A country’s food can tell us a huge amount about the country itself. Finnish food is no different. Our culinary tastes reflect our way of living, our history and how we feel about ourselves. So let’s check what’s cooking everywhere from the deepest forests to the hippest streets.
1. A feast of fish and forest food
If you’ve ever driven through Finland’s landscape you’ll have noticed the never ending forest and the thousands of lakes (188 000 to be more specific). With 78% of the land covered with the green gold, it’s one of the world’s most forested countries. Every fifth Finn belongs to a forest owning family, but according to Finnish law and tradition the forest belongs to everyone, with all its treasures. Nearly 300 000 Finns have a hunting license and most often they point their rifles at moose, deer and bear.
These are considered delicacies, which often get tourists very excited, and why shouldn’t they! Anyone who knows how to cook the meat can create the most delicious plates of Finnish wilderness. Add some tasty berries and mushrooms to the list and you’ve got a Finnish forest menu. With Finland being the country of a thousand lakes, fish is found in many dishes. If you ever find yourself strolling through a Finnish fish market, be sure to taste the creamy fish soup, cold smoked salmon and fried Baltic herring.
What this food says about Finns: You can take the Finn out of the forest but you can’t take the forest out of the Finn. In our hearts, we’ll always be forest people.
2. Rocking with Ruisleipä
Ever since the Iron Age, rye has been grown in Finland, and in the Middle Ages it took an important role in the Finnish cuisine. Apart from being suitable for the Finnish climate, with only three months of warm weather, it’s also the main ingredient in one of Finland’s dearest foods – the ruisleipä or rye bread. Unlike the Swedish rye bread, the Finns keep theirs unsweetened and simple with only four ingredients: rye flour, sourdough, water and salt. In the past this bread was convenient due to its longevity. The hole in the middle of the flat and round loaves dates from times when the bread was hung on a stick above the kitchen fireplace for long-term storage. If dried, it’s almost immune to mould. Rye is also the main ingredient in many other dishes, such as Karelian pasties and the Easter dessert pudding mämmi. But beware, unless you’re Finnish, this dessert can be tough to stomach.
What this food says about Finland: We’re hardcore and adaptable because in our challenging climate we have to be. For much of the world bread is a fluffy pleasure to enjoy with butter and jam. For us it’s as hard as rock and lasts for months.
3. Sensational sauna smoked meat
Yes, that’s right, the Finns not only heat themselves up in the sauna but their food too. As with many other Finnish dishes, this way of cooking is to do with the historical need for preservation, but it also adds a salty Finnish touch to the meat. Using saunas for preparing meat was, and still is, a part of the country’s big farming culture. Before heating up the sauna the meat is hung for a few days and then put in a bath of salt for another few days. The result is both salty and tender. In Ostrobothnia, a region in Western Finland, the choice of sauna-smoked meat is usually lamb. But just about anything goes, as long as the fat doesn’t drip on the fire and risk burning the sauna down.
What this food says about Finns: We’re people of extremes. We live in a place that gets very, very cold, so we love to hang out in a place that gets very, very hot.
4. Bloody food
This is not a reference to the Finns’ love of swearing but to their use of blood in cooking. There is bread, pancakes and sausage coloured and flavoured with this unique ingredient. The mustamakkara (blood sausage) originates from Tampere and is served with lingonberry jam. Bloody good, some say, while others may have to take some vodka to get it down. When you live in a country as unforgiving as Finland, you have to make sure nothing goes to waste.
What this food says about Finns: In our rural past food supply was a lot more insecure than today, so we still make the most of what we’ve got. Blood might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if it’s there, then we might as well use it as best we can.
5. Snacking on Snägäri
An odd combination of letters for the outsider, but for the Friday night party crowd this is exactly what’s called for after last orders at the bar. Snägäri refers to Finland’s popular street food kiosks, where the best selling dish is local sausage inside a meat pasty. In recent years, traditional Finnish street food has faced new competition. Now, especially in Helsinki, you’ll find more and more food trucks selling tasty dishes from around the world. But as long as Finns love their Friday night fun, you can safely assume we’ll continue to go for a piece of bread with our dearly loved sausage in between.
What this food says about Finns: When we let our hair down we do it in style. Finns might have a reputation for restraint, but after a few Friday drinks we throw caution to the wind. This applies to food, too.
Ebba Håkans is a winner of the TV cooking program, Come Dine with Me. A journalist and chef, in the near future she hopes to complete a Master’s Degree in Political Science and move on to the next excitingly messy chapter of her life.