Finnish Food: Cuisine Crafted by One Man

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Being an Italian on the road or a person who travels with an Italian can be a big challenge. Not because of the hot, Italian temper, as you might guess, but because of their extremely picky attitude when it comes to food (and beaches, but that’s another story).

“What are we going to eat there?”

This is one of the first questions I hear from Gianni whenever we are heading to a new destination, and Finland was not an exception. We knew we were going to sample a lot of salmiakki goodies and eat more salmon than usual, but we discovered much more about Finnish cuisine than just the few dishes we had in mind prior to our visit to Finland.

That said, the male half of our nomad couple was highly satisfied and female half was satisfied even more, since there was always something new to sample and questions like “what’s for dinner today?” weren’t necessary.

Crafting Finnish food

Finnish cuisine is one of the ‘cleanest’ in Europe and you cannot deny it whilst travelling through the country. However, the cleaner, healthier version of Finnish food is pretty new and was developed not 50 years ago. The intriguing story of how the process of changing eating habits of Finns began says it all began with a death of a lumberjack in North Karelia, eastern Finland. This sad case, as well as many others when relatively young men died from heart attacks, triggered a programme called “the North Karelia Project” run by a young doctor, Pekka Puska, who turned food industry in Finland upside down.

Finnish Food
Stall of vegetables at the market in Helsinki.

Butter and fat were replaced by vegetable oil, and more fruits and vegetables were implemented into Finnish food. Mr. Puska initiated a huge campaign where women were trained to customise traditional recipes and create healthier versions. Many Finns rejected the campaign, but final results were tremendous and with the time, Finnish cuisine started to be recognised in Europe.

Who was the first?

Finland gained its independence as a republic less than a century ago, which means you’ll find influences of other countries in Finnish cuisine. But that’s the destiny of any land that was occupied for long decades or centuries. At the end, with such intensive migrations and wars in the past, when different nationalities found their homes far from their homelands and cooked the same meals as they used to, one cannot argue about the pure origin of some dishes in this world.

You think spaghetti is an Italian invention and then you learn it comes from China. You are convinced that “varenyky” (Ukrainian dumplings) were “born” in Ukraine and then your friend from Sri Lanka tells you her mother makes the same.

Finnish Food
Fresh salmon, anyone?

 

Anyway, the story of Finnish food is just one good example of how a single person can change the history of national cuisine and explains why some Finnish dishes are very simple, yet tasty. Although, we have to admit, there was one thing that shocked us: Finns love to drink a glass of milk during/after the main meal and it looks like it’s something very natural for them to also have with meaty dishes.

So what exactly can your palate look forward to in Finland? There is a high chance a few dishes that will resemble other worldwide cuisines, but we are not going to argue who was the first to prepare a fried fish, an apple pie or a roasted sausage over the fire.

Fishy Finnish food

Considering the number of lakes in Finland and the Baltic Sea, fish becomes one of the main ingredients of Finnish food, where salmon is a leader.

Finnish Food
Absolutely scrumptious salmon soup with rye bread.

Meaty Finnish food

Reindeer meat: a speciality of Lapland, a Northern part of Finland, you’ll also find plenty of meat in the south. Usually it’s served with mashed potatoes, black pepper and lingonberries.

Finnish Food
Simple yet tasty.

Forest Finnish food

There is always something to sample while walking in the Finnish forests and Finland’s ‘everyman’s right’ policy allows you to enjoy the forests fruits and mushrooms freely. Check out this helpful article and see what you can find in Finnish woods.

Finnish Food
Chanterelle mushrooms from Finnish woods.

Other Finnish goodies

Salmiaki. Well, I would easily call “salmiaki” a Finnish durian. So either you’re crazy about it or you can’t even look at it. We watched a few videos from our friends Audrey and Samuel and tried a packet of salmiakki in Frankfurt, so we knew it wasn’t going to be a classic dessert. We sampled almost all of the possible salmiakki products, ice cream included, and our final verdict was that we put “salmiakki” into the “we-like-it-but-not-every-day” category.

Finnish Food
If you don’t try, you’ll never know.

Apple pie

Who doesn’t love an apple pie? We do, and of the ones we tried in Finland (served with vanilla cream and lingonberry preserve) they were pies you won’t want to share.

Finnish Food.
Homemade apple pie from Hartola, Finland.

Snack delicacies

One of our favourites was rye bread and fresh karelian pasties, which are rye crust tarts with rice filling and a buttery spread on the top. We say “fresh” because if you buy a day-old karelian, the crust and whole filling is just too tough to enjoy.

Finnish Food
One of delicious Finnish snacks: Karelian tart.

Some other specialities we tried was “tikkupulla” (a “stick bun” in Finnish), or dough roasted on the fire, which goes very well with cardamom. Another yummy snack you can have while hiking in the Finnish woods is “rieska”, a traditional Finnish thin-bread baked without yeast. Either you eat it plain, or with a grilled sausage.

Finnish Food
Our guide Johannes preparing some “rieska” for us.

Street food

Since we travelled mostly in the Finnish countryside, we had small chances to explore towns and cities. Nevertheless, we went for lunch at a local market in Helsinki a few times, where they serve the majority of the specialties we mentioned.

Finnish Food
Lunch time in Helsinki.

For a decent portion of roasted potatoes, salmon and salad you’ll pay from $10-15. Note: the place is a bit touristy, but it’s one of the best budget options to eat out in Helsinki.

A breath of history

Finnish Food
Mouthwatering medieval dinner in Vierumäki.

Do you remember when we mentioned a unique cave restaurant in Vierumäki where we also tried smoke sauna? Kalliokammi restaurant serves an outstanding medieval menu consisting of typical Finnish dishes and some other delicacies like simmered spelt & simmered beetroots with garlic.

Finnish Food
Frosty cranberries in caramel sauce flamed with cognac.

To sum up our culinary exploration of Finnish food, we discovered our favourites and Gianni’s Italian stomach wasn’t disappointed. It was pretty interesting to observe how much the country’s characteristic features (Finland’s natural resources) are widely integrated into its food and how a different combination of the same ingredients are used to create a completely new dish.

Have you tried any Finnish specialities? If not, which is your favourite cuisine in the world?

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14 thoughts on “Finnish Food: Cuisine Crafted by One Man”

  1. I had this idea in my head that Finish food would be mainly done with fish and meat, I’m glad to see that there are veggie options too for a vegan like me like the “karelian pasties” for instance, I’d just skip the butter bit or ask for a vegan one instead. The Chanterelle mushrooms pictured above look so fresh and I’m sure they were delicious too. It’s nice to know that there would still be a chance for me to try some traditional food because that is also part of the culture and the whole travel experience when visiting a new place.

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      You’ll find there some vegan dishes for sure, Franca. With so many mushrooms and berries around there are a few very nice options. Oh, I am sure you’ll love Karelian tarts! What about salmiakki?

  2. I know next to nothing about Finnish food, but I do know about Salmiakki—when were CoachSurfing in Malaysia, a Finnish couple was also staying with our host and they had brought some Salmiakki with them to share on their travels. I think you’re absolutely right to call it the Finnish durian, especially since it seems no one likes it quite as much as the Finns do! I don’t mind black licorice, so I thought it was ok (but not great), but most people had much stronger, much more negative reactions. 🙂

    I’m not a big salmon fan, and I am actually that one person on the planet who doesn’t like apple pie (I know!), but it still looks like there are a lot of interesting dishes that I wouldn’t mind trying in Finland. If only it weren’t so expensive there, I’d love to visit and try some of the local dishes for myself!

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Ouch, if the Finnish food doesn’t appeal to you so much, then the nature could do the job, Steph 🙂 Actually, you might feel there very cosy and almost like at home – many people told us Finland reminds them Canada a lot. Well, we’ve never made it to North America, but landscape in Finland is pretty awesome! Then I would be very curious about Canadian cuisine, if I could find any similarities with Finnish one. And you have a great apple pie there, right?

  3. Good to know that Finnish food is actually healthy for you. I knew that it was quite hearty, so I thought that it would be akin to diner fare. Thanks for smashing these assumptions!

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Hi Meghan, actually it might be very hearty if you are in Finland for the first time and want to sample everything what your eyes see 🙂 But yes, many lighter options available there. Hope you can try them one day yourself!

  4. Funny how ‘reindeer’ isn’t mentioned here, not even once. It’s one of my favourite things (besides Fazer chocolate and mustamakkara). 😀

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Yeah, you are right, it isn’t, which is funny for me too, since it’s depicted on the picture. Thanks for pointing out, Nicholas. Updated now.

  5. Ivana, I have to confess that I too had no idea what Finnish cuisine would look or taste like. But it looks actually really tasty! The fact that the food is clean and fresh certainly helps, as does the verity of vegetarian options. I definitely wouldn’t go hungry in Finland and I also wouldn’t want to share that apple pie… 😉

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Apparently, Finnish cuisine keeps some secrets 🙂 We didn’t know a lot about it neither before our trip there. Oh well, yes, nobody shared that pie!

  6. Finns have also lots of different breads and grain products. When you go to stores in the morning you can smell the fresh rye and other whole grain breads. Open face sandwiches with cold cuts, cheeses and other yummy things are popular. Not as elaborate as the Danish ones though.

  7. My parents were from Finland and it’s one of my proudest achievements that I learned to make Finnish treats like pullaa (coffee bread) and karjalan piirakkat (Karelian pasties). Also traditional fare like carrot-rice casserole and rutabaga bake. When visiting Finland, I love the food there but there are some surprises, like tonnikala pizza (tuna pizza?)

      1. Rutabaga bake is a part of the Finnish Christmas dinner. This is my favorite recipe: Lanttulaatikko

        1 lb rutabaga

        Water

        1 heaping tbsp bread crumbs
        1/3 cup and 1 tbsp whipping cream

        ¼ small onion
        ½ tbsp butter

        1 egg
        ¾ tsp fresh ginger
        1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
        1 heaping tbsp dark brown sugar

        Cut rutabagas in 2-3 pieces and peel pieces. Cube and boil them ‘til soft to fork, about 30 minutes. Let cool.

        Mix bread crumbs with cream and let rehydrate. Sauté onion in butter until translucent.

        Puree rutabaga in food processor until smooth.

        Combine all ingredients in food processor. Butter casserole dish and pour in. Bake in 350 Fahrenheit for about an hour. Serve hot.

        As for pulla, just google it an choose a recipe that has the least amount of flour. Pulla is supposed to be about the same texture as challah, somewhere between pretzel and brioche. Really, the only difference between challah and pulla is that pulla is flavored with cardamom.

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