Ruoka hilloani (food is my jam)

I took some artistic (and linguistic) liberty with the title of this blog entry, because apparently it has numerous interpretations in suomi.  Mostly U.S. readers will likely recognize my play on the expression, “that’s my jam,” which means, basically, that’s what I’m into.  Another way of saying this in suomi is

Ruoka on minun herkkua (food is my treat)

or

Se on mun juttu (that’s my thing)  

But then you lose the double entendre of  jam as a kind of food.  “Food is my jam” could also mean literally, jam is my only food, or, I only eat jam for my food. Incidentally, hillo can also mean money.  And for feminist pop culture studies readers interested in histories of menstruation there’s also a slang use of jam for that.  And now that I have deconstructed my joke, I’ll move on to talk about Finnish culinaria.

Rakastan ruokaa! (I love food).

I go out of of my way for food.  I once transported a piece of key lime pie on a plane from my favorite Florida gulf coast seafood place back to New York City. Some people from the U.S. might leave the country and demonstrate their national allegiance by displaying team sports paraphernalia or wearing flag t-shirts; I paid extra charges to the airline to transport smoked olive oil from Texas, blue corn flour and chili powder from New Mexico, my favorite hot sauce from South Florida, cajun jerky from Louisiana, and stone ground grits from South Georgia.  I am drawn to the obscure and the regional.  I am a Whole Foods patriot, unless they are playing against Trader Joe’s. As much as I am enjoying a new world of food experiences, I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss my home teams.  

I love cooking and reading about food as well as eating it.  I’m still following my weekly subscription to Tasting Table and wishing I were there to try the new _______ that just opened in NYC.  I say unapologetically that food is the primary reason I enjoy travel.  Finland offers a new world of food for me, and this is certainly no small part of why I was so excited to spend a year here.  While Finland is home to people from many parts of the world, in this blog post I’m going to focus on the more traditional Finnish food and drink I’ve had thus far.  I certainly won’t be the first to do so–and thanks to former Fulbrighter Ben Zeller for giving me some heads up with his Finnish food blog.

Some things I was prepared to experience here in Finland, such as a plethora of smoked fish, sausages of unusual meats (like reindeer and wild boar), and shelves of fermented dairy products (NOM).  But some things were delightful surprises, for example, there is a lot of ice cream in Finland, and I mean A LOT, which is mielenkiintoista to me given the fact that it is such a cold climate.  Finnish love of ice cream novelties knows no bounds, and these ice cream novelties are truly cream-y. They bear little resemblance to the icy cones you might find in the Good Humor container in a U.S. gas station that seem to have been exposed to a repeated cycle of melt and freezer burn.  In the Finnish groceries, there are rows upon rows of these amazing ice cream novelties!

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I have now sampled all of the novelties I am holding in the above photo, and can report that the kactus tastes like a sort of apple/pear bubble gum with pop rocks, the sour like, well, a sour candy ball, and the licorice like a milk chocolate ice cream with a vague licorice taste.

Licorice, and in particular, salted licorice, is the unofficial national food of Finland.

I am generally not a fan of licorice, and in fact, before coming to Finland I was largely repelled by it.  HOWEVER.  I was shocked by the pleasure I took in this particular Salmiakki ice cream bar (I now have a small stockpile in the fridge–they go fast at the store).  The shell is something like bitter chocolate meets licorice, enrobing what I think is even more licorice ice cream with little bits of chocolate-tasting licorice in it.  

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During the first few jet lagged days in Finland I wandered around the apartment in a drunken haze, subsisting on lox spread from a squeeze tube, thick and cheesy drinkable yogurt, and numerous types of Finnish pastries–supplemented by cups of peppermint tea made possible by one of those ubiquitous, magic plug-in water heating devices found across the EU.

It was a buffet of new culinary discoveries, and in this dream like state I would then totter into the sauna and sweat it all out (I promise a future entry on sauna).

Somewhere in the midst of the initial delirium we made a trip to the grocery.   We went to the grocery looking for a piece of meat, which seemed simple, but when we asked at the meat counter what kind of meat we were looking at for €39/kilo we were told, “it is cow.”  What kind of cow?  “The inside.”  So after a minor sleep-deprived meltdown during which we contemplated just existing on rye crackers and emmenthaler for the next month, instead we assembled ingredients for a pasta dish we would have made at home.  It tasted good, but also somehow like the Finnish version of our pasta.  Kumppani pointed out we are looking for our U.S. lives in the aisles of the grocery but we aren’t going to find them, and that’s okay.  

During the fantastic Fulbright orientation in Helsinki, a former Fulbrighter from the U.S. told us, “there will be grocery store disasters,” and of course she was correct.  It took an hour just to buy the basics during that first trip to the store because we had to keep asking other shoppers to read the labels for us, which they were quite generously inclined to do and that was much appreciated.  We decided we should have a weekly contest where we buy a mystery product and see who can guess what it is.  Kumppani won the first contest, by guessing an opaque metal can containing cinnamon powder.

Not exactly a grocery store disaster, exactly, I have had one rather embarrassing convenience store disaster.  One evening (also during the Fulbright orientation in Helsinki) coming back from a few beers with some new friends, we stopped for snacks and I found a row of small containers that looked to me like yogurt drinks,

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After consuming–and enjoying–about half of it, I asked the woman at the front desk of the hotel where we were staying what kind of yogurt drink it was, to which she replied that it was in fact a cream sauce meant for preparing foods.  Oh well, it was delicious, and as a Facebook friend living in the southeastern U.S. commented, “Gravy in a juice box?  I’m calling Bojangles, right now!”




Finland has many different regional cuisines, although the part of Finland we are living in tends more toward the Scandinavian.  So far that means lots of salad greens, fresh cheese, smoked salmon, baltic and river fish, charcuterie, and breads and crackers made largely from rye flour.  It’s a super healthy and delicious diet.

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Food that has been served at meetings and other official functions has been quite impressive!  
I once worked at a liberal arts college in the U.S. where, for a brief period of time, we had brie and baby tomatoes at meetings, but after budget cuts we went to the bring your own snacks model.

Here is a picture of the food that was served at my first department meeting in Finland.  This cake was fantastic, and the nectarines were so fresh.

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Every day there is an outdoor farmer’s market in the center of town, and the produce is phenomenal.  Here are some strawberrries that I remarked tasted like actual strawberries, not store strawberries, to which Kumppani responded, “yes, that’s how they grow them here.”

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While I’m writing this blog post I’m eating this bowl of fresh berries and pillowy yogurt with organic Finnish honey that is SO GOOD it’s blowing my mind.

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There is a also an indoor market that runs all year, and is full of rows of breads, cheeses, pastries, meats, teas and chocolates, as well as small cafes where you can sit and eat.

I was told that food (and really, everything) would be expensive here, and it is true. Restaurants are very expensive, especially for dinner, so we have been cooking at home a lot.  It would be like going to Salina, Kansas and paying $17 for a hamburger. It doesn’t help that as I’m writing this the dollar is worth only around .85 to the Euro.  

Along the river in Turku there are boats parked where you can go to have food and beer.  This precious plate of pickled fishes was delicious, though close to €10.  It was like being back in New York City.

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This plate of fried baltic herring in Helsinki, at a bar where Lenin once planned a revolution, was served with lingonberries and a kind of mashed potato.  We inhaled it.  

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Here is a delicious dinner of a type of white fish flash fried in butter, and served with potato & pickled onion salad.  This delightful meal was generously served to us by my Fulbright buddy (a program where Fulbright Finland pairs visiting U.S. scholars with Finnish scholars who have had Fulbright awards in the U.S.) and her husband, a theatre director.  At this meal I also had my first Chilean Riesling–thank you, Finland!

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And look at this amazing spread prepared by a new colleague, that included smoked salmon, rye crisps, a creamy, dill archipelago fish spread (something like this), Karelian pies and homemade egg butter (to be discussed later in this post), and her mother’s homemade red pepper jelly.

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I am greatly enjoying the baked goods and the dairy products here in Finland.  Even the smallest groceries have a case of freshly baked pastries and baskets of breads.  I love going around the corner every morning to pick up a fresh croissant.  With regard to dairy products, I am a huge fan of kefir, and there numerous versions of drinkable yogurts that are naturally thick with bacteria, as well as yogurt in cartons.  If you like kefir, you will find the previous statement very appealing.  

I drink out of the container:

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And of course this blog post would be incomplete if I did not mention the following two Finnish specialities:

Karelian pies, like the ones in the earlier photo (a rye pastry filled with rice, that is traditionally spread with a homemade egg butter)

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Bread cheese (a thick, sliceable, multi-purpose baked cheese) & cloudberry jam (something like apricot meets peach, but it’s difficult to approximate)

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Last but not least, there is alcohol. (This should probably be a separate post, and may well be in the future.)  Beer, cider, and long drinks (pre-made cocktails) can be purchased at groceries, but wine and liquor must be purchased at the state Alko  stores.  As a wine drinker, these stores are very exciting because there are all new selections than what I’m used to in the U.S.

Finnish lager is also fast becoming one of my favorites.  

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Here is a very old style of Finnish beer called Sahti with very low carbonation that I’m particularly fond of.

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Finnish neighborhood pubs are fantastic gathering places, and in Turku many are made from repurposed businesses like Apteeki (from an old apothecary):

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And our favorite new hangout, The Waterloo, that used to be a public toilet:

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The thing we are missing, however, is U.S. bourbon.  Kumppani and I enjoy a bit of bourbon in the evening, and not only is good bourbon difficult to find here, it is extremely expensive.  We are currently experimenting by substituting this DELICIOUS Swedish scotch (who knew?!):

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This is largely due to the fact that we are having a hard time justifying paying fifty euros for a small bottle of Buffalo Trace.  Kumpppani is threatening that we will have to become Jack Daniels drinkers, but I’m going to keep rooting for the Swedish scotch.

Hyvää ruokahalua!  (Enjoy your food!)

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