Corned beef and cabbage have always been considered as the staple Irish food, but one could not be more wrong. This like many others is only a myth about Ireland and its people. Beef was never the meat of choice; it was always pork in its various forms.
Nonetheless, circumstances have led to the belief that corned beef and cabbage are the national dish of Ireland and that the Irish cook it on special events like Saint Patrick’s Day.
The Irish always kept cattle but rarely used it for meat. The cattle were raised for their milk and also for their value. Cattle were the mainstay of their bartering system. A person’s worth would be evaluated by the size of his herd.
Eating beef was considered very luxurious and corned beef was considered a delicacy fit only for the royalty. Definitely so as they were the ones who could afford to slaughter their cattle for meat.
Beef was never a major food item for the Irish, until as late as the last century. Cattle were reared specifically for their milk and the Irish could make at least 70 if not more food products from milk. Beef was always an expensive meat and the Irish preferred pork over it.
Corned beef refers to the rough crystals of salt that were used to cure the meat. These crystals could be as big as corn kernels sometimes, hence the name corned beef. It was an expensive delicacy because both beef and salt were expensive. These days brine (salted water) is used to preserve beef and yet it is not known as pickled or brine beef but corned beef.
Corned beef became associated with the common Irish people when they emigrated to Canada and America. Here both beef and salt were affordable and among the most inexpensive of cooking ingredients. Irish continued to treat Beef as they would earlier and corned beef and cabbage became associated with the Irish and soon became synonymous with Irish cooking. The salted beef is soaked to remove excessive salt and then boiled or braised with cabbage. Spices were used to the minimum.
Corned Beef and Cabbage still finds its way to the tables of the immigrant Irish during Easter and other festivities and is even served in Ireland in most restaurants during this period, but that is only to appease the tourist. In truth the Irish would prefer to make something more festive than this simple dish. In fact the Irish would prefer their very own bacon and cabbage to this so called “National Dish of Ireland”.