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January 7, 2014 12:23 pm

Haggis: A Rare Scottish, Jewish Culinary Treat

avatar by Josephine Bacon

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Doreen Cohen tending to her kosher haggis on the stovetop. Photo: Josephine Bacon.

What is haggis? It has been described in various ways and even classified as fertilizer (!) by customs officials. In fact, it boils down to being nothing more nor less than the Scottish version of kishka. The ingredients are variety meats (usually from mutton) mixed with raw oatmeal and a mixture of spices.

Nothing about the non-Jewish haggis is unkosher except the suet (which is chelev, forbidden fat) used to bind the ingredients; other fat is substituted. Scottish Jews tend to use beef innards as these are easy to obtain from a kosher slaughterer and the flavor is unaffected.

Haggis is the traditional dish cooked to celebrate the birthday of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, which falls on January 25. Burns wrote an ode to haggis, describing it as the “great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race.” The haggis is ceremonially presented at the dinner, marched in on a huge tray, preceded by a Scottish piper in full regalia playing the bagpipes. Before the meal, Burns’ verse is read out. The accompaniments to the haggis are “bashed neeps” (finely chopped rutabaga) and “chappit tatties” (creamed potato).

Americans, however much they may feel themselves to be of Scottish descent, tend to eschew this simple fare (though I can assure you it is absolutely delicious). I attended a Burns Night Supper in Los Angeles when I lived there, at which minute quantities of haggis, rutabaga, and creamed potato were served in thimble-sized cups at each person’s plate, the main dish being roast rib of beef and roast potatoes. The diners didn’t know what they were missing!

This being a rather miserable time of year, it is no wonder that Scottish Jews are eager to join in the fun, and many synagogues in Scotland hold their own Burns Supper festivities. The fashion started some thirty years ago, when Simcha Catering, owned by Scotland’s finest kosher caterer, Doreen Cohen, started to receive orders from synagogues all over the country. She is now Scotland’s only kosher caterer and haggis maker; all the food is supervised by Rabbi Moshe Rubin and the West of Scotland Kashrut Commission.

Doreen is now assisted by her son Mark and daughter Juliet, who help her run the business. This year, however, kosher haggis fans were scared of being disappointed. Last April, Mark’s deli, the store and café, were burned to the ground and investigations are continuing as to whether the blaze was accidental or not. The fire was so bad that the building had to be demolished. Yet Mark and his family were up and running Mark’s Deli within a month, at first from a garage, and now from a new address in Glasgow. For the present, Mark’s Deli is only operating as a caterer but Mark assures his loyal following that “the old shop will be rebuilt soon when the cafe will be reinstated.” It is sorely missed by Glasgow’s chicken-soup-and-hot-pastrami-sandwich aficionados!

This year, as usual, Mark Cohen will be exporting his kosher haggis all over the world. He expects to make around 250 pounds of it. He has customers all over Europe (including England) and plenty among Scottish expatriates in Israel who will be celebrating Burns Night from Beer Sheba in the south to Kibbutz Kefar Hanasi in the North. “Ž

Mark Cohen represents the fourth generation of kosher deli producers and owners in Glasgow. His Auntie Annie owned the original Cohen’s Deli and his great-great aunt was Sophie Geneen, who ran the legendary Geneen’s restaurant and hotel in the Gorbals district of Glasgow.

Mark regards his kosher food as an important contribution to Scotland’s Jewish life. “My customers have been so incredibly supportive in the most difficult of situations. Also, the local synagogue also allowed me to use their kitchens while mine were out of action, so we can continue to make our food.”

Mark claims, “Yes, I run a business, but it’s more than that, it’s a service for the community. For some people, coming into the deli and buying gefilte fish or a packet of latkes is the only attachment to Judaism they have. They might not have gone to shul for years, but they come to the kosher deli every week!”

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  • Tim is Open Government Programme Manager at Involve and coordinator of the UK Open Government Network

  • Geoffrey Goldberg

    Quite some years ago I attended the WUJS (World Union of Jewish Students) Institute in Arad, Israel. There was a lively contingent of participants from Glasgow. Not wishing to miss an important Scottish-Jewish observance they contacted the local shohet. I seem to think that a lamb was slaughtered to make the haggis. I have no memory of tasting it!

    Geoffrey Goldberg

  • Norbert Haag

    When I first came to Scotland I been told that haggis is a mixture of everything from a sheep that can not be chewed after a 24 hour cooking. 😉

    But being adventurous I tried it anyway. And ever since I love it. As the article remarks, just replace the suet with some other fat and it is kosher, and no less delicious.

    I can only recommend Marks Haggis if you can get them.

  • The Old Bear

    You may enjoy the cartoon “Cornered” by Mike Baldwin which was published on January 25, 2014 and turns “Robbie Burns Day” into “Rabbi Burns Day” — featuring a deli selling a corned-beef and haggis on rye sandwich.

    See: http://www.gocomics.com/cornered/2014/01/25

  • “strange animal innards”? What about chopped liver? Believe me the meat that Americans refer to as “organ meats” are soft and delicious, much nicer than a badly cooked steak! Try haggis – you’ll love it! I have made it myself for a party in L.A., the Chinese guests liked it best.

  • Charly McArdle

    I’m celebrating my first Burns Night this weekend, and I’ve been doing some research on it. Some of the event traditions I’ve learned from here: http://ispeeches.com/blog/burns-night/robert-burns-night-2014/, but they don’t mention haggis, really! After reading another article on the web, I was really scared to try it, considering the strange animal innards it’s composed of.

    Thanks for your briefing on the history of haggis though! It makes me feel like I should give it a try and truly appreciate it.