Traditional food and drinks you must try when visiting the Baltics

Sandra Rosenau Last Updated: Monday 19 October 2020 Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania 10 Comments

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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.

Ever tried ale with hemp or cannabis? In Vilnius you can.

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 eating 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.

Baltic food is hearty and rich in calories

What is the 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.

The Baltic countries don't only serve a mean fresh rye bread. They fry it, ferment it and even turn it into a delicious dessert.

Rye anyone?

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.

Fancy french fries? Try fried rye bread crackers instead.

As for the fermented variety… it’s actually a drink. I first tasted it in a restaurant in Vilnius and subsequently tried it all over the Baltics. The drink is called Kvass. It is not totally alcohol-free, but the alcohol content is so low that restaurants display it on their soft drinks menu. Having a faint resemblance with malt beer, I found it extremely refreshing.

Kvass is made from fermented rye and so low in alcohol that it is considered a soft drink

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.

Something cheesy

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 fat cottage cheese. This unique type of cheese is used in both sweet and savoury dishes. Our favourite was the smoked variety: rūkytas sūris.

Interesting but less our thing was Latvia’s jāņu siers, a semi-hard cheese with cumin seeds.

Visit the local markets in the Baltics and you can try all sorts of different cheeses

Another favourite little treat during our time in the Baltics became what our Vilnius hosts called nykštuko sūreliai – dwarf cheeses. These are little cheesecakes, about the size of a small chocolate or muesli bar. Individually wrapped, you can find them in the cooling shelves of Baltic supermarkets. In Latvia, they are called biezpiena sieriņš; in Estonia, kohuke. It seems, the traditional flavour is vanilla, but my favourites were lemon, chocolate and hazelnut.

You can find these little cheese cakes (in many flavours) in the dairy section of any Baltic supermarket

Fancy apple?

Something we didn’t get to try is obuolių sūrisApple Cheese (a Lithuanian dessert). As the name suggests, this cheese is not your typical cheese made from dairy (or soy) but from apple.

Something we did try in Lithuania (and loved) was a drink made from apple and cumin, called obuolių sulčių ir kmynų gėrimas.

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).
  • Visit one of the Lido Bistro outlets (in Riga or Tallinn): These self-serve restaurants offer very reasonably priced local and international dishes.
  • Stop at Von Krahli Aed (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

If you love everything potato the Baltics are your heaven on earth. Think about ways to prepare potato. Let your imagination run wild. Chances are, the Baltic countries have a dish for it:

  • 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.

The Baltics are heaven for anyone who loves potatoes

Itineraries for Independent Travellers

So you are interested in travelling to one or more of the Baltic States? We have developed the ultimate three-week road and rail trip itinerary to help you explore and learn about the people, culture, food and history.

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.

Baltic people sure know how to make pickles

Something fishy

Having the Baltic Sea at its door step (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).

With the Baltic Sea, rivers and lakes, you can't have any fresher fish... even in smoked form

Soups and stews

If soups and stews are your thing 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.

Cold beetroot soup in Lithuania is served with a dollop of sour cream and a side of boiled potatoes

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.

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.

If you've tried Lithuanian spit cake let us know what it's like
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Have you visited the Baltics and tried some local food? What was your favourite dish? Please leave a comment below or send us an email.

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Traditional food and drinks you must try when visiting the Baltics
Traditional food and drinks you must try when visiting the Baltics
Traditional food and drinks you must try when visiting the Baltics

Comments 10

  1. I know I am going to love the cuisine in Baltics because I love cheese, potatoes, fish and breads! Not very happy that most of it is full of calories but who cares when you’re on a vacation? The crackers of fried rye bread look particularly interesting, I’ve never quite had anything like that before. We have pickled cucumber a lot here in the Middle East, I’m curious to see how theirs differs from what we get here.

  2. Wow, potatoes and rye bread took the most of my attention. I would love to try some Baltic food when I visit Lithuania. Rye bread seems to be filling and so are potatoes. I agree with you on the ground that local food is so influenced by the history and weather conditions. It is interesting to know about them across the globe.

  3. Trying a new cuisine is one of my favorite things to do in my travels! This all looks so delectable. Especially – give me all the potatoes!

  4. Wonderful post. I love potatoes, earthy soups, and cheese. Seems like I will love being in these parts of the world. I can see how much the food has been influenced by the geographical location and the invaders and that makes it all the more exciting for me to make a trip here. Baltics is on our map and I am looking forward to trying some of this hearty food.

  5. The Baltic cuisine looks quite unique and quite interesting. Being a fish lover, I would try the fish there first thing. Too much potatoes might be an overdose for me but still worth trying. I dont know why but I was expecting to see quite a few meats in their cuisine.

    1. They do have meat dishes and they were quite different at times. Minced meat stuffed into a potato casing was one I remember well. Must go back now and look at the menus we took photos of and the receipts to see what we did try.

  6. Interesting I didn’t know much about traditional Baltic food. I would love to try some of their specialty pickles! Looks like they have some great craft beer as well.

    -Summer
    travelingsummer.com

  7. I also love to taste local food and drinks! For me, this is a way of learning about a place, just like watching the sights or visiting monuments. It is a pity that you did not visit Poland because it is my country. 🙂 We also have a very good craft beer and delicious food!

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