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This hearty Irish specialty is the perfect traditional dish to enjoy as a part of your St. Patrick's Day festivities. 

Gillie Houston
March 15, 2018

While there are many foods that have become synonymous with Saint Patrick’s Day and Ireland as a whole—like Soda Bread, Shepherd’s Pie, and Irish stew—one that is lesser known on a global scale, but close to Ireland’s heart, is colcannon.

Although colcannon is one of the most traditional Irish dishes, many Americans have never tried it, or even heard of it. However, this humble and hearty dish became a staple in Irish diets thanks to its affordability and rich, comforting nature many years ago.

Colcannon itself is a simple dish of mashed potatoes mixed with kale, cabbage, and leeks, typically prepared with cream, butter, and the occasional Irish bacon. While its unknown exactly where the simple recipe was first prepared, it was invented (as many Irish dishes are) out of frugality and necessity—and a deep appreciation for potatoes.

The potato’s history as a staple of Irish cooking goes back to as early as the 5th century, when the people of Ireland paid off their English landlords with whatever crops they were able to cultivate on their plots of land. Due to the island’s less hospitable growing conditions, the resilient and adaptable potato became their crop of choice, and eventually a major part of their cuisine and history. 

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So, colcannon became an easy outlet for an excess of potatoes, made more flavorful by the addition of dairy and herbs and more substantial by the addition of affordable vegetable fillers. The unique sounding name is said to originate from the Gaelic phrase “cal ceannann,” meaning white-headed cabbage, the vegetable most commonly mixed into the mash.

In addition to being served for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, colcannon is also traditionally served on Halloween in Ireland, molded into a large ring and containing small hidden prizes within the mash to be unearthed by the eaters. Different prizes are said to bring different fortunes to those who find them. Get a thimble or button in your serving, and that means you’ll stay single for the coming year; but find a coin or a ring, and you’ll apparently soon come into wealth or get married. Many families practiced the tradition of leaving out a plate of the mash overnight to appease visiting ghosts and fairies, with a lump of butter in the center.

The dish became so popular and integral to the country that it inspired a traditional song in its name: “Colcannon,” or “The Skillet Pot,” which has been performed by countless Irish singers over the years. The tune, with nostalgic lyrics like “Did you ever eat colcannon, made from lovely pickled cream?/With the greens and scallions mingled in like a picture in a dream” is commonly played at Halloween celebrations across the Emerald Isle. 

What started as a hearty and affordable year-round dish is now typically found on Irish menus in the autumn and winter, served alongside all of your favorite meats and Irish delicacies. Crafting your own for your Saint Paddy’s is easy: Simply combine mashed potatoes with a mix of chopped cabbage, kale, leeks, butter, milk, salt, and pepper—or try out a unique reinterpretation of the classic with this Colcannon and Thyme Leaf Soup.

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