I had no expectations about Finnish food before I touched down in Helsinki. I craved seafood, I had my fingers crossed for cloudberries, but that was about it.
So it was a wonderful surprise to discover that this unassuming country has plenty of culinary highlights. Jacques Chirac had no idea what he was talking about when he declared that ˝Finland (is) the country with the worst food.˝
There is a refreshing simplicity in traditional Finnish food (maybe that’s why Chirac baulked) which is due largely to the reliance on what can be found in the forest and ocean. The cuisine has also been influenced by Germany, Russia and Sweden over time, so you might recognise a dish or ingredient here and there.
The Finns have a fantastic market culture and Helsinki in particular has some brilliant market halls including Hakaniemi and the recently renovated Kauppatori, positioned right next to Helsinki’s bustling harbour.
If you find yourself in this northern neck of the woods then promise me you will try the following…
These tiny fish are a traditional summertime delicacy, especially popular at markets during summer. Similar to whitebait, the fish are lightly breaded and fried, then eaten whole with garlic sauce or lemon. The mild umami flavour and crunchy texture were sensational and they were the perfect snack to enjoy on the boat over to the Suomenlinna fortress.
There is a long tradition of hunting in Finland, focusing on reindeer, moose and bear. Put those warm and fuzzy childhood memories of Rudolph aside right now because you will be seeing him everywhere; in kebabs, as thick steaks, cold smoked, even canned. He’ll be sitting right next to the canned bear.
Reindeer meat has a rich gamey flavour, very similar to venison, and is very lean. The slices of cured reindeer were very tasty but I didn’t go as far as buying reindeer in a can.
I was curious about the canned bear meat, but with a price tag of €20 for a tiny can, I decided my money could be better spent elsewhere… like on these babies!
Karelian pies (Karjalanpiiraka)
These addictive little pies have a thin wheat and rye crust filled with rice or potatoes and are often served with a mixture made from butter and mashed cooked eggs. They originate from Karelia, a region currently divided between Finland and Russia.
They are absolute delicious and available everywhere, including supermarkets and 7/11´s. Not a day passed when I didn’t eat one or two… sometimes three : )
Fish, fish and more fish
I couldn’t get enough of the fish, especially at the markets. There was so much! It was so fresh! The Finns are masters at the art of smoking and preserving, a necessity to get them through the winter months. Salmon is always a popular choice and you´ll find it cold smoked, raw with lemon, and served on open sandwiches.
I particularly fell for the open sandwiches, especially those being sold at the fish stands in the market halls. Toppings included cured salmon, crayfish and sardines. There was something magical about the combination of dense rye bread, lashings of butter and cured salmon in particular. So simple but so beautifully executed. I couldn’t get enough of them.
These delicate mushrooms grow in abundance in the forests and mushroom hunting is a hugely popular pastime. The Finns use them in soups, sauces and stews and also love to pickle them. My favourite way to eat them is simply pan fried with garlic and butter. Lots of butter!
Cloudberries – so special they warrant their own post! If you are fortunate to be in Finland during the two or three weeks these precious berries are in season then YOU MUST BUY SOME. Read my previous post to find out why.
I discovered this magical stuff in the cocktail bar, Liberty or Death. My cocktail of choice, Kyröntappelus, came with a serving of strange looking gloopy dark brown stuff which my bartender informed me was a dessert called mämmi, made from rye, molasses and orange zest.
I gingerly took a bite and fell in love instantly. It had the consistency of a thick porridge and an amazing sweet flavour with malty undertones. I’d never tasted anything like it and i just wanted more. Luckily my lovely bartender acquiesced with some more samples.
Mämmi is traditionally eaten by the Finns at Easter, served cold with either milk or cream and sugar. I searched high and low for it afterwards and eventually found a variation with chocolate in the frozen section of the supermarket. So far I’ve had zero luck finding it outside of Finland so I am going to have to start making it myself and I think this recipe by the Finnish Food Girl could be a winner.
Do you have a favourite Finnish food that I´ve missed?
The food looks so interesting!
It really is fascinating, just like the locals (and the fashion).
I have always wanted to visit Helsinki, now even more so! 🙂
You won´t regret it, especially if you manage to go in summer!
what a great post! thanks for sharing. especially that bear canned meat!!
You’re welcome, it’s certainly one of the most unusual items I’ve come across in my travels!
I could never bring myself to eating bear. They’re omnivores with very similar anatomy to humans. I was always curious about reindeer but now that you mention they taste “livery”, I would never consider it, at least not a large portion. I love salmon and it’s good to have so much variety of that food in Scandinavia.
It was certainly a challenge for me to eat animals that i’m more used to seeing in carols and fairy tales! But i always like to eat like a local and so will push myself to try different things at least once. I love salmon too and it’s probably my favourite thing to eat in the Skandi region.