Here’s yet another thing Americans are wildly incorrect about: Irish food. While corned beef and cabbage plates are ubiquitous at St. Patty’s Day celebrations, turns out the Irish traditionally don’t even really like beef that much. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the Irish tended to prefer pork; beef eating, which was reserved for the wealthy, came with the arrival of the English. What we know here as Irish corned beef is really an American thing, a result of Irish American and Jewish American communities in New York City living in close proximity.
So it’s no surprise that dishes that are beloved in Ireland, like the spice bag, are virtually unknown in the United States. I hadn’t heard of a spice bag until this week, so I asked our Ireland-born editor-in-chief Fiona McCann, who moved here about a decade ago, if she’d ever eaten one.
“What is that? Irish and spice don't really go together!” she wrote.
For the uninitiated, a spice bag is a Dublin dish consisting of fries, bell peppers, onion, and fried chicken, seasoned with spices like cumin, coriander, and garam masala, and served with curry sauce on the side. It’s a recent addition to Irish cuisine, thought to have been invented at a Chinese takeout restaurant in Dublin in 2010 (which explains McCann’s lack of familiarity with the dish). In 2020, it was voted the number one dish in the Just Eat National Takeaway Awards.
I got my first introduction to the spice bag via Instagram, when Rose City Food Park cart Skidbladnir posted a close-up video of their version, which they just added to the menu last week. “The freaking SPICE BAG HAS LANDED IN PORTLAND,” the post read. “If you’re day drinking and need a snack I’m here for you.”
The man making spice bags cool in Portland is Skidbladnir’s chef, Patrick Carney, who’s cooked at well-known Portland restaurants including Genoa and Cafe Nell. He opened his cart in February 2020. Born and raised in Chicago, Carney serves food representing his Irish and Norwegian heritage—lamb sandwiches, smoked salmon, and Swedish meatballs are mainstays on Skidbladnir’s rotating menu—and he also makes a Chicago dog not unlike the ones he grew up with. But spice bags have truly taken off at the cart, Carney says.
Carney hadn’t heard of a spice bag until recently, either—in fact, he heard about it through Instagram. “I’m constantly researching new things to do,” he says. “I kind of follow food trends in Ireland.” It was a post from The GastroGays, a popular duo of food writers and podcasters, that tipped him off to the popular dish.
Carney puts his own touches on the dish, starting with the fries that he cuts by hand and crisps up nicely. He uses grilled chicken rather than fried chicken, and he also adds zucchini so you can feel good about making a whole meal based on fries. The curry sauce is creamy, comforting, and bursting with flavor, though it’s also very mild and friendly for the spice-averse. It’s not the most Instagrammable dish in the world—though the social media platform is what led Carney to the dish—but that’s not Carney’s style, anyway.
“You see a lot of beautiful food out there on Instagram or magazines and stuff, but it's often times, in my opinion, only for really rich people. I want to make people feel good, but you don't have to feel like it's super special. It's just like for average people, regular people,” says Carney. “I just focus on flavor.”
Skidbladnir, 5235 NE Sandy Blvd, 971-420-3896, @skidbladnir.pdx