CUISINES OF THE WORLD
BRING YOUR APPETITE TO THE CAPITAL AS FINNISH FOOD COMES OF AGE.
Bring your appetite to the capital as Finnish food comes of age.
By Kevin Revolinski
A few years back, Italy’s then-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi infamously derided the Finns and their “marinated reindeer” cuisine. In a swift response, Finn pizza chain Kotipizza rolled out the Berlusconi: a pie topped with red onions, chanterelle mushrooms and, naturally, smoked reindeer. The pizza went on to win the America’s Plate international pizza contest in New York in 2008. An amusing anecdote but also symbolic of how quickly Finnish cuisine has adapted in recent years. Helsinki is leading the charge to change Finland’s reputation from a meat-and-potatoes culture to something playful, cosmopolitan and fun. From modern to traditional and from international to fusion, Helsinki offers a culinary playground that has only recently started getting serious international attention.
I spoke with Helsinki guide and food expert Heather Domeney and joined her on a visit to Finland’s famous department store Stockmann. The lower-level delicatessen provides the city’s best collection of baked goods, cheeses, charcuterie, seafood and other varied delicacies.
“It’s incredible how far Finnish food has come in the last 10 years,” she says. “Not just Finnish food, but what’s available in supermarkets.” We stroll amid deli counters filled with salted salmon and smoked herring, sample locally produced artisan cheeses and pick up cardamom-laced pastries from the bakery section. I snack on a Karelian pasty — a Finnish staple consisting of a palmsized, fluted rye crust with a rice filling served under an egg-butter topping. “When I came here in 2001, the fresh herbs available were dill, chives and basil. But there’s been a huge expanding of what is actually grown here year round.”
Lapland, the northern region of Finland that reaches deep into the Arctic Circle, is known for reindeer herding and wilderness. Game meats — reindeer, elk (moose) and even occasionally bear — make
FINNS SEARCH FOR WILD MUSHROOMS AND COUNT THE MONTHS ACCORDING TO THE BERRIES.
it into stores and onto the menus. At the markets, look for cured reindeer or jerky. In the restaurants, beef lovers will be amazed at the lean and tender reindeer steaks grilled to order. Reindeer strips served over mashed potatoes with lingonberry sauce is a standard.
Vegetarians should seek all the seasonal goodies such as wild mushrooms. “Have you heard of ‘every man’s rights’?” asks Domeney. I hadn’t and feared the conversation had moved to politics. But this is the custom, she tells me, of going into the forest and foraging. Finns search for wild mushrooms, such as chanterelles or morels, and count the months according to the berries: first, the cloudberries in July, then the blueberries of August, then the tart lingonberries of September. Finns are generally fond of their pristine forests and foraging excursions are a national pastime. Don’t be surprised to find these “every man” products at the markets or even on your plate at a restaurant.
Head down to the waterfront market where food stalls line the quay daily, serving fried fish, salmon soup, sausages and more. Dating back to 1888, the Old Market Hall, also along the quay, reopened in 2014 after some preservation work. The indoor market features long hallways lined with vendor booths and a few cafés. On offer is a wide variety of gourmet food ranging from fresh cheese, charcuterie and preserves to coffee, pastries, soups and other meals. Look for cloudberry jam or cured game meats. Either inside or outside, this waterfront area is a nice place to get a reasonably priced bowl of another Finnish staple: salmon soup. The creamy stew is hearty, with potatoes and large tender chunks of regionally caught salmon.
Situated a bit north from the port, a former slaughterhouse has become the latest food mecca in Helsinki. Built in 1933, Teurastamo (known also by its English name The Abattoir) has kept its historical look and is gradually being taken over by hip new venues dedicated to food. The Abattoir’s summertime Thursday markets offer food carts and fresh produce at a farmer’s market. Cooking classes onsite inspire people to spend more creative time in their kitchens, and DJs and live music give the place a lively atmosphere. Stop in at one of the several restaurants for lunch or dinner, with menu selections ranging from traditional to fusion.
Hietalahti Market Hall has been a landmark of one kind or another since it was built in 1903. More recently, for about a dozen years, Helsinki’s second-oldest market dealt strictly in antiques, but in 2012
it returned to its original purpose: a food market. (Though there’s still a popular daily summer flea market just outside the front doors.) Many locals come here for the fresh market ingredients but there are also plenty of dining options for lunch among the 119 shops inside. Stop in for a bowl of soup at Soppakeittiö. Other shops serve everything from fresh shrimp and sushi to kebabs and hamburgers. Korean street food, smoothies and imported cheeses are not uncommon, and with a rather liberal policy for new vendors who come and go, you really don’t know what fabulous meals you might find here each week.
TAKING IT TO THE STREETS
Kirsti Tuominen, a former Nokia employee and now a promoter of Helsinki’s food scene, helped found Restaurant Day. Officially, it occurs four times each year and, with a nod from government, allows anyone who loves to cook to open a restaurant, café or simple food stand anywhere in Helsinki without all the red tape and permits that are required for a brick-and-mortar restaurant. The first event in 2011 was such a huge success that the practice has spread to over 60 other countries. Walk along Helsinki’s lovely Esplanade Park and odds are good you’ll see an amateur chef with a homestyled setup serving grilled food or ethnic dishes.
Finns don’t fear the chill. In March, they celebrate food carts at the internationally recognized Streat Helsinki festival, which draws dozens of juried street vendors and over 30,000 hungry fans.
From Thai food to tofu, from gourmet porridge cafes to craft brewpubs, the dining scene in Helsinki seems to cover all the bases. But one must also note that the Michelin Guide has taken notice of Finnish food. In 2015 the esteemed restaurant guide awarded stars to five city restaurants.
One of these is Chef & Sommelier, which offers only a few tables, so reservations are essential. The restaurant is noted for its multi-course gourmet creations that offer modern takes on Finnish flavors and often incorporate wild foraged foods from the country’s endless forests and fields. The chefs themselves bring the dishes to the table and talk passionately about local ingredients and methods of preparation. Additionally, the wine list is excellent and offers flights to pair with each course. For a very personal dining experience, this is that splurge meal you’ve promised yourself — one of the best of many that will make your time in Helsinki unforgettable.