Finland Is for Foodies
There’s never been a better time to indulge in the new Nordic cuisine.
With one foot in the Arctic Circle and much of its border touching Russia or the sea, Finland’s food scene is one of the most fascinating in Europe. A long history of foreign rule, paired with the practice of foraging and hunting among one of the most unique landscapes on the planet, has created a table spread that’s distinctively Finnish.
The best place to experience the flavors of Finland is in its capital, Helsinki. Here, a new generation of chefs are taking inspiration from the gastronomy of their European neighbors to reinvent the recipes handed down through the generations.
Elsewhere, the farm-to-table movement is alive and well, and locally sourced ingredients are highly en vogue. But in Helsinki, it’s not about keeping up with the latest food fads. It’s about tradition.
“Finnish food derives a lot from nature,” says Timo Santala, Finnish food journalist and cofounder of Helsinki’s Restaurant Day. “It’s not just a trend.”
Understanding the Past
To fully appreciate Helsinki’s modern food scene, you have to look back in time. Finland’s gustatory traditions were shaped in part by weather and geography. Long winters meant sustenance had to be heavy and easy to preserve. The vast coastline and lakes yielded fish galore. And the scant springs and summers, with their endless hours of daylight, marked a brief but intense growth period for herbs, mushrooms, and Arctic berries.
Finnish cuisine draws from Nordic influences (you’ll find plenty of Swedish-style meatballs here), but it’s also very eastern. Time spent under Russian rule introduced pelmeni, blini, and stroganoff to the country’s menus.
“Finland has always been a meeting place of east and west,” says Santala. “This can be seen in our food culture.”
To experience and taste the more traditional side of the country, head to restaurant Konstan Möljä near the Kamppi shopping plaza. The restaurant opened more than thirty years ago on a mission to educate younger generations about Finland’s grub history.
Walk in and you’ll see a wooden table at the back of the restaurant piled with red plates of pickled vegetables, mushrooms, and herring. Homemade fish soup steams in a cauldron next to a pot of vorschmack, a lamb and anchovy meatball.
The food here is simple: prepared with just cream, butter, salt, and pepper. It’s also delicious. But to limit yourself only to Finland’s food past would be a great disservice to your palate.
Eat This Now
Best of Helsinki
Salmon: You’ll find this fish everywhere, even at the breakfast buffet. Try it fresh, smoked, or in a rich soup with fragrant dill and potatoes.
Reindeer: Sorry Rudolph, but you’re delicious. Reindeer salamis, sausages, and steaks dot menus all over the city.
Blinis: Try these tasty Russian pancakes with a side of roe and a dollop of sour cream.
Karelian Pasty: Named after a region that straddles the Finnish–Russian border, these snacks consist of a crispy rye crust filled with rice porridge.
Bear: You’ll find bear steaks and soups in Helsinki’s higher-end restaurants and it’s well worth the splurge.
Reinventing the Future
In 1991, the USSR collapsed ending Finland’s complicated relationship with its eastern neighbor. A few years later, Finland joined the European Union and just like that an influx of foreign restaurateurs brought new flavors to the table.
But rather than completely forego their traditional dishes in favor of something shiny and new, Helsinki’s chefs used the classic flavors as a source of inspiration.
“In Finland, chefs are trying to bring the old tastes to the modern kitchen,” says Jarkko Myllymäki, owner of Juuri, a restaurant just south of Helsinki’s Esplanade Park.
At Juuri, the stars of the show are sapas, Finland’s answer to tapas. Influenced by the mezes and antipasti of southern Europe, the chefs wanted to make dining in Helsinki a more communal affair.
Bite-sized treats like the kalakukko fish pastry are topped with whatever’s fresh during Finland’s distinct seasons for extra pop. Lamb tongue is served with organic broad beans from a local farm. Portions are designed for sharing and eating is a joy that should never be rushed.
A DIY Take on Finnish Cuisine
Every summer, Sami Tallberg spends the endless days roaming parks, forests, and shorelines in and around Helsinki in search of wild raspberries, mushrooms, and nettle.
The Helsinki chef and professional forager who wrote the popular Wild Herb Cookbook has helped several restaurants integrate more local wild ingredients into their recipes.
“We as a nation have been using wild plants for a long time,” says Tallberg. “They’re the best Finland has to offer in terms of texture, aroma, and taste.”
If you can’t make it to the wilds of Finland, head to the next best thing: Hakaniemi Market Hall. There, vendors have been selling local meats, cheeses, vegetables, and fruits for over one hundred years.
Each season has something exemplary, such as fresh strawberries, blueberries, and lingonberries in the summer. Autumn brings heaps of mushrooms, and spring is the time for red nettle, bittercress, and wood sorrel. Even in the dead of winter you can find stars like delicious cloudberry jam preserves and rich mulled wine. Through foraging, creativity, and a return to local ingredients, Finland is proving to be a star player in the culinary world.
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