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.
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.
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 to malt beer, I found it extremely refreshing.
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.
Interesting but less our thing was Latvia’s jāņu siers, a semi-hard cheese with cumin seeds.
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.
Something we didn’t get to try is obuolių sūris – Apple 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.
Potatoes, potatoes and… potatoes
If you love everything potato the Baltics are your heaven on earth. Think about ways to prepare potatoes. 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.
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.
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.