At first glance, Scottish cuisine appears to value novelty over genuine deliciousness. Its so-called specialties range from the challenging (haggis, a loose sausage made from sheep’s innards mixed with oats and cooked inside said sheep’s stomach) to the heroically unhealthy (deep-fried everything: fish, chips, candy bars, pizza) to both those things in one (deep-fried haggis). That was certainly the impression I had when I moved to Edinburgh as an exchange student in 2007. My reasons for studying in Scotland were many: history, indie music, men in kilts with delightfully sexy accents. But food wasn’t on that list. To be honest, I expected Scottish food would be drab and unexciting.
My first taste of haggis was with a group of American students going to a pub and challenging each other to order the local speciality, with neeps and tatties (mashed potatoes and rutabagas). I ordered it, more to stop the bickering than out of genuine enthusiasm. It was addictive at first bite—the richness of offal cut through with a large amount of white pepper, creating something intensely savory and spicy. I wanted more, as soon as possible.
As autumn turned to gray, dark winter, I made more local friends who lived all over Edinburgh, not just in the student enclave next to the university. I started to break the exchange student bubble, and was rewarded with the joy of Scottish breakfast. After long nights spent drinking whisky, listening to music and telling stories, we’d go get food—either at the nearest caff (British for greasy spoon) or at more upmarket cafes.
It was immediately clear to me that the Scots weren’t terribly interested in light breakfast food. But who would be, in a place where the default weather for most of the year is south of 50℉, windy, and unremittingly gray? Instead, I found my beloved haggis, now taking up its rightful place as a terrific hangover killer: stuffed in a roll with a freshly fried egg, like an intensely peppery and rich Sausage McMuffin. It also joined bacon, sausage (both links and square), and black pudding in a full Scottish breakfast. Alongside the usual British breakfast goodies (mushrooms, Heinz baked beans, grilled tomatoes), I also discovered potato scones—crisp, buttery triangles made of mashed potatoes and flour thinned to a pancake batter and pan-fried. I learned that these made a terrific double-carb delight when added to the haggis roll.
When I wasn’t in the mood for a fry-up, I was happy to find the Scots had turned hot cereal into an art form. Porridge (that’s oatmeal to those of us who aren’t British or Goldilocks) banished any lingering memories of Quaker Instant Oats from my mind. The Scots range widely when it comes to recipes for porridge, from abstemious oats cooked with just water and salt, to the positively decadent porridge cooked in whole milk and drizzled generously with heather honey and heavy cream. Sometimes you could even add a dram of single malt Scotch for extra sweetness and smoke.
Scottish breakfast was fundamentally about warmth and sustenance. Turning cheap leftovers and plain subsistence foods (sheep innards, oats, mashed potatoes, things that on the surface would be boring or just grim) into something flavorsome and hearty—the kind of food that both comforts and fortifies you for the day.