Jenny Zukerman has always had a love and interest in food. She cooked for her family from the age of 10. Later on, she completed a food and hospitality course, at the time hoping to become a chef. Instead her love for cuisine, travel and culture has landed her feet first in Finland.

There is a clear divide between the East and West of Finland: a cultural line which runs coast to coast from approximately the middle of Northern Ostrobothnia to the middle of Kainuu and east of Uusimaa. In creating a strong culture of their own, the Finns have welcomed and incorporated elements from two neighbouring ones. You can see it in the way they stack their wood piles, how they prepare their evening meal and whether they serve tea or coffee.

Finns in the east differ somewhat from those in the west, in that they have Russian and Slavic influences in their cooking. My first experience with eastern Finnish food came when I first arrived in Finland: a friend of mine said: “you have got to try this Finnish stuff” and promptly thrust a karjalanpiirakka (Karelian pie) with egg butter into my hand. A few years later in Mikkeli I braved a whole lightly salted kalakukko, which is traditionally vendace baked in bread, similar to a Cornish pasty.

Other eastern dishes primarily include vegetables and game, prepared in the oven like casseroles and oven stews, or stock-based soups. In the past, meals were prepared in cauldrons. Lettu (Finnish crepes), or more specifically the muurinpohjalettu, used to be fried at the bottom of a cauldron. Nowadays it is a common summer activity to get out the old muurikka, a Finnish griddle-pan of thin steel (basically a cauldron without the high edges), build a fire and heat up a pot of strong black tea. Once the muurikka is hot, a thick square of butter is melted and the lettu batter is drizzled all over to make a Finnish crepe. They are especially tasty with a sweet strawberry and rhubarb sauce.

Finnish food has unselfconsciously
taken influences
from other cultures to create
a cuisine uniquely their own.

In the medieval era the first Swedish-speaking settlers arrived in Finland. Along with their language they brought their foods. Were it not for western Finnish cuisine, we wouldn’t see all those colourful jars of mustard, tomato or onion flavoured herring in the supermarkets. Dairy foods such as cheese or sour milk were popular in the west. The rich lohikeitto (salmon soup) has milk or cream, much like kesäkeitto, a lightly flavoured milk-based vegetable soup. Western Finns would only bake their rye bread in autumn and spring, to dry out to keep for the rest of the year.

Western Finns would also cook in cauldrons, but it was equally common to cook on an open fireplace and in wood stoves. Porridge and puddings were common, such as puolukkavispipuuro (lingonberry-semolina pudding): it is airy, tart and sweet – an excellent way to end a meal. Some Finns might remember their mother or grandmother boiling up the berries and semolina, and then going outside in the middle of winter and crouching down out in the snow to whisk up the pudding for a good half hour at least!

Finnish food has unselfconsciously taken influences from other cultures in order to create a cuisine uniquely their own: as broad as it is deep, and warm and satisfying enough to get you through a long, dark winter.

Jenny Zukerman