Traveling to Northern Ireland was a bit surreal for us. We’ve been traveling to the Republic of Ireland for two decades, but the north was a blank slate. We were curious to learn about Northern Ireland food and how it differs from the south as well as from the United Kingdom. We started our trip in Belfast, made our way to Derry, and stopped in a few seaside towns along the way to enjoy Northern Irish “summer” (it’s even colder than in the south). Most important, we ate and drank our way through the region, and loved every minute of it.
Northern Ireland Food – What To Eat in Northern Ireland
In this post, we talk about specific Northern Ireland dishes you must eat when visiting this far north region. Now, much like our Edinburgh food guide, it’s hard to tell in this part of the world what is “Irish” and what is “British.” I can’t even tell you what is the national dish of Northern Ireland. There is a lot of overlap in the dishes. That said, our recommendations come from what we ate in Northern Ireland and the research we did before our trip. Most of all, it comes from our years of experience eating in Ireland, which made us think about what is unique and different about eating in Northern Ireland.
Northern Irish Breakfast – The Ulster Fry
Normally, my ideal breakfast involves some fresh fruit, yogurt with muesli, maybe some toast or a bagel. Often it means a bowl of cereal. But, when we land in Ireland, it means a fry. During our time in Northern Ireland, we ate numerous large breakfast plates – more so than normal. Each place we stayed included a fry as a breakfast option.
The Ulster fry is a large plate of breakfast goodies and quickly became one of my favorite foods to eat in Northern Ireland. A fried egg surrounded by Irish pork sausage, rashers (a type of bacon), black and white pudding, and often beans or a grilled tomato half, along with toast and butter.
If you’ve never tried black pudding, don’t be afraid to give it a shot. It’s a savory blood pudding in the shape of a sausage that includes a blend of pork, onions, oatmeal, and pork blood. Unlike morcilla, the Spanish blood sausage, it’s more oatmeal than blood meaning it’s not as scary! Give it a try. If you are still skeptical, try the white pudding, which is made with similar ingredients but without the blood.
Soda Farl and Potato Bread
Different from the fry we are used to in the South, the Northern Ireland version included two fried bits that we never tasted before. The first was a fried piece of bread, which was pretty nice to eat with the liquid egg yolk. The second was fried and soft, almost like a potato, but not crispy like a hash brown. Mind you, we also received regular toast. This meant we had toast, fried bread, and fried potato, with each Irish fry. I did some bread research and learned that the fried bread is called a soda farl. Soda farl is a soda bread, or sometimes a potato bread, normally served with a fry. Whatever they call it, I fell in love with this traditional Northern Irish food.
Baps – Traditional Irish Dishes in Sandwich Form
I’ve been traveling to Ireland for years, but in the south, I don’t regularly see baps. Baps are like buns, almost like burger buns. They are filled with all sorts of ingredients to make a sandwich. This can include breakfast baps, which have a bunch of the same ingredients as an Ulster Fry, but in sandwich form. Or, try it with back bacon, cured pork belly and a bit of HP brown sauce.
The Irish Potato Boxty has many names. “Poundy”, “Poundies”, or its Gaelic names, “Bacstai” or “Aran bocht-ti” meaning “poor-house bread”. Whatever it’s called, the Irish Potato Boxty is a simple and humble dish of finely grated potatoes, flour, baking soda, buttermilk and occasionally eggs. Fried in butter, it results in a thick and roughly cut pancake. Boxties are often served with a variety of side dishes from salmon, rashers (bacon), black or white puddings, or fried eggs. This is a dish associated with County Mayo, as well as Ulster, basically all along the border between the north and the south.
I love fish, but have never been a fan of salmon. It’s probably one of my least favorite fish. But, I found fresh, local salmon on the menus at many of the places to eat in Northern Ireland. It was also a very popular Derry food, found on many menus. I chose the salmon while having dinner at Ardmore Restaurant at the Beech Hill Country House Hotel. It was perfectly cooked, served alongside a lovely sautéed spinach and drizzled with a caper, tomato, and chive beurre blanc. It was delectable, particularly when served with the Ardmore’s fresh Irish soda bread.
Local Lobster and Seafood
This sort of surprised me. I don’t generally associate lobster with Ireland. During dinner at Harry’s Shack in Portstewart, with a view over the incredibly cold and rainy seaside, I had a small lobster, which was taken all the way out of the shell. They placed the lobster delicately back into the shell, making it incredibly easy to eat. I asked where the lobster was from, and the server pointed out the window. It came from the cold waters just off the coast. Now, that’s local.
Seaweed, Dillisk or Dulse
This is not for the faint of heart. There is a tradition of foraging for seaweed all along the coast. There are a lot of recipes, both traditional and contemporary that incorporate various types of seaweed. We’ve seen (and eaten) dillisk in County Clare. Typical Northern Irish food products include dulse, a dried, salty seaweed snack. It makes a decent beer snack, but it is definitely an acquired taste.
I’ve written before about finding the perfect scone in Northern Ireland, an obsession of sorts. I found myself with a strange almost OCD issue with finding the perfect scone. That obsession is totally unwarranted as there were good to great scones at cafes all over Northern Ireland. For bakery product lovers, this could be considered the Northern Ireland national food! Be sure to try one with the fresh clotted cream, though, which is a perfect way to eat a lovely warm scone.
I had never heard of a Victoria sponge before. I was told by our guide in Derry, though, that it was a Derry food we had to try. In fact, we did not have a choice. He ordered two for us. It was a large sponge cake, filled with cream and jam. The Victoria sponge was served with another little vat of extra cream on the side. Apparently, a Victoria sponge is a class British cake, but one I had never heard of before. It was dense and sweet. I planned to take just a few bites, to be polite because I was not hungry at all when it was placed in front of me. In the end, I ate almost the entire thing.
Bread and Butter Pudding
I love bread and butter pudding, or bread pudding as it is generally referred to in the States. This might be a British-influenced dish, but I don’t care. It’s tasty. Eat it. It is made by layering slices of buttered bread in a pan, along with egg and cream, perhaps some raisins and cinnamon. When it comes out from the oven, it is soft and gooey and magical. The problem is, most bread and butter puddings are not all that pretty to look at when they come out. It’s a more functional looking dessert. The bread and butter pudding I ate at the Ardmore Restaurant, though, was a work of art, and included a bonus layer of warmed apple on the bottom.
Sticky Toffee Pudding
Another fabulous British-style dessert is sticky toffee pudding. It’s a large, super moist sponge cake covered in a toffee sauce. It can be sickly sweet, but the one that I ate was covered in fresh vanilla ice cream, almost a la mode style. Although I had the sticky toffee pudding at Harry’s Shack, looking out over nasty Northern Irish weather, I felt nice and warm inside, even as the sticky toffee pudding felt like a ton of bricks in my belly. I did not care.
Northern Irish Sweets
We are not huge dessert people but I do feel like this post focuses a lot more on desserts than most of our food travel guides. In addition to the desserts above, there are a couple of sweets that Northern Ireland does well. Some of these you might find on an Irish foods list, some of them might be a little more British, but they are worth a taste. Look for caramel squares, which are pieces of Irish shortbread topped with caramel and fudge. How can you go wrong? Another very typical Irish food in the north is Jammy Joeys. It’s a moist sponge cake filled with jam and covered in coconut. They can be found in bakeries as well as at convenience stores.
Northern Ireland Drinks
There’s certainly no shortage of Guinness to be drunk in Northern Ireland, but there are certainly other options. As for beers, many of the other “local” beers are just versions of Guinness or brands created by Guinness, like Rockshore and Hop House 13. There is a resurgence in local brewing, though, with a handful of Northern Ireland craft beers that can be found in the area.
Most popular is probably Bushmills Whisky, which is distilled on the Causeway Coast, just north of Belfast. Although the traditional Irish coffee originated in the south, in County Limerick, Bushmills has to be one of the most well-known Irish whiskey brands in the world. The best way to drink a good Irish whiskey is to drink it straight, or with a little bit of water. If you need to, add a single ice cube. Please don’t mix it with soda!
We were supported by Northern Ireland Tourism during our stay in Derry, but all views are, as always, my own.
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Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new Food and Drink Destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together over the last 20 years, they have traveled to over 70 countries. Amber is the author of the Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna.