand the historic forces that underlie its global complexity. You might think of that the next time you add a blade of mace to your soup.

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