Spice Bags: Ireland's Fast Food Phenomenon
When I mentioned to James (the Spicery boss) that I was going on a trip to Dublin, the first thing he asked me was ‘are you going to have a spice bag?’, to which my response - and what would probably be the response of most non-Irish people - was ‘what’s a spice bag?’. A quick google search told me everything I needed to know: chips, battered shredded chicken, sliced peppers and onions, all tossed together in a bag with a generous coating of salt and Chinese spices. My mission, which I was almost too keen to accept, was to track down the very best that Dublin had to offer.
The first step, then, was to find out some more about this Irish food phenomenon. Allegedly created in 2010 by The Sunflower Chinese takeaway in Templeogue, Dublin, the spice bag has since garnered something of a cult following. In the 2020 JustEat Takeaway Awards it was voted Ireland’s favourite takeaway dish, and a ‘Spice Bag Appreciation Society’ Facebook group (with the tagline ‘live by the bag, die by the bag’) has close to 17,000 members. In order to find out more from the real aficionados, I joined the group myself, and here are the main points I gathered from the masses of reviews on there:
- Spice Bags are a uniquely ‘Dublin’ thing - whilst they do exist elsewhere, the highest concentration certainly seems to be in the capital
- The more veg in the bag, the better
- Chicken/chips should be succulent but never soggy
- Curry sauce is a popular accompaniment
- Don’t even think about putting ketchup on a spice bag, let alone suggest it on the group (you will be ridiculed, and possibly even banned)
Armed with this information, I set off for Dublin, excited to try one of these mystical bags for myself.
Day 1: Welcome City, Rotunda
It was around 11.30pm - at this point, I’d been awake for 21 hours having caught an early flight to Dublin, and my step count from exploring the city was a staggering 33,000. I was tired, hungry and desperately searching for a spice bag to satisfy my late-night cravings before hitting the hay. Traipsing the streets for takeaways to no avail, I had begun to give up hope - was I too central? Did spice bags only exist in the suburbs? That’s when I saw it: ‘Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese Cuisine’ emblazoned on the facade, a glowing neon ‘OPEN’ sign, and most importantly, the words ‘spice bag’ on the menu tacked up on the window. Welcome City was a very welcome sight indeed. My dreams were almost dashed when the lady behind the counter said that their card machine was broken, but I eagerly produced a crumpled €10 note from my purse, and after a short wait, she handed me a steaming hot brown paper bag.
Upon opening the bag, I was a little surprised to see only beige, with no pop of red or green from the sliced peppers that I had come to believe were an essential component. No doubt the experts on the Facebook group would scoff at this and mark it down, but honestly, I didn’t mind - after all, I was eating this with my fingers as I walked, so I was actually quite pleased that I didn’t have to handle any slimy slivers of veg. The portion size was extremely generous, the contents literally glittered with salt (which is exactly what you want after one too many pints of the black stuff), and the chicken was delectable - thinly shredded and coated in crispy batter - but my one gripe with this bag was the heat. I like to think that my tolerance for spice isn’t too bad, and with a name like ‘spice bag’ I expected a bit of a kick, but this really was mouth-numbingly fiery, and I definitely detected the use of tongue-tingling Sichuan pepper. The deal came with a can of coke, which seemed like it might provide some relief, but only exacerbated the problem - a glass of milk would have been better. For those that like it hot, though, I’m sure this would have been perfect, and overall my first experience of spice bags was positive. It scored extra points for actually coming in a bag.
Day 2: Token, Smithfield
With my time in the city being limited, and wanting to explore the entire spectrum of this Dublin delight, I decided that I needed to approach day 2 at a different angle - for this, I headed to Token in Smithfield. This bar/restaurant/retro arcade looked like a lot of fun, but it wasn’t a game of Mario Kart that drew me in, or even the extensive list of house cocktails (though I’ll admit I indulged in both) - rather, there was one item on the menu that I was desperate to try: the vegan spice bag.
They class this as a ‘primo side’, and aesthetically, it was a thing of beauty - a vibrant explosion of colours and textures, with sliced red chillies gleaming like jewels on the top. Veg-wise, this dish was a complete contrast to the bag from Welcome City; it contained not just the elementary peppers and onions, but also spring onions, courgette, aubergine and even some crispy seaweed. The chips were a mixture of regular skinny fries and sweet potato fries, which added a bit of interest, and crispy seitan in place of chicken was a truly delicious (and not at all inferior) vegan swap. A pot of katsu dipping sauce on the side was a nice nod to the traditional addition of curry sauce, with a trendy, hipster edge, and the spice level was great - more palatable (and much, MUCH less salty) than Welcome City, but it still had a kick, especially with the fresh chillies. My only criticism with this bag was the stingy amount of seitan, which you really had to rummage to find, but overall, this upmarket offering went down a treat.
Day 3: Duck, Fade Street
My final day in Dublin meant there was just about time to squeeze in one more spice bag - I’d done the gritty, late-night takeaway and the fancy vegan version, now it was time for something with a twist. A bit of research told me that the place for this was Duck, a Hong Kong-style BBQ meat deli, tucked away on Fade Street in the heart of the bustling city centre. At this tiny eatery, they cook the meat by hanging it upright in a traditional ‘bullet oven’ (so called because of its torpedo shape), which circulates the heat to create meat that is succulent and tasty, enclosed in that characteristically shiny skin. Duck feels like a real treat to me - something you’d only order from a Chinese takeaway if you were pushing the boat out - so the idea of a duck spice bag seemed wonderfully indulgent. With no spare seats in this small but popular spot, and the sun shining outside, I ordered a spice bag and took it to St Stephen’s Green Park, just round the corner.
For me, this bag came up trumps in all the areas where the others had just fallen short; there was a decent amount of veg - peppers, onions and shredded carrots - the spice level was just right, the portion size was very generous, and the chips were perfect ‘Chinese takeaway’ chips (say what you like, but I don’t believe a Chinese takeaway is complete without them). No doubt the spice bag purists would turn their noses up at the use of duck in place of chicken, but it was sublime - I was expecting the duck to just be shredded, but it was actually coated in a thin crispy layer of batter. If you had to push me to find a criticism, it would be that it didn’t actually come in a bag, but I’m just clutching at straws here, and it really didn’t taint the experience at all.
All things considered, the spice bag from Duck would have to be my overall winner, but my spice bag story was really a case of ‘different horses for different courses’ - I would have been disappointed to receive the Welcome City spice bag in a restaurant, but as a portable, post-night-out takeaway, it ticked all the boxes. Likewise, the Token vegan spice bag would have been needlessly flashy (and nowhere near greasy or salty enough) to satisfy those late-night takeaway cravings, but as a fun side-dish in a trendy bar, it was perfect. In other words, each one was great in its own way.
And so, after consuming my year’s allowance of sodium in 3 days, I waved goodbye to wonderful, buzzing Dublin and headed home. You’d think that after a trip fuelled (not entirely, but predominantly) by spice bags, I’d never want to eat or even see one ever again, but in fact, the first thing I did upon my return was search online to see if I could source one in Bristol - I can see now how this dish has gained such a loyal army of enthusiasts. Unfortunately my search was in vain, and the bag eluded me yet again. Perhaps I’ll have to make my own, or plan another trip to The Fair City…