Finnish cuisine is heavily influenced by its neighbors, the main staples being potatoes and bread with various fish and meat dishes on the side. Milk or cream is traditionally considered an important part of the diet and is often an ingredient in foods and a drink, even for adults. Various milk products such as cheeses are also produced. While traditional Finnish food is famously bland, the culinary revolution that followed joining the EU has seen a boom in classy restaurants experimenting with local ingredients, often with excellent results.
With tens of thousands of lakes and a long coastline, fish is a Finnish staple, and there's a lot more on that menu than just salmon (lohi). Specialities include:
- Baltic herring (silakka), a small, fatty and quite tasty fish available pickled, marinated, smoked, grilled and in countless other varieties
- Gravlax ("graavilohi"), a pan-Scandinavian appetizer of raw salted salmon
- Smoked salmon (savulohi), not just the cold, thinly sliced, semi-raw kind but also fully cooked "warm" smoked salmon
- Vendace (muikku), a speciality in eastern Finland, a small fish served fried, heavily salted and typically with mashed potatoes
- Other local fish to look out for include zander (kuha), an expensive delicacy, pike (hauki) and perch (ahven).
- Karelian stew (karjalanpaisti), a heavy stew usually made from beef and pork (and optionally, lamb), carrots and onions, usually served with potatoes
- Liver casserole (maksalaatikko), consisting of chopped liver, rice and raisins cooked in an oven; it tastes rather different from what you'd expect (and not liver-y at all)
- Loop sausage (lenkkimakkara), a large, mildly flavored sausage; best when grilled and topped with a dab of sweet Finnish mustard (sinappi), and beer
- Meat balls (lihapullat, lihapyörykät) are as popular and tasty as in neighboring Sweden
- Reindeer (poro) dishes, especially sauteed reindeer shavings (poronkäristys, served with potato mash and lingonberries), not actually a part of the everyday Finnish diet but a tourist staple and common in the frigid North
- Swedish hash ("pyttipannu"), (originally from Sweden, Swedish: "pytt i panna") a hearty dish of potatoes, onions and any meaty leftovers on hand fried up in a pan and topped with an egg
Cheese and other milk products are very popular in Finland. The most common varieties are mild hard cheeses like Edam and Emmental, but local specialities include:
- Aura cheese (aurajuusto), a local variety of blue cheese, also used in soups, sauces and as a pizza topping.
- Breadcheese (leipäjuusto or juustoleipä), a type of very mild-flavored grilled curd that squeaks when you eat it, best enjoyed warm with a dab of cloudberry jam
- Piimä a type of buttermilk beverage, thick and sour
- Viili a gelatinous, stretchy and sour variant of yoghurt
- Pea soup (hernekeitto), usually but not always with ham, traditionally eaten with a dab of mustard and served on Thursdays; just watch out for the flatulence!
- Karelian pies (karjalanpiirakka), an oval 7 by 10 cm baked pastry, traditionally baked with rye flour, containing rice porridge or mashed potato, ideally eaten topped with butter and chopped egg
- Porridge (puuro), usually made from oats (kaura), barley (ohra), rice (riisi) or rye (ruis) and most often served for breakfast
Bread (leipä) is served with every meal in Finland, and comes in a vast array of varieties. Rye bread is the most popular bread in Finland. Typically Finnish ones include:
- hapankorppu, dry, crispy and slightly sour flatbread, occasionally sold overseas as "Finncrisp"
- limppu, catch-all term for big loaves of fresh bread
- näkkileipä, another type of dark, dried, crispy rye flatbread
- ruisleipä (rye bread), can be up to 100% rye and much darker, heavier and chewier than American-style rye bread; unlike in Swedish tradition, Finnish rye bread is typically unsweetened and thus sour and even bitter.
- rieska, unleavened bread made from wheat or potatoes, eaten fresh
Seasonal and regional specialities
From the end of July until early September it's worthwhile to ask for crayfish (rapu) menus and prices at better restaurants. It's not cheap, you don't get full from the crayfish alone and there are many rituals involved, most of which involve large quantities of ice-cold vodka, but it should be tried at least once. Or try to sneak onto a corporate crayfish party guestlist, places are extremely coveted at some. Around Christmas, baked ham is the traditional star of the dinner table, with a constellation of casseroles around it.
There are also regional specialties, including Eastern Finland's kalakukko (a type of giant fish pie) and Tampere's infamous blood sausage (mustamakkara). Around Easter keep an eye out for mämmi, a type of brown sweet rye pudding which is eaten with cream and sugar. It looks famously unpleasant but actually tastes quite good.
For dessert or just as a snack, Finnish pastries abound and are often taken with coffee (see Drink) after a meal. Look for cardamom coffee bread (pulla), a wide variety of tarts (torttu), and donuts (munkki). In summer, a wide range of fresh berries are available, including the delectable but expensive cloudberry (lakka), and berry products are available throughout the year as jam (hillo), soup (keitto) and a type of gooey pudding or porridge known as kiisseli.
Finnish chocolate is also rather good, with Fazer products including their iconic Sininen ("Blue") bar exported around the world. A more Finnish speciality is licorice (lakritsi), particularly the strong, salty kind known as salmiakki, which gets its unique (and acquired) taste from ammonium chloride.
Places to eat
Finns tend to eat out only on special occasions, and restaurant prices are correspondingly expensive. The one exception is lunchtime, when thanks to a government-sponsored lunch coupon system company cafeterias and nearly every restaurant in town offers set lunches for around €8-9, usually consisting of a main course, salad bar, bread table and a drink. University cafeterias, many of which are open to all, are particularly cheap with meals in the €2-4 range for students, although without local student ID you will usually need to pay about € 5-7.
For dinner, you'll be limited to generic fast food (pizza, hamburgers, kebabs and such) in the €5-10 range, or you'll have to splurge over €20 for a meal in a "nice" restaurant. For eating on the move, look for grill kiosks (grilli), which serve sausages, hamburgers and other portable if not terribly health-conscious fare late into the night at reasonable prices. In addition to the usual hamburgers and hot dogs, look for meat pies (lihapiirakka), akin to a giant savoury doughnut stuffed with minced meat and your choice of sausage, fried eggs and condiments. Hesburger is the local fast-food equivalent of McDonald's, with a similar menu. They have a "Finnish" interpretation of a few dishes, such as a sour-rye chicken sandwich. Of course most international fast food chains are present, especially McDonald's, which offers many of their sandwich buns substituted with a sour-rye bun on request.
The Finnish word for buffet is seisova pöytä ("standing table"), and while increasingly used to refer to all-you-can-eat Chinese or Italian restaurants, the traditional meaning is akin to Sweden's smörgåsbord: a good-sized selection of sandwiches, fish, meats and pastries. It's traditionally eaten in three rounds — first the fish, then the cold meats, and finally warm dishes — and it's usually the first that is the star of the show. Though expensive and not very common in a restaurant setting, if you are fortunate enough to be formally invited to a Finn's home, they will likely have prepared a spread for their guest, along with plenty of coffee. Breakfast at better hotels is also along these lines and it's easy to eat enough to cover lunch as well!
If you're really on a budget, you can save a considerable amount of money by self-catering. Ready-to-eat casseroles and other basic fare that can be quickly prepared in a microwave can be bought for a few euros in any supermarket. Note that you're usually expected to weigh and label any fruits or vegetables yourself (bag it, place it on the scale and press the numbered button. The correct number can be found from the price sign), and green signs mean possibly tastier but certainly more expensive organic (luomu) produce.
Traditional Finnish cuisine relies heavily on meat and fish, but vegetarianism (kasvissyönti) is increasingly popular and well-understood, and will rarely pose a problem for travellers. Practically all restaurants offer vegetarian options, often marked with a "V" on menus.
Two ailments commonly found among Finns themselves are lactose intolerance (laktoosi-intoleranssi, inability to digest the milk sugar lactose) and coeliac disease (keliakia, inability to digest gluten). In restaurants, lactose-free selections are often tagged "L" (low-lactose products are sometimes called "Hyla" or marked with "VL"), while gluten-free options are marked with "G". However, hydrolyzed lactose (HYLA brand) milk or lactose-free milk drink for the lactose intolerant is widely available, which also means that a lactose-free dish is not necessarily milk-free. Allergies are quite common among Finnish people, too, so restaurant workers are usually quite knowledgeable on what goes into each dish and often it is possible to get the dish without certain ingredients if specified.
Kosher and halal food are rare in Finland and generally not available outside very limited speciality shops and restaurants catering to the tiny Jewish and Islamic communities. Watch out for minced meat dishes like meatballs, which very commonly use a mix of beef and pork. The Jewish Community of Helsinki runs a small kosher deli in Helsinki.