Ruoka! (food)

It’s time to talk food.  I’ve been here 10 weeks, and since eating is my favorite thing to do, I’ve dedicated considerable effort to experiencing a variety of Finnish cuisine.  Don’t tell the Finns, but Finnish food is known for being heavy, fatty and lacking in variety, as meat, potatoes and butter are staples (I’m not even kidding, people carry around their own personal butter containers).  I keep thinking how much my Dad would like it here – you have meat for all 3 meals, every day, and butter-slathering and saltiness is a given.  There is a modern movement towards reinventing the classic Finnish cuisine, using all the traditional ingredients but putting a fresher, healthier spin on the preparation.  While I admit to a troublesome lack of variety in the flavors and spices used, I have been pleasantly surprised by the food, and anyone who thinks otherwise should consider taking a culinary tour of northern Nigeria….

The Good

Pulla (poo-lah): I never really appreciated cardamom before I moved here.  This cardamom sweet bread did the trick, though.  Crushed (not ground!) cardamom seeds infuse this yeasted sweet roll that’s a Finnish staple at ‘kahvitauko’, the ritual 2pm coffee break.  The buns are also topped by large-granule sugar (or a giant heap of regular sugar works), to make them look much more pastry-like than they would otherwise be, shown here in a pulla I bought in Ivalo.

Common variants are the cinnamon pulla (kanelipulla), which is basically a cinnamon roll with cardamom in the dough, and ‘big pulla’, which is the same dough, but made into a large, braided loaf that resembles challah, or shaped into a large, braided donut.  Pikapulla (the small bun version, as ‘pika’ means ‘fast’) are ubiquitous.  They are the Finnish version of donuts or blueberry muffins – at every gas station, coffeeshop, grocery store, refreshment stand, etc.  You can’t really spit here without hitting a pikapulla.  So clearly, I felt the need to make my own.  I have experimented with a couple of different recipes – the first didn’t have enough cardamom flavor, and I was told it had too much flour (a common pulla mistake).  But I think I did good with try #2, which was actually a kanelipulla – nice, buttery and rich, cinnamon-sugar and cardamom-packed small piece of heaven:

Rahka (rah-kah): My life and my thighs will never be the same since meeting this delicacy.  This is a creamy, tart, yogurty-esque dish of heaven that’s made of qvark (apparently this is an English word, though I wouldn’t have put money on that a month ago), cream, sugar, and berries or some other sweet mix-in.  The Finnish word for qvark translates to something like ‘white cheese’, and can be inadequately described as a cross between cream cheese and ‘original tart’ yogurt.  The actual creation of the rahka from the base ingredients is ridiculously easy – you just add them all together and mix.  You are left with an airy, fluffy-yet-creamy, sweet-yet-tart, fruity bowl of goodness.  I actually just watched a Finnish cooking show where they made rahka from mixing the qvark base and mango baby food, so there are few rules to keep this dish ‘authentic’.  It’s served chilled, and usually in a great big bowl, where you spoon out your own serving, family-style.  This is true even in restaurants I’ve been to.  Color: determined by the fruit addition, as the rest of the mixture is milk-colored.  Serving size: a small bowl (about the size of a yogurt container) should do it before you start flirting with the possibility of inducing a rahka-comma.

I went to a village rummage sale in Utsjoki last month and a woman there was selling rahka-filled pulla!  This is a truly sinful combination.  Thankfully, she also used too much flour, so the dough was a little tough, which was the only thing saving me from death-by-bliss (but it was a close call).  I’ve got to try this version out at some point (Brandon beware!).

Rieska (ree-ess-kah): Lappish flatbread made with potato, rye or barley flours (I’m a big fan of the barley version).  These are essentially the Finnish version of tortillas – they are available in sizes ranging between a pancake/street taco tortilla and an 8” flour tortilla.  These are a Lapland-specific thing, but have recently started to be available country-wide, which is great, because these are awesome!  Light, fluffy, smooth-textured and taste great with everything I’ve put them with (cheese, bbq sauce, tuna, nutella, lingonberry jam, PB and fresh berries).  These will be a principal component of my soon-to-be-bestselling reindeer street tacos.

Lohikeitto (low-hee-kay-eet-toe): Fish is a big deal here, and Finns are particularly excited about salmon.  Of geographical interest, the Tano River that runs through the village of Utsjoki is famous for its salmon.  There’s also some apparent difference (although I can’t figure out what) between the Tano salmon, and ‘Norwegian salmon’ – this is confusing to me because the Tano river (of the salmon-stocked fame) is the border between Finland and Norway…  I know I’m lame at geography, but how does one exactly differentiate between those pesky, Norwegian interlopers and the good, old Finnish fishes when you’re swiping them out of this particular river?  Whatevs.  Back to the yummy soup.  This dish can be found throughout the country, as I actually had this first in Helsinki.  Bite-sized salmon chunks and loads of fresh dill float about in a creamy base, but the creamy comes from the onions and potatoes in the soup base, not from any dairy.  This soup is silky without being heavy, and the flavors are fresh.  I can’t get enough of it!

Lohikermassa (low-hee-care-mah-sah):  Another salmon dish, this is about as simple as you can get.  Salmon filets are baked while half-submerged in a dill and herb-doused cream sauce, and then paired with fried or mashed potatoes.  Simple and yummy.

This was my first introduction to the Finn’s obsession with cream sauce – called ruokakerma (literally: ‘food cream’) in Finnish, and sold in small tetra packs.

If you can find a food that Finns haven’t doused in ‘food cream’, I’ll fork over cash.  Oh yeah, there’s also a vanilla version (which is a lot like melted vanilla ice cream), so it even makes it into/onto desserts.  Dairy is big here.

Poron käristys (poor-ahn care-ees-toose):  Another Lappish specialty, this is a main dish consisting of sautéed reindeer with mashed potatoes and lingonberries.  This dish is strange, as all of the individual parts are nothing special, but when you have all 3 in the same bite, it’s really quite nice.  Silky and starchy potatoes, tart and sweet jam, and juicy, gamey meat.  And it’s like edible street cred – I must be a Laplander, because I’m consuming this dish with startling regularity.

Leipajuusto (lay-pah-you-stow): This literally translates to ‘bread cheese’, and is a round, flat cheese.  I don’t know whether the ‘bread’ part of the name comes from the fact that the cheese looks like a thick tortilla, or because you’re meant to eat it with bread, or use it as bread?  Either way, it has a texture similar to fresh mozzarella, but a little bit of the squeakiness you’d associate with fresh curds.  They scorch the surface of the cheese, and then vacuum-seal it.  It doesn’t melt well, it’s too thick to actually eat just on bread without inducing a caloriic guilt trip, and the flavor is super mild, almost to the point of non-existent.  Essentially, leipajuusto is for those times when you want something to taste ever-so-faintly of whey.  I asked a friend here, and was told that her favorite way to eat it is to spread cloudberry jam on top, and nuke it for 20 seconds.  Despite its rather meek flavor, and my general confusion about exactly how I’m supposed to be eating it, I can’t seem to stop buying this stuff.  :)

Anything with berries (see “Berries!” post): the Finnish are berry whizzes.  Blueberry pies are of particular fame in Finland, which I will have to report back on, as I missed the majority of the year’s blueberry season.

The Bad

(or shall we say, that which spans from questionable to not very good…)

Ruisleipä (roo-ees-lay-pah): Rye bread.  I feel bad about it, but I really don’t like this super dark, super malty, super dry bread.  There are a LOT of different types of it, with spectrums of sizes, shapes and flavors.  I found this fish-shaped one at a Saturday market in Utsjoki, and I had to buy it, even though I knew I wouldn’t like eating it.

My dislike of this bread type is something I feel I have to conceal, as it’s super Finnish – it would be like coming to America and openly admitting a dislike of peanut butter.  Shameful.

Lakritsi (lah-creet-see): Aka, black licorice.  I’ve never liked black licorice – it’s too sharp a flavor, like arugula.  Finns LOVE licorice.  There are a few types, most notably ‘pepper licorice’, a hard candy that contains a core of hot pepper paste, and ‘salty licorice’, which is what it sounds like.  I’ve also had licorice liquor (see ‘Kevo or Bust!’ post), and licorice-flavored ice cream in the shape of an ice hockey puck.

I’m building up a tolerance, so maybe by the end of the year I will have acquired a taste for this candy.

Karjalanpiirakka (car-ya-lahn-pee-rah-kah): Rice porridge rye pastries.  These aren’t bad, but they’re kinda boring and dry.  You have to slather them in something to make them palatable, otherwise it’s just like eating carb-licious cardboard.  They taste good with cheese and hard boiled eggs as a portable breakfast, and I’ve doused a couple in nutella and PB, which also worked.

I also tried making these, but went with the carrot version, which is harder to find commercially.  Mine were ugly (the dough shaping is somewhat challenging) but decently tasty, yet still underwhelming.

The carrot was actually not as good as the rice porridge versions.  These are another food I feel that I’ll become accustomed to over the next few months, as they’re not bad, they are just a little uninspiring.  But that’s how you get addicted to digestive biscuits, too… (update: since writing this blurb a month ago, I’ve become totally obsessed with these!)

Piima (pee-mah):  This is actually a buttermilk beverage that Finns drink with meals.  I’ve never warmed to buttermilk, in part because of the cloying texture (although I’m a nut for egg nog), but mostly because of the sour taste.  I don’t like sour or bitter flavors – just ask Mags.  Pimo makes an appearance at every meal, and is also often added as the ‘cream’ into coffee, which I can only imagine makes an already bitter brew into a semi-curdled bitterness bomb, but whatevs.

The Ugly

(aka: things made with blood as a main ingredient)

As a brief explanation, last month was the annual reindeer herding time here in Utsjoki, and hence, there were a LOT of reindeer heading to the fields of lichen high in the sky.  Post-herd-culling, there’s a lot of blood leftover (which you can drive over to the communal slaughterhouse and be gifted by the bucket), and so a dizzying number of blood foods exist here.  I would also like to point out that this is a very small sampling of the possible hemoglobin-heavy menu, but I do what I can, given that I’m a Finnish-challenged American stranded on an island in the middle of nowhere….

Kumpus (coom-poose): This is actually a Sámi-specific food, although foods made out of blood are startlingly abundant throughout Finland.  These iron-bombs are made by mixing reindeer blood and some flour of your choice, then slicing, frying and consuming with potatoes and lingonberry jam.  This is not a dish that you can find or buy in a restaurant, but something that’s made exclusively in homes here in the far north of Finland where the Sámi people live.  Fun fact: before using blood in food, you must whisk it to whip up and remove the ‘disgusting parts’ (their words, not mine!).  I wonder at the identity of these ‘disgusting parts’… 

The Sámi are the Finnish version of American-Indians, with almost all the connotations that go along with that distinction, and are famous for their reindeer herding.  Utsjoki is a stronghold of Sámi culture and people, as it has Finland’s densest population of Sami speakers (about 50%).  I was fortunate enough to strike up a conversation about the current reindeer slaughtering with some Utsjoki-resident Kevo staff members, wherein I learned about these Sámi blood dumplings.  I was even more fortunate because the very next day, Ilkka brought me a tupperware of some that were made by his mother-in-law!

I was given instructions to slice it and pan fry it, and to not forget the lingonberry jam!  He also warned me that it was an acquired taste.  I’m not gonna lie – I stared at the kumpus for a long time while I worked myself up to cooking and eating it.  There’s something about eating something that’s only one ingredient away from a bowl of blood… damn our vampire-loving culture that puts me of a mind of connecting blood and cannibalism!  Despite the buildup, I eventually prepared as instructed and tentatively tucked in.

The flavor is interesting.  In truth, it’s much milder than I thought it would be, and almost entirely masked by the lingonberry jam.  The texture is dog-food-esque, which is perhaps the most disconcerting part of the whole thing for me.  Ilkka told me that this is the desired texture, and if it’s prepared poorly (which he equated with anyone under the age of 60 making it), it becomes squeaky, like a cheese curd.  That does sound gross, and if the ones I ate had been squeaky, I’m not convinced I could have kept them down.  Squeaky is only good when associated with cheeses (as the whale blubber-eating debacle of 2010 proved to me).  Verdict: this seems like a good way to dispose of all the blood associated with mass reindeer slaughter, as well as to protect oneself from fainting spells, but it leaves a little something to be desired in the scrumptious department.

Veriohukaiset (ver-ee-oh-who-kai-set):  Blood pancakes.  I was really excited about these.  I adore pancakes.  The Finnish, however, have a different notion of ‘pancake’ than I do.  Usually when they say ‘pancake’, they mean a 1”-thick sheet cake, baked in a giant, oven-sized cake pan.  It is sweet, though, so at least that’s in cahoots with my notion of a pancake.  I thought that the blood pancake would be a regular, American-style pancake, but with a little blood mixed in to make it pretty and capable of warding off anemia as a bonus.  Instead, the blood pancake, while the same size and shape as an American silver-dollar pancake, is just a flat version of the kumpus.

If you put them on the same plate and closed your eyes for a blind taste test, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.  Talk about disappointing!  Maybe mixing blood and sugar in a batter makes it bad?  In any case, you put a bunch of lingonberry jam on it, and away you go!

Verimakkara (very-mah-kah-rah):  This is literally “blood sausage”, misleading in name because there is no meat involved.  This is like the sausage version of the kumpus, as it’s a mix of blood and flour, and shoved into a casing (are we seeing a trend here with the blood foods?).

If you close your eyes, you can almost pretend that you’re eating regular sausage, but the texture is all wrong.  It’s too smooth and even, not dissimilar to the feel of some homogenated mock meat products.  And perhaps more foreign to my palate, there’s the strange, super faint flavor of blood – like when you suck on a cut to stop the bleeding, and there’s that metallic, earthy taste.  Overall, as long as I don’t think about it too hard, it’s pleasant when pan fried, and because it’s practically obligatory, I paired it with some potato rieska bread and (wait for it…) lingonberry jam.

Mustamakkara (moo-sta-mah-kah-rah): This traditional Finnish sausage is most famously from the southern city of Tampere, and can be literally translated as ‘black sausage’.  It’s a sausage made from pork, pig blood, crushed rye, and rye flour.  Cow’s blood is also traditional, but the packaged stuff I got is all porcine.  Because of the rye, the flavor is richer, and has a bit of a ‘bite’ when you eat it (pun intended).  You already know that I’m not the biggest fan of the rye flavor, but it works somehow when paired with pork (and blood).  Lingonberry jam makes another star appearance in this dish, and helps to balance out the heaviness of the sausage.  As far as I’m concerned, I’d take a Brandon-prepared beer brat over this any day of the week, but when in Rome… you eat the blood-filled version!

I will continue my food-related explorations (now with Brandon in tow), but as a parting thought, I wanted to relate that I really like the way that Finns think about food consumption.  It also may not be just the Finnish that do this, but they talk about food in terms of energy.  Caloric content is written on all the packages, just like American food packaging, but instead of just listing ‘Calories’, it’s listed as ‘energiaa’ with units in calories.

This translates directly into how they talk about consuming food – you can eat X amount of ‘energiaa’ if you have actually done an equivalent amount of activity.  In America, we think about our foods in terms of calories, which are a unit of energy, yes, but we leave it at the abstraction of ‘calorie’, and how many people really think of a calorie as the amount of energy it takes to heat 1 gram of water by 1 degree C?  And even those who do know it – what does that really mean in relation to my morning jog and my afternoon pulla?  Perhaps if we linguistically tied the food we eat to physical activity, we would have a healthier relationship to food, or exercise, or both!  Just a thought I’ve been having.

3 thoughts on “Ruoka! (food)

  1. Dude! I just wrote you a letter saying I was bummed at the lack of food reporting. I think I am going to go kidnap Kelly and force her to make pulla with me…

  2. +1 to recipes. We could have a “recreate Kim’s Finland Adventure” EFF!

    Also, Katie and I went to IKEA today and had Swedish Meatballs with cream sauce and lingonberry jam today, so, you know, there’s that.

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