Having held many a party and a shindig at my house before, there is always a double edged sword to proceedings. You want to relax and enjoy yourself, but you have to play the host. You want to make sure that people are well fed and watered, but you don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen all day. You’d love to throw and smash china plates on the floor to save on the washing up, like that rowdy bunch in the corner. But plates are expensive. And besides, who invited that lot? I mean seriously, who are they?
Yes, it’s a tricky business, entertaining family and friends, especially when you have a nan who loves to delve into her ‘Greek’ heritage after one too many sherries. However, I think I have found a way to solve some of these foibles at social gatherings, and that is to hand out spice bags.
‘What are ‘spice bags’?’ I hear you ask. Well, to be honest, until recently I hadn’t heard of them either, but after trawling on Instagram (I can spend hours on there) they pinged into view and after some more research, the concept was instantly appealing. Originating in Ireland, or Dublin to be more specific, spice bags are fast becoming the go-to take away special, to provide some much needed sustenance after a night on the craic. And I am sure that we are all familiar with those sort of hunger pangs.
Typically offered by Chinese takeaways dotted around the city, a spice bag usually consists of chips, chilli peppers and an offering of the tidbits you’d normally find in the hors d’oeuvres section of the menu. Chicken balls, prawn toast, spare ribs, that sort of thing. Basically, everything is mixed together and coated with a liberal, spicy seasoning and thrown into a box or paper bag. Which all sounds like an unrefined, uncouth and unscrupulous way to get rid of food wastage at the end of the night, I know. But, by all account, some takeaways in Dublin are making quite a name for themselves with their spice bags. With much pride at stake when it comes to talking about and hiding the ‘secret’ ingredients that go into their mix. Personally, after discovering the notion of spice bags, my thoughts immediately took to how well they would go down at a get together, like for watching the football, especially for the Republic of Ireland’s games during Euro 2016. Come the halftime whistle, what could be better than a bag of sliced, crisp potatoes and Asian-style meat, charged with salt and chilli and washed down with an ice cold, flavoursome brew?
I say this respectfully when I say that Ireland has spent a long time in the wilderness when it comes to beer. A wander into many of its pubs ten years ago would have meant Guinness, Guinness, Guinness and Harp and whilst there is nothing wrong with the black stuff, it does leave you, well, pretty damn stuffed. But the beer scene over there has changed massively in recent times, with micro breweries popping up all over the Emerald Isle, refining and changing perceptions not only about stout but porters and IPAs too. Commendable mentions go to Galway Bay Brewery for their heady stout (imbued in whisky barrels) and also the range of beers that Eight Degrees are developing. Aficionados are going slightly nuts for their Big River, an IPA made with Australian hops (strewth, the distance!). For my money, though, O’Haras is good introduction to the new wave of brewing from across the Irish Sea and their easy drinking Irish Red makes for a decent pairing with a spice bag. Malty and slightly sweet, with a refreshing, dry bitterness at the back of the tongue, the flavours work more in contrast, to help cut through the rustling, the ‘O’ shaped mouthfuls and subsequent greasy fingertips.
Which brings me back to why spice bags are so good to dole out at football parties. No cutlery is required. Or crockery. In fact, hardly any washing up needs tackling at all. You just need to wander around with a black bag for people to throw their bags in afterwards.
I’d get my Nan to do that though. For repayment on plates she has splintered in the past.
Now, you may have gathered that there is certain degree of flexibility as to what goes into a spice bag. In this recipe, I have opted for braised pork belly, salt and pepper chicken wings and the very necessary chips but you could opt for your own specific combination. The spice bag world is your oyster, so to speak. You will also note that mostly, all the cooking done in the oven, as most people don’t have access to industrial deep fat fryers and as a result, this is a healthier approach! You do need to deep fry the chicken wings though. There is no escaping that. As for sourcing brown paper bags, which may need to be doubled up, visit your local greengrocer (if you have one). Mine was happy to throw a bundle my way. For one English pound.