One of our favourite things to do when we visit a country (any country really) is to taste traditional local foods and drinks. We would even argue that you can’t fully appreciate a country without trying at least one traditional dish and sipping on one typical local drink. If you’re with us on this, we don’t need to convince you to read on about our food experiences in the Baltics.
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If your first reaction is: but isn’t that expensive? we’ve got a bit more convincing to do. Bear with us. We have a budget we need to stick to, to be able to afford our lifestyle for as long as we like. So, trust us when we say, we can’t afford to eat out all the time or at an expensive restaurant either.
We alternate between meals at home and eating out. And when we do the latter, we always look for the local food/drink experience. Interestingly, it’s often the basic, local, tucked away restaurants that are the best. Those that put more effort into their food than into their decoration (or advertisement). Locals return to the places they know and love – no advertising or fancy décor needed. Right?
So let’s talk about all the delicious goodness that awaits you in the Baltics.
What is Baltic cuisine like?
The more we travel, the more we realise how much the cuisine of the country we visit is influenced by its history. The Baltics are a classic example. Being invaded and occupied by Scandinavian, German, Polish and Russian forces over the centuries, you can find influences from all those invaders’ cooking in Baltic dishes.
Baltic food is hearty and rich in calories – which you’ll need to keep yourself warm during the long winter months or to work in the fields all other times (as the people in the Baltics did traditionally). If you love potatoes, sausages, pickles, earthy soups, cheese or rye bread… you’ll be in your element. And if you’re not quite sure because these staples are not common in your culture, at least try some.
I’m German, so I’m very familiar with rye bread… and love it. Eating fresh rye bread is not only delicious but keeps me going for hours. The Baltic countries don’t only serve a mean fresh rye bread (or black bread as it’s often called here). They took it to the next level: frying it, fermenting it, and making it into a yummy dessert.
A tasty snack is crackers of fried rye bread. In Lithuania, it’s called kepta juoda duona, but you can also find it in Latvia and Estonia. We first tried it on the recommendation of our hosts in Vilnius. It’s amazing.
Still up for more? Well, then try rupjmaizes kārtojums (rye bread pudding) a delicious and refreshing Latvian dessert made from layers of rye bread crumbs, cream and fruit preserves.
Again, on recommendation from our hosts in Vilnius, we tried the local cheeses. In Lithuania, the cottage cheese available all over the Baltics is called riebus varškės sūris – literally translated as fat cottage cheese. This unique type of cheese is used in both sweet and savoury dishes. Our favourite was the smoked variety: rūkytas sūris.
Interestingly but less our thing was Latvia’s jāņu siers, a semi-hard cheese with cumin seeds.
Where to try Baltic dishes?
For a Soviet-era canteen experience and cheap but tasty food, check out Sultiniai (Address: Jogailos Gatve 8, Vilnius) or Prie Pasto (Address: Laisvės Aleja 102, Kaunas – enter through E. Ožeškienės Gatve 10).
Stop at Von Krahli Aed [temporarily closed as of December 2021] (in Tallinn’s Old Town): Part of funky Von Krahl Theatre, the Garden Restaurant (Aed = Garden) serves dishes made from fresh local produce that are a feast both for your eyes and your taste buds.
Potatoes, potatoes and… potatoes
- Potato dumplings filled with minced meat, called cepelinai or didžkukuliai
- Potato pancakes filled with… you guessed it… minced meat, called žemaičių blynai
- Shallow-fried potato pancakes, called bulviniai blynai
- Sausages filled with mashed potato, called vėdarai.
And these are just a few of the dishes we had in Lithuania. We don’t know the names for all of the above in Latvia, but the shallow-fried variety is called kartupeļu pankūkas. And the zeppelin-shaped filled dumplings are called cepelinai in Latvia too.
For pickle lovers
You can’t order a dish in the Baltics without at least a pickled cucumber as garnish. Baltic people are master picklers (if that’s a word). Maybe not so surprising considering that traditionally, you couldn’t just buy fruit and veggies out of season but had to make sure your harvest sustains you over the Winter months.
The pickles stalls at Riga’s Central Market were the most colourful stalls we’ve ever seen… anywhere. Any vegetable you can imagine, you can find here in a pickled variety. We even found pickled cabbage that was naturally fermented, without using any vinegar at all.
Having the Baltic Sea at its doorstep (and gazillion rivers and lakes), it’s no surprise that there is a variety of fresh, smoked and marinated fish for sale at the markets. With Paul not being into the marinated variety, and lacking a well-equipped kitchen to prepare a fresh fish dish, we decided to try some smoked fish: deliciously rich halibut (or paltuss in Latvian).
Soups and stews
If soups and stews are your things, try cold beetroot soup. Known in Poland as chlodnik, Lithuania and Latvia each have their own take on this earthy yet refreshing dish. In Lithuania, it’s called šaltibarščiai, with sour cream and boiled potatoes on the side. Latvians call their version aukstā zupa.
As for stews, my favourite was a hearty stew made from grey peas with speck – called pelēkie zirņi ar speķi in Latvia.
Fast food Baltic style
If you just want to have a snack to tie you over try the Baltic version of empanadas. In Lithuania, they were called pyragėlis – little pastry buns filled with sausage (su dešrele), minced meat (su mėsa), ham (su kumpiu) or mushrooms (su grybais). Latvia’s name for these snacks was pīrāgi or speķrauši / speķa pīrāgi for those filled with speck and onion.
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There is always room for dessert
We mentioned Latvia’s rupjmaizes kārtojums (rye bread pudding) and the little curd cakes already.
While we didn’t get to try it (they weren’t cheap) we saw šakotis – spit cake – at markets and bakeries all over Lithuania. It looks like a tree made of dough and is supposedly not too sweet.
How to save money on dining and groceries?
Dining out all the time can quickly get expensive. We always try and book accommodation where we have access to a kitchen - either our own little kitchenette or the kitchen of our host. That way, we can store food in the fridge and make our own meals. We usually have breakfast and one other meal at our accommodation, and one meal when we're out and about.
Restaurants (even in tourist hotspots) often have special lunch offers (for example, a three-course meal for EUR10). Portion sizes in many parts of the world are usually quite substantial, so we often share a three-course meal. The same applies if you go out for dinner: Order a starter or salad and a main, and that's usually enough for two people. An added benefit: there is less food waste.
As for groceries: every country has more expensive and cheaper supermarkets. Ask your host what the cheaper options are (for example, Aldi or Lidl in many European countries) and avoid convenience stores as much as possible.
Experiencing the local cuisine is one of the reasons why WE travel… Paul and I tend to only eat out once a day (sometimes only once a week), usually at lunchtime. This allows us to try local dishes while taking advantage of awesome lunch deals. It also means we don’t have to roam around unknown parts of town every night in search of a restaurant.
If you have visited the Baltics, what local dishes did you try?
I wrote this Batics culinary article based on my own experience. If you have been to the Baltics and specifically tasted the local cuisine as well and you have something to add to this list, please feel free to contact me. What food or drink did you not like or not want to try? If you liked my Batics food guide and found it helpful, I would appreciate if you could share them with your friends and family via the Share buttons below as well. Even better, link to the page from your personal blog or social media platforms.