Finnish Food: A Finlandia Forte
12 May, 2012
It’s often said, in matters of love, that the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. So, if I may stretch the adage a bit, the best way to reach the heart of Finland and fall in love with it is through its cuisine. Finnish cuisine is Finland’s most valuable and fascinating feature, I find. An evolutionary product of its particular geography, history, and culture. Let us first take a closer look at these three elements, so as to put Finland into context and set the stage for the main act—the role of functional food in Finland’s identity.
The Republic of Finland comprises roughly 65 percent forest and 10 percent water. Its climate vacillates between the White Nights of the summer, 10 weeks during which the sun does not set, and the dark, dark days of the winter when the sun does not rise for 8 weeks. Finland is a small country with only 5.2 million inhabitants, and it is the only Nordic EU country to adopt the euro as its national currency. A couple more statistics: The dominant religion is Christianity, and the official language is Finnish. Tarja Halonen, elected in 2000, is the current president and the first woman president to be elected in Finland. Independence and progressive politics are of particular importance in this country that has suffered hundreds of years of Swedish rule, followed by a century of Russian rule, and that gained its independence as late as 1917. Even then, Finland continued to be bullied by communist Russia right up until the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, when its forced-arm “friendship treaty” with the Soviet Union became void and it ran for the cover and protection of the European Union (BBC News, “Country Profile: Finland,” 2000).
Finnish culture has long evaded the understanding of the rest of the world. A Finn wrote recently in a leading Finnish newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, that “in many ways, Finland is an island.” The BBC’s Jonny Dymond agrees: “Finland is one of the quieter members of the EU. But now its turn at the EU presidency has thrust it into the spotlight.” He goes on to describe Finland’s passion for Latin. According to Dymond, Finland is the only country in the world that broadcasts the news in Latin. Latin is a compulsory language in schools and much of Finnish mass media–news, radio, even songs–have alternative narratives in Latin (BBC News, “Finland Makes Latin the King,” Oct. 2006). Ya don’t say.
The said Finn of Helsingin Sanomat sheds more light on the peculiarities of Finnish culture: The Finns are very quiet, reserved people who will only interact with you if they know you well. Nobody will smile at you on the street, for instance; although, these days, this would probably be because they are too busy talking into a cell phone or downloading e-mail from a PDA (all hail the Finnish cellphone manufacturer, Nokia!). The stereotype of Finns being people of few words owes its roots to the national characteristic of polite reserve, which is also implicated in the Finnish habit of not flaunting success. In the classroom, for example, Finnish students are not prone to sit in the front row or to volunteer information during discussions. Contrary to popular belief, though, Finns do have a voice. And this author notes with some mirth that they find it when they are inebriated, which happens often, as the Finns tend to be very liberal in their alcohol consumption and, according to the Finland Travel Guide, the legal drinking age is 18. (Strict laws about drinking and driving are enforced, however.) Our Helsingin Sanomat writer further explains that although beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages are frequently consumed with meals, the Finns are also big on coffee drinking (and they like it strong!), and there is traditionally a jug of cold milk at the dinner table.
The author shares other delicious tidbits: Thursday is, for historic reasons, pea soup day (y’all know that’s today, right? So get your pea soup on). Also, if I may launch into a laundry list of Finnish cultural traits, the Finns are sticklers for being on time, they are rather macho when it comes to things like wearing hats in the winter time, they are not big on public displays of affection, they love wearing sports pants, they use Jaffa (a carbonated orange beverage) as a panacea for upset tummies, they are very adept at de-skinning hot, boiled potatoes, and they enjoy salmiakki (a salty licorice candy containing sal ammoniac, crystalline ammonium chloride). I have a feeling I will never take to this particular type of candy, if I lived in Finland. Desire for it would fall into the category of “acquired taste.”
Our Helsingin Sanomat writer notes that particular social problems in Helsinki, the capital, include “ladies of the night” and public urination, the latter of which results from overindulgence in the bottle by weekend revelers. (Oh, yes—the Finns are BIG partyers; especially when alcohol is involved.) The author closes on a climatic note: “It’s not the cold that’ll get you [here], it’s the dark…Houses are so well insulated that hypothermis is pretty much reserved for derelicts, but SAD (seasonal affective disorder—basically, a lack of adequate sunlight) affects us all to some extent in the winter months.”
Brrr. What chilly words. I’m shivering already. But don’t get the wrong impression: The Finns love their country and think that people are crazy to live anywhere else. They get by because they program their minds and build their lives around awaiting the mid-summer holiday; that grand season of the White Nights.
So just what is it that makes these Finns tick…other than salmiakki, that is? According to iExplore.com, the staples of the Finnish diet are potatoes, meat, fish, milk, butter, and rye bread. Finnish cuisine is greatly influenced by Swedish and Russian cooking (plus French and German, in more recent years), and fresh fish dishes such as herring, trout, pike, perch, whitefish, and salmon are very popular. Each region has its own traditional dishes and restaurants (ravintola) often serve continental dishes with several Finnish specialites. National specialities include reindeer meat, Lapp puikula potatoes, cloudberries for dessert (often served with hot toffee sauce), various thick soups, kalakukko (a type of fish and pork pie baked in a rye flour crust), and karjalan piirakat (a pastry of rye flour stuffed with rice pudding or potato and eaten with egg butter). Finnish cuisine obviously involves alcoholic beverages as well, and national drinks include koskenkovva (Finlandia vodka schnapps traditionally drunk with cold fish or served ice-cold with meals) and Finnish berry liquers such as mesimarja (arctic bramble), lakka (cloudberry), and polar (cranberry) (“Finland Travel Guide,” 2006).
Answers.com delves deeper into Finnish gastronomy, declaring it healthy and wholesome and dominated by wholegrains (rye, barley, oats), berries (blueberries, lingonberries, cloudberries, sea budthorn), root vegetables (potato, turnips, carrots), and fresh fruits and vegetables.
The Finns are still smarting from french president Jacques Chirac’s remark on July 4, 2005, that “after Finland, [Britain is] the country with the worst food.” Critics worldwide, including some from France, have stongly rebutted this comment, asserting that Finnish food is delicious and wonderfully fresh. But perhaps one can understand the misleading roots of negative views on Finnish cuisine, which draw from olden times when the country’s harsh climate has limited the supply of fresh fruits and vegetables for nine months of the year, giving rise to an emphasis on stable tubers (turnip, initially, and later potato), dark rye bread, fermented diary products, and preserved fish or meat, with very few spices except for salt. Traditional Finnish dishes also tend to be stewed for a long time in an oven, which produces hearty but bland dishes. And in addition, famines in the 19th century resulting from crop failures led Finns to improvise by eating things like bread made from pine bark (pettuleipä), another staple of modern Finnish diet that is nutritious but rock-hard and hardly tasty.
It may surprise you, however, to know that in the gamut from traditionally bland and hearty to nutritious, wholesome, and fresh food, Finns these days are increasingly mimicking the rest of the Western world by having things like spaghetti, hamburgers, pizza, salads, and Thai or Indian dishes as part of their everyday diet, especially in major cities (Answers.com, “Cuisine of Finland,” 2006).
Food is of great importance in Finnish culture, because until the middle of the 20th century, Finland was a largely agrarian country, and despite the decline that modernization/globalization has imposed on this livelihood, farming continues to be an important facet of Finnish lifestyle (Six Degrees, 2006). The news agency, Six Degrees, explains that for Finns, farming has long been a way of life in which most farming families have been self-sufficient, raising hardy northern livestock breeds and growing crops, such as root vegetables, rye, and oats, that can survive in harsh northern climates.
But faced with steady urban-migration and impending EU reforms to European farming subsidies, Finnish farmers, who are already disadvantaged by their harsh agricultural climate, are worried about the future of their livelihood and of their rural way of life.
In the wake of globalization and urbanization, farms are gradually being abandoned and converted to energy-fuel crops such as timber or being left to revert back to forest naturally. Finland is becoming increasingly dependent on imported food due to the open-market system enformced by the EU), and the tendency of Finnish consumers to favor the sudden influx of exotic foreign produce is putting locally-grown produce at a disadvantage.
Finnish farmers are dependent on subsidies for about half of their income, in order to sell their produce at a competitive rate on the global market. This aid also helps them to maintain their reputation as an organic food nation as more and more farmers can afford to turn to organic food farming, giving Finnish exports quite some leverage in a world where safe, organic food is becoming increasingly popular. The author proposes that Finnish farmers adapt to urbanization and subsidy threats by growing crops that can be burnt to produce energy (biofuels) in order to stay in business. Rapeseed oil, for instance, can easily be converted into liquid biofuel for motor vehicles (Six Degrees, “Finnish Farmers Forced to Branch Out,” September 2006).
I strongly oppose this idea. Finland—and the EU, as the governing body responsible for its welfare—must find another way to adapt this country to globalization; one that involves the continuation of organic food farming. According to the laws of economics, demand is what drives the market, and as long as there is demand for organic food, Finland must find a way to market this product to the best of its advantage.
Finland has something else of great importance that it could use to dig its feet into the global market and keep up its good work: it has gained a name for itself as a leader in functional (health-enhancing) food research and as a strong promoter of pre-emptive health care (Päivikki Savola, 2006). According to Savola, the Finns are world leaders in clinical nutrition research. They have particular clout in this field because they have realized how exceptionally health-enhancing the Finnish diet has been through the ages and they are committed to instilling the value of functional food and promoting healthy nutrition in members of their society.
It is amazing that all the adaptations of the Finnish diet to harsh climatic conditions and famine years have actually promoted the healthfulness of their diet. Hardy cereals like barley and rye, pine-bark bread when crops failed, berries in the summer, preseved lingonberries and root vegetables in the winter, and fermented milk products, among other food items, are all rich in fibre, flavonoids, lignans, and probiotics. Among the flagships of Finnish health-enhancing food research are Xylitol, LGG (a diary probiotic), Benecol, and low-lactose products (surprisingly—to me, at least—lactose intolerance is common in Finland; and even more shocking is that Finland has the highest rate, worldwide, of type1 diabetes (Denis Danemon, “Type1 Diabetes,” Lancet 367: 849, 2006). I don’t know why. But this statistic must somehow contribute to the reason why the Finns are so serious about promoting public health in their society.
Functional foods are defined as food products that, in addition to their nutritional function, have been scientifically proven to enhance health or prevent illness, according to Savola. As such, Xylitol inhibits dental cavities and is widely used in chewing gums, pastilles, and a wide range of oral hygiene products. The lactic acid bacterial strain, Lactobacillus GG, prevents and cures intestinal disorders, protects the intestines from harmful microbes and toxins, and reduces allergic reactions. LGG products have been marketed by Finland under the Gerfilus name and LGG is incorporated into milk, yoghurt, juice, and capsules. Benecol, marketed by Finland’s Raisio Group, is a plant sterol margarine that lowers cholesterol and, needless to say, is marketed as a margarine. Also, the Finnish company, Valio, has developed a range of low-lactose products, and because such products contain only a fraction of the energy content of the original product, they are ideal for use as low-calorie and diabetic food (Päivikki Savola, “Functional Foods from Finland” in the Finnish Food Magazine.
As Finland continues to surge forward in its laudable effort to research and promote functional foods, I can only hope that other countries will follow suit and learn from its example. Prevention is better than cure, goes the old saying. To stretch this adage a little, I say: pre-emptive health promotion is waaaaaaaaaaaaaay better than post-diagnosis drug therapy. So come on, people now, show some love for Finland.
-A barley-based bread that is very traditional in the Ylivieska area of Finland
- 1/4 liter of milk
- 1/3 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 to 1/3 liter barley flour
Set oven to 300 degrees C. Mix milk and salt. Add flour. Mix the ingredients and knead into a flat, round break (about 0.5 cm thick). Bake for about 15 minutes or until the surface gets some darker spots. Alternatively, you can fry it in a pan.
Eat fresh with butter and a glass of cold milk.
Put the following into a blender:
- 1 tablespoon of hot fish stock or clam broth,
- 2 cloves of garlic and 1 tiny red hot pepper,
- 1/2 teaspoon salt, and
- 1/4 cup soft white bread pulled into bits.
Blend until very smooth, almost like mayonnaise. With the blender still running, slowly add 1/2 cup of olive oil and stop the blending as soon as the oil disappears.
When serving, place the rouille into a little bowl along with the bouillabaisse. Each serving is about 1/2 a teaspoon, which you stir into the bowl of soup.
For this dish, it is customary to use as many different types of fish as possible, such as fillets of flounder, haddock, cod, perch, white fish, whiting, porgies, bluefish, or bass.
- Heat a 1/4 cup of olive oil in a large saucepan.
- When hot, add 1 cup of thinly sliced onions and the white part of 2 or 3 leeks, also thinly sliced.
- Then add 2 cloves of crushed garlic (or more/less to suit your taste) and 1 sweet red pepper cut into bits or 1 can of pimiento.
- Add 1 large tomato, cut into pieces, 4 thinly sliced stalks of celery, and a 2 cm slice of fennel.
- Stir the vegetables into the oil with a wooden spoon until they are well coated.
- Then add another 1/4 cup of olive oil, 3 twigs of fresh or dried thyme (or about 3/4 teaspoon of powdered thyme), 1 bay leaf, 2 or 3 whole cloves, and the peel of half an orange.
- Cook until the onion is soft and golden but not brown.
- Cut 0.5 kg of fish fillets (fresh, if possible) into 2 cm pieces.
- Add the fish and 2 cups of water into the saucepan and boil uncovered for about 10 minutes.
- Add 1 cup of oysters or clams or mussels, plus 1 cup of shrimp, crabmeat, or lobster tails (whole ones look more decorative).
- Mix 1/2 teaspoon of powdered saffron, 2 teaspoons of salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and half a cup of the broth from the fish, and return it to the pan.
- Then add 1 cup of clam juice or fish broth and the juice of 1 lemon, plus a cup of white table wine.
- Bring to a boil again and cook for about 5 minutes longer.
- Check the seasoning and, if necessary, add a touch of lemon juice before serving. If you have not yet used the fennel, you can now add a tablespoon of anisette or Pernod.
- Place a thick slice of lightly toasted crusty French bread into each soup bowl, or sprinkle the dish with dried croutons (cut bread into cubes and cover with herbs, olive oil, salt, and peppers; bake at 120 degrees C in the oven).
Serve with the Sauce Rouille.
Kaalikaaryleet (cabbage rolls)
- A large cabbage
- 1/2 cups (1 dl) raw rice
- 300 g ground beef
- The core of the cabbage
- 1 small onion, grated
- 1/4 cup (1/2 dl) dried breadcrumbs
- 1/4 cup (1/2 dl) water
- 1/4 cup (1/2 dl) cream
- Black pepper
- Butter, margarine, or oil
- 2 Tbsp syrup
- Water or bouillon
- Cut out core of the cabbage
- Cook the cabbage in salted water until done
- Remove the leaves and drain. Pare down the thick base of each leaf
- Cook the rice in salted water
- Let the breadcrumbs swell in the water and cream mixture
- Mix the ground beef, breadcrumbs, onion, seasonings, and rice. Dice the core of the cabbage adn add to the ground beef mixture. Season
- Spread cabbage leaves on a board. Put 1-2 tablespoons of filling on each leaf. Wrap into little packages
- Place the packages side by side in a greased baking dish. Top with a few dabs of butter and pour on syrup
- Bake at 425 degrees F (225 degrees C). Baste and bake for 45-60 minutes
- Lower the temperature to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C). Baste and bake for 45-60 minutes
- Serve with lingonbery or cranberry jam or fresh pureed berries
Learn to Speak Finnish
Anteeksi: sorry/excuse me
En puhu suomea: I don’t speak Finnish
Hauska tavata!: Nice to meet you!
Hyvää huomenta: Good morning
Hyvää päivää: Good afternoon
Iso tuoppi: Could I have a pinto of beer, please?
Kiitos: Thank you
Saanko laskun: I would like to pay
Sisään: Come in, please
Vettä: Water, please
(For kicks): Sinulla on kauniit siniset silmät: You have beautiful blue eyes
Tämä on hyvää: This is good
Source: http://www.hs.fi/english/extras/speakup. Pronunciation guide available online.