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Sep 18, 2007 07:14 PM

Cuisine of Finland [split from the Outer Boroughs board]

My response is months late, but I had to comment:

Passadumkeg, you said:
"But I guess that when the national dish is pea soup w/ blood pancakes, that is to be expected."

While many people in Finland do like pea soup and eat it (at home or in workplace/student cafeterias, not in restaurants) that does not make it the "national dish" by any measure.

You would be hard pressed to find it in a good restaurant in Helsinki today.
You have to either look for an old fashioned restaurant (usually a cheap dive),
or a student cafeteria (where the emphasis is = cheap food) to find pea soup regularly on the menu.

By the way, what you call "lija pirraka" is "lihapiirakka" (a meat & rice filled pie, or pierogi, if you will) - which is just Finnish junkfood.
If that is the kind of cuisine you liked in Finland, in that case you never got acquainted with real Finnish restaurant cuisine.

Lots of Finns eat fish, seafood, different meats and lots of vegetables, prepared in varied, creative ways. Finnish bread is so delicious, and you just it cannot get bread like that anywhere else. Finnish cheeses are also really good.

If I would name any dish the 'national food' of Finland, it would have to be something local that Finns eat in the summer, like those small, delicious, tender (local) new potatoes, topped with dill & a bit of fresh finnish butter, paired with fresh summer tomatoes, and some sort of fresh fish (smoked on the grill maybe), meat, or maybe pickled herring. So good.

Finns of today eat in restaurants a lot (much more than just two decades ago),
including a growing number of young adults, so the dining scene has developed immensely during the past decades. They do not go to these restaurants to eat pea soup.

What people (foreigners) do not know, is that Finland, just like most countries in the world, have different regional foods & food favorites. There are so-called Finnish foods (mostly from Eastern / North Eastern Finland) that I have never tasted, nor will I ever taste them.

Finnish game, like reindeer (from the North) & elk, are delicious seasonal foods.

Finland has a long coast line, both to the south and to the west, with a stunning archipelago (hundred thousand islands) ...and also -inland- about a hundred thousand lakes, both huge and small) and lots of fishermen; lots of tasty fish on the plates of Finnish homes and restaurants.

Many people also do not know that the food in a large part of Finland, especially the coastal areas, is very similar to the rest of Scandinavia, especially Sweden. I sometimes smile when people talk about 'Swedish meatballs' or 'Swedish herring', "Janssons Frestelse", cured salmon, smoked whitefish, etc,
because to me they are 'Finnish meatballs', and 'Finnish herring' ... etc.

Yes, it is true that these dishes probably were an import from the era when Finland was under Swedish rule, which ended 198 years ago, so I think you can say, that that was just one of the many influences on Finnish cuisine, along with trends from the East and Europe (and who knows from where else). I think the Finns took what they liked (and could grow or get) and abandoned the rest.

I once looked at the Christmas menu at (the now closed) Ulrika's (on 60th Street, Manhattan), thinking that it could be fun to (for once) not have to cook the whole thing. But going through the menu, and asking the staff for more information, I rejected the idea, since the Swedish version of a X-mas table did not have enough vegetables and vegetable based dishes on its menu for the Finnish taste. But I did go to UIrikas quite a bit, because even though they served "Swedish cuisine", for me it tasted like Finland, like my old home.

By the way:
Every October there is the "Herring market"-event in the old South Harbor Market of Helsinki, when fishermen from both the southern and western coasts come to the harbor every day during that week, and sell all kinds of herring and smoked & cured fish and fresh fish directly off their fishing boats. It is all soooo good!

Also for sale is the divinely delicious Åland black bread, Tyrnimarja-berry products, which berries are loaded with vitamin C, etc. If you are lucky enough to be in Helsinki during that October week, do go to the market, buy from the fishermen, eat food that is prepared there: For example, the different kinds of smoked fish with sides. It is cheap, it is fresh, it is delicious.

All true 'chowhounds' would truly appreciate this event. There is nothing too fancy, nothing too expensive (well, I cannot help the exchange rate) - just honest, fresh & delicious food.

I want to add some previously written information about the Helsinki
Restaurant scene, so here is a part of what I wrote about Finnish cuisine
on another thread in chowhound:
The HELSINKI DINING SCENE ROCKS! Helsinki has many, many
excellent restaurants - large and small, formal & casual - including some
that have been awarded with “Michelin stars” & so called Michelin “rising
stars” & Bib Gourmand mentions - several years in a row. (Not that
I really care about Michelin stars, I often disagree with them).

Numerous Finnish chefs are super-talented and, while
internationally trained and experienced, as a general trend (in all of
Scandinavia now) have the so-called “New Nordic Cuisine” as their guideline.
("Clean" lines, local fresh ingredients, etc, etc)

Just in case,
if someone is interested, I will include this non-commercial Helsinki link:

This site includes 3 pages of Helsinki Restaurant "reviews", some with
photos. Even if some of the reviews are a few years old, they still stand.
There are links to all the restaurants, and links to other restaurant lists.
The site also provides other very useful Helsinki info, on it’s other pages.

As my husband and I have vacationed in Finland throughout all these years, the food scene has just gotten better and better. One of the very reasons we travel to Finland is its excellent food & great restaurants. Every time we go there, there are many quite a few new & delicious restaurants to eat in.

Unfortunately, because of the current exchange rate, traveling to Finland (and the rest of Europe) is very expensive for us Americans right now, but we cannot wait to get back there again.

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    1. re: The Chowhound Team

      As a Finnophile (although not Finnish myself) I visited Finland a few years ago. I found some excellent restaurants - breakfasts were particularly memorable (I recall the herring as being incomparable), and coffee and cake about universal (such as the delicious apple cake at the Athaneum art museum)..

      I will remark, though, that in her "Finnish Cookbook" Beatrice Ojakangas says that Ruisleipa, Finnish rye bread, is most typical of Finland, and a very basic dish.

      1. re: ekammin

        Yes, that is correct. Finnish ruisleipä (= a dark, 'sour', rye bread, which is moist in the middle and has a crispy crust), is very typical and very 'basic' (necessity :-) ) in Finland.

        And a healthy one at that. It is loaded with fiber; containing more of it than any other bread.

        There, of course, are different bakeries and different varieties of this dark rye bread, but the best versions (for example the large, round "Häälimppu") are just amazingly good.

        The best recipes for making this bread include a dough "root" that you save in the fridge. Every time yo bake, you save a little piece of this "root". (you can make one from an existing rye bread if you do not have a root).

        I have not seen Ms. Ojakangas' recipe for this bread, but the way to tell a "genuine" recipe from a less genuine version is that the real black bread only has rye flour, no wheat (or other flour).

        My favorite way of eating this bread is to top it with some slices of cheese (or soft cheese) and slices of local tomatoes. Yumm. (I do not eat butter or margarine on bread, but if you do eat butter on bread, it is a great match for this bread).

        Some dark rye breads are not made sour, but they are very good, too.

        I still miss this bread and have been trying to find it everywhere in the States. No such luck. I knew from earlier (travels) that for example the Russian version is not as good as the Finnish one. (my personal taste).

        The closest version to the Finnish one, is the huge round (darkish) rye bread that they make at Balthazar Bakery in Soho, but it is not quite as dark or quite as "sour" as the typical Finnish ones.

        Wow, what a long response about black rye bread. Shows that I really love it.

    2. With Ulrika's gone, where can a New Yorker sample Finnish food? Are we limited to Smorgaschef and Aquavit?

      4 Replies
      1. re: JungMann

        In her book, Ms.Ojakangas mentions the difference in rye breads in various parts of Finland, saying, for isntance, that in the west they like to bake several months' supply at once, but in karelia they like to bake every day.

        She tells how some Karelian families, displaced when parts of Finland were ceded to the USSR after the Winter War, were taken in by families in other parts of Finland, who then compalined that the newcomers were ruining their ovens with the constant baking.

        1. re: JungMann

          Right now it seems like those are our choices. I do like Aquavit quite a bit, but it would be great to have something like Ulrika's, too. A more casual, homey, place.

          1. re: FoodWine

            there's also the swedish place in chinatown - 'good world bar and grill'. it's much more downscale than aquavit but i love their food. it's fresh and clean tasting as scandinavian food must be.

            1. re: FoodWine

              Time flies. Time for a little update about Scandinavian food in New York.

              Now my favorite casual Scandinavian restaurant in New York is Smörgås Chef at Scandinavia house. Notably, the whole Smörgås Chef operation is led by a Finn, the Corporate Executive Chef Ari Nieminen. The food at Scandinavia House is really good now and is quite popular. The service has been friendly and the food is delicious.
              My husband has had a couple of "business" lunches there and all the people in his group were happy with the place.



          2. Kiitos FoodWine! It's about time Finland is recognized as an up-and-coming foodie country. But you know those Finns-always downplaying everything (in case people get the idea to bother them by visiting ;)

            And yes, that herring market in Helsinki in October is fabulous. I'm getting all verklempt thinking about the home land-sigh.

            1. I spent a summer in Finland and hated almost everything I ate - except the karjalan pies! I make them at home now when I'm feeling ambitious. They sound incredibly dull, and maybe they are, but I loooove them!

              7 Replies
              1. re: saraeanderson

                Sara, sorry to hear that, but it would be helpful for other readers to hear what on earth you ate?
                And where on earth did you eat? Someone's home? Some cheap dive?

                Did you not try "normal" restaurants (plain food, no traditional stuff), and some of the many ethnic restaurants?
                Could you please tell us which restaurants you liked and which ones did you not like, so that other travelers know how to avoid the bad ones.

                It is a bit surprising to hear that you hated almost everything, when I know from personal experience, from repeat visits, year after year, that the food in Finland (Helsinki) is so good that I actually miss the place precisely because of its excellent cuisine and restaurants.

                Like I said above:
                The food in Finland today is for the most part just like food anywhere else in the western world, especially the rest of Scandinavia. Fish, seafood, different meats, etc, with vegetables, greens, rice, pasta, potato, etc, etc... really nothing weird, unless you go to certain regions where they still serve "old style" regional food, i.e. the stuff that I mentioned above, that I have never tasted.

                1. re: FoodWine

                  It's been a few years since I was in Helsinki, and I have mixed memories of what I ate there.

                  I recall a very good Italian restaurant where I ordered some spaghetti, and my wife, a pizza. The hostess eemed amused that we shared them - I took half of her pizza for half of my spaghetti Is this practice unknown in Finland? The meal was accompanied by some very good "Finnish" red wine - imported from elsewhere, but bottled by the Finnish alcohol monopoly.

                  Another time, we had "Kavaleeri" (spelling??) Finnish champagne. Not exactly Dom Perignon, but not bad, either.

                  Another place served pasta with salmon. This might have been good, but they included the dark part of the salmon, which gave it a very unpleasant, "fishy" taste.

                  We almost had lunch in a Turkish restaurant ("Ravintola Turkulainen??), until my wife looked at the menu and calculated that lunch would cost us over $50. Helsinki wasn't cheap!!

                  1. re: ekammin

                    You are right, ekammin; Finland has never been the land of super bargains in restaurants, especially not when it comes to wine pricing.
                    And especially during recent years our weak dollar has made the prices in Finland and most of Europe seem startlingly high for all of us buying with US dollars.

                    But in my OP I was merely talking about the cuisine in Finland & Finnish restaurants, not the prices. I was basically protesting the unfair image someone's comment here was painting.

                    Also, dear chowhounds, I am not claiming that every single restaurant in Finland or Helsinki is making good food. I am talking about general trends, and especially the contemporary trends in Finland, and especially Helsinki. If you have had unsatisfying dining experiences in Finland, I am sorry for that, but just like you cannot say that New York restaurants are all bad, only because you happened to visit bad or mediocre restaurants here, you should not label Finland's cuisine bad, only because you visited the wrong restaurants, or happened to have a bad dish in a good one. (it has happened to me in several good NY restaurants. I have sent plates back in several "better" NY restaurants. River Cafe, Gotham Bar & Grill, USC, just to name a few.)

                    Since I am interested in where you dined, or almost dined in Helsinki, I was trying to figure out the name of the Turkish restaurant that you mentioned ("Ravintola Turkulainen").
                    "Ravintola" = "restaurant".
                    "Turkulainen" means someone from the city of "Turku" (located northwest, on the coast), so that did not make sense, so I guessed that you meant:
                    "Turkkilainen" = "Turkish"

                    I found a few Turkish restaurants on the web, one is called
                    'Turkkilainen Ravintola "Halikarnas" ' ( ), and looking at its menu, I found many reasonably priced dishes. There are quite a few choices for around 8 to 11+ Euros.

                    For example:

                    -Kebab +Oven potatoes 8.00 € (Salad included).

                    -Kuzu Guvec (Lamb & vegetable stew) 11.50 €
                    (ingredients: eggplant, onion, red pepper, tomatoes, lamb, herbs & sauce made of tomato) = A hearty Turkish meal for 11.50 €.

                    (In dollars, with today's abysmal exchange rate of 1.4 dollars to 1 Euro 11.50 € is $16.01). And the 8 € dish is about $11.
                    So, if an American couple has lunch for 30 Euros, that unfortunately is 42 dollars right now.
                    Can't blame the Finns for that, though. There used to be a time (when the dollar was strong), when we "lived" like kings while visiting Finland. Those were the days, sigh!

                    The good news is that in Finland the tax is included in the food price, and although it is considered good manners to tip, you do not have to tip in Finland. I always do, though. But basically, the price is exactly what is stated on the menu - no game playing with additional tax & tip on top of the price that you see.

                    I also found: Turkish restaurant Antiokia
                    ( ), where the grilled meat dishes vary from 10 € to 16 €.

                    I know there (probably) are some additional Turkish restaurants in Helsinki, but I could not find them on the web.

                    But yes, I went to the web sites of some Helsinki restaurants, and you are right, Ekammin, it is totally possible to spend $50 -or more- for lunch for two, in a pretty casual restaurant in Helsinki nowadays. If you pay 36€ Euros for lunch, that is a bit over $50. Wow.

                    About the hostess showing any kind of attitude about you two sharing; plainly she was just another ..... (I used self-censorship here). Those kinds of people are not limited to Finland, you unfortunately find them all around the world.

                    Oh, ha-ha; talking about silly service personnel; we once got served flat champagne at the hotel bar in Helsinki. When we, immediately, pointed out to the waitress that the champagne is flat, she went back inside (we sat on a terrace) and soon came back, proceeding to tell us that she was told (by her boss at the bar) that 'because their champagne glasses are so clean, that is why the champagne is so flat'. I could have laughed but it was just too stupid.
                    We told the poor girl to tell her boss that we are not interested in why the champagne is flat, but that if they are not capable of serving champagne with healthy bubbles, they can keep their champagne.

                    By the way, you should have sent that salmon dish back. As I told above, if there is something wrong with a dish, I almost always send those dishes back, especially here in New York, - but also in Helsinki, since I know that there is a lot of fresh, good quality fish available there (so I feel there is no excuse for them to serve bad fish).

                    The Finnish sparkling wine you mentioned is probably called "Kavaljeeri". I have not tasted it, I tend to favor champagne over sparkling wine, and I have never liked a Finnish sparkling wine that I have tasted. (There is a certain California sparkling that is so good that I first thought it was champagne).

                    Same goes for the (any) wine that Alko (the Finnish alcohol monopoly) has seen fit to re-bottle. Not for me. When in Finland, we usually drink Spanish wines. You can still find reasonably priced Spanish wines in some Helsinki restaurants.
                    Stunningly, French wines are way more expensive in Finnish restaurants than in New York restaurants, even though the shipping costs must be much less to Finland. There is the alcohol tax, and then there is the stupendous mark-up (at least triple) by many restaurants.
                    And, again, on top of that the American traveler has the abysmal exchange rate...

                    Alko (the Finnish alcohol monopoly) is one thing in Finland that really makes me angry. Many people in Finland voted in favor of joining the EU (European Union), partly because they thought that they would finally get rid of that disgusting institution (and to get to shop in competing wine stores), but instead they just got hit by more regulations, dictated by the EU.
                    Some of these regulations are totally moronic and have put hard working Finnish small businesses out of business. This happened among others to a wonderful, wonderful grocery-shop keeper in the archipelago where I rented a cottage during my last years in Finland. All the people in that part of the archipelago lost their beloved grocery store ( the woman made awesome country cheeses, sold prime meats, etc.) and were forced to haul their food to the islands from much farther away than before.

                    1. re: FoodWine

                      First, my apologies for the spelling errors. I'm not Finnish, although I have been fascinated with the place ever since I was a teen-ager .I've even tried to learn a few words in Finnish (not easy) but I guess some mistakes do slip in.

                      I know that Helsinki has good restaurants and bad, just like New York, London, or Upper Dandruff Falls, Manitoba. What made the prices even worse fo me was that, at the time, the Canadian Dollar was so low it was called the Hudson Bay Peso, not Finland's fault.

                      A few other things I recall - the Kuu (Moon) restaurant - tasty food, but limited - everything in a cream sauce, creamed pork, creamed fish, creamed meatballs, etc. The atmosphere was not helped by the crew in one corner geting noisily drunk on 120 proof Konkenkorva vodka.

                      On the other hand, the Omena Sokerikakku (apple-sugar cake) at the restaurant in the Athaneum art museum was memorable. The coffee was good, as it was every other place I tried it there. Well, I hope to go back sometime in the not too distant future and try more restaurants.

                      The situation with Alko reminds me of the Ontario government alcohol monopoly, the LCBO. Sometimes I hate it, sometimes I like it. But any time the people of Ontatrio wanted to, they could throw it out, as has already been done in Alberta. Finland is a democracy, if the Finns don't like Alko, why don't they do the same?

                      1. re: ekammin

                        Don't worry about the spelling mistakes. If there is one thing Finns love, it is when people at least try to tackle their impossible language.

                        You raise a very good question about voting about Alko. I'm afraid I do not have the answer to that.

                        1. re: FoodWine

                          Two other Helsinki restauarnts I should have remembered -

                          Alexander Nevsky, a good place to try if you are good friends with your bank manager. We were there for our anniversary. Elegant czarist Russian theme (Finland used to be a Russian archduchy), blini, caviar, vodka, etc., with very high prices.

                          Kynsillaukka - the garlic restaurant. Garlic in everything, even (slightly) the desserts.

                          1. re: ekammin

                            Ekammin, sorry for the late response.

                            We really enjoyed Alexander Nevski, too.
                            Luckily for us, we visited the place a few times when the dollar was really strong, so the bill actually felt pretty reasonable, especially considering the quality of the food.

                            Unfortunately, Alexander Nevski is closed. There is some sleek, upscale Italian restaurant in its place.

                            I guess that Finns themselves do not have that big a need for several "Russian" restaurants; Finland became independent 90 years ago, and most Finns relate to the West, not to the east. So I think that the Russian restaurants in Helsinki are there mostly for tourists, and the cheaper the better. Not that any of them is remotely cheap ... some of them are really tacky, though. We made the mistake of trying one of them once, I think it was Saslik (which is often recommended ... who knows why), and I hated the food, I hated the service, I hated the room and I especially hated the tacky Balalaika group, hollering Russian "classics". I felt like a fool, and I guess I was, for going there.

                            In my opinion Alexander Nevski was the best one of them. (Maybe because it was the least Russian). Certainly it was the most elegant one of them -and likely the most expensive. It also did not serve purely Russian cuisine; when in season, they had for example game on their menu, and I can tell you, it was not cooked in Russian style, it was more like a continental gourmet dish. I still drool over one of these dishes.

                            Restaurant Kynsilaukka (Garlic) is still there. It was great when it was new (I lived in Finland back then), but I felt that they somehow became complacent and started going downhill a bit. I have heard that the interior decor desperately needs updating, etc. But, yes, it is a fun concept, and who knows, maybe they have listened to the criticism and try harder again.