As quintessentially Scottish as kilts and bagpipes, the Haggis is revered by (most) Scots! But a vegetarian version?
The sun was shining feebly from an over-cast March sky, turning the Firth of Forth a dull, soupy grey, while the mist rising from its surface like an enormous dirty-white ghost, neatly swallowed-up the distant hills of Fife. And yet, it all managed to look quite pretty (in a hazy, late winter sort of way), from the top of Hanover Street, as I made my way to Henderson's, Edinburgh's legendary Vegetarian restaurant.
Taking a seat in the bustling, basement dining room – which managed to look cheerfully cosy, rather than crowded – I was joined by two lovely Scottish ladies, June and Irene. We soon got busy discussing the modestly priced lunch menu. Hand-written in white-chalk the old-fashioned way, the Henderson's lunch was a healthy, yet interesting, mix of soups, salads, sandwiches - that sort of thing - and was briskly ladled out by the efficiently friendly staff.
Appealing as the choices were, I, however, was there on a mission to try ‘Henderson's famous vegetarian Haggis'. Realising I was dead serious about it, June and Irene kindly wished me ‘all the best' (slightly worrying, that), and stood by politely while a generous portion was deposited on my out-stretched plate.
After a full minute of staring at the – erm – steaming pile of assorted lentils and its matching orange-coloured sauce, served with mashed potatoes (tatties) and turnips (neeps), I was quite puzzled. How was I going to grin and polish this off in front of my cheerfully attentive audience? And, frankly, how did something that looked like this get so very famous?
But, ah, I wasn't the first person to raise this question. Wodehouse has done it, long back (‘I explode the Haggis', Weekend Wodehouse). He confessed that his stomach ‘shies like a startled horse and turns three handsprings at the mere thought of a haggis', which basically consists of ‘the more intimate parts of a sheep, chopped up fine and blended with salt, pepper, nutmeg, onions, oatmeal and beef suet'.
And to think I was blanching at the far tamer veggie version, which, for all its faults (it would certainly win no prizes in the ‘attractive foods' category), had a nice texture and bite to it, and tasted like a faintly-spiced, reasonably well-made dal. And so I ploughed on, shooting watery smiles whenever I could manage it, while June and Irene smiled back encouragingly, and fortified me with tales of the ‘real' Haggis; the one that involved boiling the prepared meat inside a properly cleaned sheep's stomach (though today, I'm thankfully informed, synthetic skins do the job and better).
On Burns Night, they said, the Haggis was ushered in by its own bagpiper, poems were recited in its honour (principally Burns' “Address to a Haggis”, where the Haggis is praised as the ‘Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!') and then it was cut open with great fanfare.
This was all, of course, completely contrary to what I had heard about the Haggis ever since we moved to Scotland. My poker-faced hairdresser had told me, as she snipped away, about her brother in the tourist business who used to take naive American visitors Haggis-hunting in the Highlands.
And I might've happily believed they were, indeed, “very shy, three-legged creatures which only run in circles” had the chatty neighbourhood butcher not put me right on its provenance.
So would I recommend it? Yes, well, I did, once suggest this “Scottish delicacy” to a dear Dutch friend, but she promptly turned green in the face looking at ingredient list.
But the vegetarian version? Of course, just as much as I would idli-sambar to any Chennai visitor; it won't do you any harm, doesn't set you back by much, makes a meal unto itself and while you might not, unlike Rabbie Burns, fall irrevocably in love with it, at least you'll come away with a nice story to tell the grand-children…
Henderson's has been around for nearly 50 years and is a hugely popular eatery slap-bang in Edinburgh's city-centre. Do try their “famous vegetarian haggis made with lentils, kidney beans, mushrooms and spices, served with ‘neeps and tatties' (£5.95)”
Summer is a great time to visit the city, if you're keen on the festival and don't really mind the heaving crowds. But if you prefer deserted streets and affordable room-rents, do try late autumn/ early spring. Go prepared for the rain though…