In wandering around in a grocery store in Helsinki and in talking with our Finnish ambassador in the sauna (see previous post about Finland’s sauna culture), we found out some very interesting things about the Finnish cuisine.
Mainly the biggest difference between us (in Southern Louisiana) and them is that they eat reindeers. And moose. And elk.
And the biggest similarity between our cultures is that they eat a cousin of our Louisiana crawfish, the noble crayfish.
Yes, they eat crawfish in Finland!
I Couldn’t Possibly Eat A Reindeer and Then I Did
I know, I too was a little thrown by the whole eating Dancer and Prancer thing, but it’s not a gimmick. It really is what the Finnish people eat. It isn’t like what we do in New Orleans where they sell alligator meat at the tourist places, and all the tourists try it and we pretend like it’s part of our diet. Yeah, right. No one I know eats alligator on a regular basis. It’s just not that good.
Shrimp, crawfish, crabs, oysters, Yes! Yes! Yes! And Yes!
But back to eating Santa’s reindeer. I guess if we are going to worry about eating Rudolph, we need to remember we eat just about every animal that we have anthromorphicized. People eat Donald Duck, Elsie the Cow and those Eat More Chicken cows, Bugs Bunny, and of course, dear sweet Bambi as well. So we just need to get over it or become vegetarians (which I have to admit I have considered and I’m quite okay with.)
The Finnish gentleman we met in the sauna Alexander and his friend told us two things about eating reindeer. One, that reindeer is quite good and tasty, and two, reindeer are quite stupid. They tend to hang out in the middle of roads in Northern Finland and then just sit there when you honk your horn at them, sometimes causing severe delays in your travel plans.
I read that they are more stubborn than stupid, but the result is the same: over 4,000 reindeers a year get killed on Finnish roadways which make them so much of a problem that the government created an app where people can let other drivers know when they have seen a reindeer on the road so that people can take precautions. Also, if you kill a reindeer accidentally on the road, it’s big bucks.
Ok, enough reindeer bashing. They do help Santa deliver his gifts and that’s good enough for me. Despite the other issues about reindeer, the primary reason most people don’t eat them often is because they are really expensive.
So we weighed all this information and decided it wouldn’t be a true Finnish experience if we didn’t at least try the reindeer. We had done the requisite sauna and the plunge into the cold Baltic Sea and had enjoyed it so much that I wanted to go back to Finland just to experience the sauna in the wintertime.
But we needed to eat a reindeer now. So we went to a restaurant called Sea Horse in Helsinki at Alexander’s recommendation and decided to indulge in this Finnish tradition.
The Reindeer entree was 39€, so yes, it was pricey. My delicious entree was cabbage rolls and beets with mashed potatoes covered with a delicious dark brown sauce and was only €15, so you can see the price difference. Although mine was more common, it was very delicious as well. But wow! The reindeer was probably was some of the most delicious meat I’ve ever eaten!
Mike shared his dinner with me (I know, I couldn’t believe it either) and it was the most tender melt-in-your-mouth meat ever. Think filet mignon and butter. No wild taste, just beefy perfection. Alexander’s friend said it is much better if you go eat it where the reindeers live in Lapland, which is in the northern part of the country. I can’t imagine it would be any better, but it gives us is a good reason to visit this beautiful country in the winter time, so I wouldn’t dismiss the idea.
By the way, we both had wine and an aperitif, a salad and dessert at the above restaurant and the bill was €87 (tax and tips inclusive) so while the reindeer was expensive, the total bill was not outrageous (at least by American standards). It would have been much cheaper without the reindeer dish though. (Meals in Helsinki are on the more pricey side in general.)
Crayfish and Crawfish; Tomato, To-mah-to?
So just look at this grocery store display! When I saw it as we first walked into the grocery in Helsinki, I thought I was back at home in Louisiana. This amazing store in Helsinki called Food Market Herkku specialized in local Finnish foods and this display was placed right when you walked in the door. I was floored.
Unfortunately I didn’t eat the crayfish that I saw advertised, but I have to admit they looked really good. They were very red and much cleaner and prettier than Louisiana crawfish, and their tails looked a little wider.
They are also eaten quite differently. Alexander explained that 1) like the reindeer, they are extremely expensive here. (Like one crayfish costs 5 euro!!!) 2) because of this, they just eat a few crayfish as an appetizer. They eat them with dill instead of spicy cayenne pepper as well.
He’s often appalled when guests from the USA come to his crayfish parties and start gobbling them down like they are going out of style without spending time on the claws and other parts. In Finland you peel them one at a time with this little knife and set them on a piece of toast and enjoy one or two or three with a little dill. Not pounds of them. (Of course we can get a whole pound of them in Louisiana for $3 USD, so the price is much different here.)
I thought of Mike who turns into a crawfish eating machine every time he gets near crawfish at home and thought it could quite possibly turn into an international incident if he ever got invited to one of these Finnish crayfish parties.
Yes, it would be very bad. If his brothers and friends joined him, they would probably get thrown into a Finnish prison for eating the entire Finnish crayfish population.
By the way, our cheap (comparatively) Louisiana crawfish are imported to Finland. Who knew? Alexander said the imported crawfish are not as good, but in Louisiana we put so many spices and pepper that we probably are not as discriminating.
Other special delicious foods that were quite common in Finland is this salmon soup, which was so delicious we had it twice. (Okay, maybe three times, but who’s counting?)
Our Finnish friends Jemina and Hanna took us to an amazing little Finnish restaurant on a marina near Jemina’s home and we had the opportunity to try it. It’s a combination of big chunks of salmon, milk or cream, dill and potatoes. Did I mention the large chunks of salmon? The salmon is super fresh and is so tender and delicious that I could have eaten it at every meal, but then I would have missed the reindeer.
But as we sit on the ferry boat which is bringing us back to Helsinki from Tallin, Estonia, another destination which had better food than I expected, I am dreaming of having that salmon soup one last time. 🐟🐟🐟
Honestly I didn’t think that Finland would be such a culinary destination, but it truly was, especially if you like seafood, salmon and reindeer. Stay tuned for more Finnish traditions in some posts to follow later. While not on the radar as a travel destination for many Americans, I think it is definitely worth a visit if you have the means to go.