What the Irish Eat on St. Patrick's Day (Hint: It's Not Corned Beef)

St. Patrick's Day food traditions in Ireland are different to how we celebrate the holiday.

stew with carrots and potatoes

When it comes to dinner on St. Patrick's Day, the most popular meal is corned beef and cabbage—often accompanied by a green beer or two. The boiled dinner and its liquid accompaniment dominate the menu of Irish bars and restaurants up and down the country on March 17, and many home cooks serve the dish, too. Some buy pre-corned beef for ease and others take days to cure the beef themselves, and everyone serves the corned beef brisket with green cabbage and potatoes. We assumed this tradition came straight from the Emerald Isle—until we asked Irish chefs and culinary authorities about true traditional St. Patrick's Day food in Ireland.

Traditional St. Patrick's Day Food in Ireland

While St. Patrick's Day celebrations take place around the world, the festivities in Ireland tend to center around family. As a holy day, it's a day of obligation, and many people begin March 17 by going to mass. There are parades following those services, but overall it's a day spent with family and friends, cooking and enjoying big meals.

Is the big meal likely to be corned beef and cabbage? Not so much, says Clodagh Mckenna, chef, restaurant owner, and cookbook author. "Slow-cooked beef stews or lamb stews are probably the most popular, served with colcannon, which is butter mashed potatoes with cabbage folded through, it's real Irish soul food," she says. McKenna, who grew up in Cork and now calls Dublin home, admits she's never had green beer, but would give it a try.

Do the Irish Eat Corned Beef?

According to Regina Sexton, food and culinary historian and programme manager, Postgraduate Diploma in Irish Food Culture, University College Cork, corned beef and cabbage is not a dish much known in Ireland. What the Irish actually eat is bacon and cabbage. "A traditional dinner is bacon, potatoes, and cabbage. I'm not saying that corned beef and cabbage doesn't exist in Ireland, but it wouldn't be how we construct a typical Irish meal," Sexton says.

Other Dishes Enjoyed for St. Patrick's Day in Ireland

Besides the stews, other popular dishes eaten on St. Patrick's Day in Ireland take advantage of the country's culinary traditions and use seasonal ingredients. Spring lamb comes into season around St. Patrick's Day, and roasts, such as a leg of lamb with rosemary, are popular. Pies are, too, such as fish pies (made with cod or haddock), shepherd's pie (ground lamb with a potato crust), or Guinness and Beef Pie, which is one of McKenna's favorites.

Drinks and Dessert

As for drinks, many Irish people will have a Guinness or two during the day, and perhaps a whiskey to round out the celebration. Let's not forget dessert: Chocolate butter pastry pies are frequently found on dinner tables on St. Patrick's Day McKenna says.

Soda Bread

There's also soda bread on March 17; it's a dish that's on Irish tables most days, not just for the holiday. Irish soda bread, though, is different to the one your family enjoys. The traditional version doesn't include the raisins or caraway seeds that often make their way into American recipes. McKenna's favorite soda bread recipe veers from tradition a little: she uses yogurt and milk rather than the usual buttermilk. "It gives the bread a crumbly texture," she says. She sticks with tradition when it comes to forming the bread; marking her round with a cross cut in the center, which is said to keep the fairies out.

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