Trying Finnish Food in Helsinki

I was famished. The flight from Stockholm to Helsinki was early and I did not have time to get breakfast. I needed a quick bite before lunch and so just as I reached the Central Train Station, I walked to the convenience store at the Central Railway Station to get a pastry or bun to soothe the growling stomach on the way to meet my guide for the day.

The buns on the shelf were not the same as those I had come to expect in Sweden. Makes sense now, but it was rather disorientating when I first arrived. I grabbed the one that looked the most different and went to pay. It turns out I picked a Karelian Pasty (although because it is officially called a rice pasty because the term Karelian pasty is a protected name in the EU).

A pasty or pirog is a baked dough with a sweet or savoury filling. The Karelian pasties that I had was a dough made frorm rye and filled with sweetened rice, a right surprise when I bite into it. I never really expected rice to be used as a filling, and a mildly sweet one at that. Rice in my estimation is more of a staple. But it filled me for the time being and I really needed that.

Lunch was not far away, and for that we went to the Hakaniemi Saluhall to get a warm bowl of soup. Hakaniemi Saluhall is a famous food hall in Helsinki.

First set up in 1914 it sells a mixture of raw food, cooked food, souvenirs and handicrafts.

Being a nordic country, Finland has an abundance of salmon, shrimp, scampi and other sorts of seafood. According to Bizzare Foods, it also has a unique lampry dish – I couldn’t find it though…

Then there are also a whole collection of Finnish style breads including more flavours of rice pasties. Another local Finnish item on sale was Leipajuusto, a unique Finnish cheese made fresh from a cows beestings (i.e. first bit of milk from a cow that has recently given birth to calves). Also known as colostrum, this sort of milk contains a large amount of antibodies to protect the calf from diseases. The cheese is curdled into a thick wheel and then baked, grilled or flambed to give the surface a char. It can be stored for years, and when ready to ear the Leipajuusto is heated to melt and served with cloudberry jam.

“Most people who are not locals, don’t know how to prepare the cheese and so complain that it tastes really bad,” said my friend. We continued through the food hall on the way to finding the famous soup shop. We weren’t far off, and before we reached the soup shop we came across another stand selling different sorts of game.

“This is rabbit and reindeer steak, but look at the price, it’s really expensive.”

I’d tried reindeer and moose in the Ostermalm Saluhall in Stockholm, but never have I ever tried rabbit before. I was tempted to buy one but I didn’t know how to prepare it. Besides I couldn’t bring that on a plane (well, at least I don’t think so) could I?

Rabbit passed up, we found our way to the soup stall. It was filled with Japanese tourist, who obviously did their homework to find their way there.

We each ordered our soups – a french seafood soup and a creamy meat soup, “this is a typical way to have lunch in Finland, a warm soup and bread to dip served with some meat and carbohydrates on a cold day to warm you up… its something that may locals have during lunch on a work day.”

You can’t go wrong with a thick, warm and rich meat soup on a cold day. The meat soup that I had was sweetened by the meat and thickened by carrots and potatoes (softened after hours of boiling), topped with some sort of chives and served with bread. It was actually quite simple, but very filling, but with a bit of rye I suspect because there was a sour hint in the soup. This hint of sourness was also what I tried with Zurek in Warsaw and Gdansk and considering that rye is an important staple in these parts I’m going to hazard that there was some sour rye flour in my soup.

It wasn’t a light dish. In fact come to think of it, no dish that I tried in Helsinki was light, which makes sense since the cold weather needs heavier food to suite the climate.

Tummies filled and cold weather staved off we continued down to the Market Square an open air square that sells a larger assortment of food, fruits, gifts and souveniors. We walked passed a couple of stalls selling pan-fried seafood items, such as salmon and white fish called muikku. The fish is served with potatoes and a dollop of sour cream.

It was a really different way to serve whitefish/whitebait compared to the Cantonese deep fried whitebait that I am used too, despite the difference, this is a whitebait I could get used to. Well, as long as the seagulls don’t get to my fish before I do…

We ended the day with food from outside of Finland, specifically Georgian food at Helsinki from Purpur Restaurant (we wanted to try a Finnish buffet place but it was full that day) set up by actor Ville Haapasalo who fell in love with Georgia and decided to set up a restaurant.

The only Georgian food I had tried before this was Khinkali in Warsaw, and this time I was exposed to even more. There was Kachapuri – a Georgian leavened cheese-filled bread. It has a wetter and fluffier dough base than a pizza and is filled usually with a brined cheese from Georgia called sulguni.

We followed that rich starter with a paste called Satsivi. The paste was made from walnuts to accompany fish/meats/vegetables (in this case chicken). It is sually eaten as an appetizer. On first bite it releases the aroma of a herbal curry but without the spice. I really liked it.

We ended the Georgian dinner detour with Shashlik, a skewered grilled meat cubes served with cilantro, raw onions, Georgian salad and a side preserved plum sauce. I call it a huge ass satay. This was a dish that I knew off only because there is a old restaurant in Singapore called Shashlik that reopened recently.

Finnish food is not just traditional and street, there is also fastfood Finnish style. Just as there is Max of Sweden, Finland has its own fastfood chain – Hesburger.

You’re looking at me wondering “what the hell” right? I thought so too as I walked to the store, but decided that it couldn’t hurt to take a look at the menu. Many of the items were staples at any all-American diner except one dish, rye bread and pork burger set. Rye is the national bread of Finland and I haven’t seen rye burgers anywhere else.

The patty was jammed with cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, lemon slices and slathered with a sweet bearnaise sauce (I think). And served with sides of fries and a drink, as most fast foods restaurants are wont to do. But the star for me was the rye bread. Unlike buns that are fluffy, rye bread is slightly harder and drier but not as filling.

It was definitely worth a try.

Then there was dessert. I had to finish my first bite of Finnish cuisine with dessert and so I went with salmiaki, salted licorice. But not just salted licorice, salted licorice ice cream.

This is my new favourite flavour of ice cream!

ON THE MAP (Hakaniemi Food Hall)

ON THE MAP (Purpur Restaurant)

ON THE MAP (Kauppatori, Market Square)


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