How to Helsinki: Eating in Helsinki

Worldcon is in Helsinki this year. As a Finnish-American couple, we are very excited about this! In the coming months, we’d like to offer some practical advice about visiting Finland to our fellow fans who are considering going to the event but haven’t had experience with Finland and Finns before.

Erik here. Finnish food isn’t as familiar to most Americans as French or Italian food. Before meeting Eppu and visiting Finland, I couldn’t even have made a guess at what Finnish food is like. For those of you new to Finland, here’s a little taste of what you have to look forward to in Helsinki.

Sauteed reindeer with mashed potatoes, lingonberry, and pickle, photograph by Htm via Wikimedia

About Finnish food

Traditional Finnish food will feel familiar if you grew up in New England or the midwest: fish, beef and pork, many kinds of dairy products, potatoes, seasonal vegetables and berries, and grains (although grains like rye and barley are more common than in the US). Of course, what most Finns eat nowadays is not that different from what most westerners eat, but you’ll still see the influence of traditional foods in many places. There’s still lots of fresh fish and potatoes on Finnish tables and the dairy sections of Finnish grocery stores have an amazing array of products, some of which don’t even have names in English.

For many Finns, breakfast is an open-faced sandwich made of a slice of rye bread or a Karelian pie (see below) topped with cheese, cold cuts, tomato, and cucumbers. If your hotel offers breakfast, expect to see a table of sandwich makings. You’ll also probably find eggs in various forms, sausages and/or bacon, oatmeal porridge, yogurt, and berries. You’ll also find coffee. Finns take their coffee very seriously: Finland has one of the highest per-capita rates of coffee consumption in the world.

Lunch and dinner are much the same as in the U.S. It’s also common for Finns to take coffee breaks in the mid-morning and mid-afternoon. These are seen as treasured moments for relaxation and reflection. Working during a coffee break is a breach of social etiquette and it is rude to interrupt a Finn on their coffee break unless invited to join in. It is less common for Finnish cafés to serve coffee in to-go cups; you are expected to stay there and drink your coffee in peace, not carry it with you as you rush off to your next meeting.

Kebab with rice and salad photograph by Allan Reyes via Flickr

What is true of coffee is true of food in general: Finns see eating as an activity in itself, not something you do while working on something else or on your way somewhere. Even fast food is meant to be eaten sitting down, not on the go. The two most common kinds of fast food in Finland are pizza and kebab. Finnish pizza has a paper-thin crust and is served in whole, uncut pies, not as slices. Eat it with a fork and knife, not folded up in your hand. (But definitely have some—Finnish pizza is superb.) Kebab, which may not be so familiar to Americans (though it is similar to shawarma), is a Turkish import: thin strips of grilled spiced meat often served in a pita bread or on top of rice, with lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, pickled hot peppers, and sauces. It’s also very well worth sampling, but it tends to make a bit of a mess. Several international fast food chains also have a presence in Finland, in case you feel the need for something familiar.

In general, Finnish tastes tend more sour and less sweet than Americans’. Sour berries like cranberries, lingonberries, currants, and gooseberries are widely grown and often eaten plain or only lightly sweetened. Finnish rye bread (ruisleipä) is a tangy sourdough bread without the molasses and caraway seeds that sweeten American rye breads. Finnish yogurts, juices, desserts, and other foods also tend to be less sweet than typical American versions of the same.

Many Finns are lactose-intolerant, have gluten sensitivities, and/or eat vegetarian or vegan. Food allergies are also very common. Most stores and restaurants offer a variety of alternatives suitable for people with these concerns. Look for “VL” / “vähälaktoosinen” for low lactose or “laktoositon” for lactose-free, “GL” or “gluteeniton” for gluten-free.

Public water fountains are rare in Finland. If you’re going to be out and about for a day, it’s a good idea to carry a water bottle with you.

Salmon soup, photograph by Tuijasal via Wikimedia

At the grocery store

If you’re going to be shopping for snacks or supplies, here’s what you should know about Finnish grocery stores.

Small local grocery stores are very common in Finland and they have much the same selection as larger stores. You’ll also find some large, American-type stores, especially towards the edges of larger towns or neighborhoods. In some places, you’ll need a Euro coin to unlock a shopping cart, but you’ll get the coin back when you return the cart.

You’ll need to weigh fruits and vegetables yourself in the produce section. Check for a number on the shelf label, put your items on a scale, hit the button with that number, and it will print out a sticker with a price and barcode. Stick the label on your bag of produce (or directly on the item, if you’re only buying one) and the cashier will scan it along with the rest of your purchases.

Many grocery stores also sell low-alcohol drinks like beer and cider. Note that in Finland, cider is alcoholic; the unfiltered apple juice that Americans call “cider” is not very common. All such containers can be returned for deposit to any store, not just the one you bought it from, even one that doesn’t sell the same brands.

Finland does not use 1- or 2-cent coins. All prices are rounded up or down to the nearest 5 cents. Taxes are included in all prices.

Grocery stores will not bag your purchases for you, nor do you get free plastic bags. You can bring your own bags or buy sturdy plastic bags at the register, but either way you’ll be packing them yourself.

You may be startled, as I was on my first visit to Finland, to see a shop labeled KKK, but don’t be alarmed. There’s a grocery store chain which uses the letter K (short for kauppa, or ‘shop’) for its branding. The number of Ks a store gets depends on its size, from K for small corner shops to KKKK for giant supermarkets.

At the market

Another good place to go shopping is a tori, an open-air market, or kauppahalli, market hall. You’ll find these running most days in many Finnish towns and cities throughout the year, but they are especially vibrant in the summer. In Helsinki there’s one next to the harbor just south of Senaatintori and another one in Hakaniemi, which you can reach from the Messukeskus area by the 7 or 9 tram. Vendors sell fresh vegetables and berries, meats, fish, baked goods, and candy, along with flowers and some handcrafts. Unlike at the grocery store, shopping in the market involves some interaction with the vendors; you can decide for yourself whether that’s a plus or a minus.

At a restaurant

Going to a restaurant in Finland is mostly just like anywhere else, but there are a few things for Americans to be aware of.

Many restaurants in and around Helsinki have menus available in English. You may have to ask, or there may just be English pages already in the menu you get.

You won’t automatically get a glass of water. If you ask for water, it won’t necessarily be free.

Your server will mostly leave you alone. Like with a coffee break, the expectation is that you are there to relax and enjoy yourself, not to be rushed out as soon as you are done eating, and it is rude to interrupt people while they are eating. Whenever you are finished, you’ll need to flag your server and ask for the bill. You’ll pay your server directly, who will likely come to the table with a money pouch and/or card reader. Finnish restaurant taxes are very high by American standards.

Don’t leave a tip. There is no tipping in Finnish restaurants.

A few recommendations

If you’re looking for some Finnish foods to try or good places to eat in Helsinki, here are a few personal favorites you might like to check out.

Foods

Karelian pie – karjalanpiirakka

Karelian pie, photograph by Jarno Elonen via Wikimedia

Calling one of these baked goods a pie is a bit of a misnomer, but honestly I don’t know what else to call it. It’s a thin rye crust folded around a creamy rice porridge filling. You can use them like any other kind of bread: stack cheese and veggies on them for a sandwich, top them with jam to go with tea, or just put a little butter on top. They’re best warm and often traditionally served with munavoi, a mix of softened butter and finely chopped boiled eggs.

Kebab

If you haven’t had kebab (and you’re a meat-eater like me) you don’t know what you’re missing. One of the reasons I look forward to visiting Finland is the chance to have kebab again.

smoked fish – savukala

You can find lots of different kinds of smoked fish in Finland, both hot and cold. They’re all fantastic.

reindeer – poro

You can find reindeer meat in some markets and restaurants. Like most game meats, it is very low in fat and has a unique flavor, like beef but with a delicate sweetness.

pyttipannu

Pyttipannu is a casserole of grilled sausage and potato that is often made for large gatherings or sold as street food. Douse it in ketchup and enjoy the salty, fatty goodness.

Fazer chocolate – Fazerin suklaa

Fazer is one of the major confectionery companies in Finland and their chocolate is heavenly. The classic milk chocolate is sold in a blue wrapper (often called Fazerin sininen or “Fazer blue”), but they make lots of varieties with interesting additions.

licorice – lakritsi

Fresh licorice via Kouvolan Lakritsi

If you like black licorice, you will love Finland. If you don’t love black licorice, it may be just because you haven’t had Finnish licorice. Unlike the tough, chemical-flavored stuff we get in the U.S. (which, to be fair, you can also find in Finland), Finland has fresh licorice, which is soft and chewy with a rich, earthy, molasses-y taste. Kouvolan Lakritsi is my preferred brand, but there are many to choose from. Look for black pellets with a matte finish that are a little soft to the touch, not the hard, glossy twists we are used to. (If you are a masochist or hate your taste buds, you can try salt licorice, salmiakki, but it’s an acquired taste.)

pancake – pannukakku

In Finland, pancakes are for dessert not breakfast. The Finnish pancake is a rich, dense, flat cake often served with berries and whipped cream, although there are many variations.

pear cider – päärynäsiideri

Yes, you heard me: pear cider, also called perry. There are a lot of pear-flavored things in Finland that we don’t get in the States and pear hard cider is one of the best.

Pear cider, photograph by Hayley Constantine via Flickr

Restaurants

I’m afraid I don’t know the area around Messukeskus well so I can’t recommend anything close to the convention, but if you’re looking for a culinary adventure in Helsinki, here are a few suggestions.

Zetor

Mannerheimintie 3

Zetor is.. how to explain? Zetor is the restaurant version of a country song, in Finnish. The interior décor is the best in old-timey rural kitsch, including a collection of old tractors. But if that’s not your thing, don’t be sacred off. The food is a refined, perfected version of traditional Finnish farmhouse fare. If you want to try traditional Finnish food at its best, come here.

Eerikin Pippuri

Eerikinkatu 17

For the best in modern everyday food—specifically, kebab—head to Eerikin Pippuri. Here you can get the classic pita kebab, or kebab served with French fires, rice, or creamy potato casserole. Of all Finnish kebab places, and I’ve tried quite a few, Eerikin Pippuri is my favorite.

Classic Pizza

Aleksanterinkatu 52

For the best Finnish pizza, I recommend Classic Pizza. It’s a little hard to find in the basement of Stockmann, the major department store, but it’s worth the effort. In addition to the usual staples, you can get pizza topped with smoked salmon, chicken curry, even reindeer.

Moomin Café

Liisankatu 21

I’ll admit, we haven’t been to this one yet, since it wasn’t open the last time we were in Finland, but if you’re traveling with children (or have a childlike love of Tove Jansson’s Moomin characters yourself), you may want to check this place out.

Cesar’s

Cesar’s is in the Helsinki airport on the lower level, near the GLO airport hotel. Despite the name, you’ll mostly see typical Finnish food here. It’s a basic cafeteria, but the food is good and not too pricey. If you’re in the airport (outside security) and need to eat, this is the place to go.

Vocabulary

In and around Helsinki, you should have no trouble getting service in English or finding products with English on the labels, and some Finnish food vocabulary is perfectly clear to an English-speaker (pizza means ‘pizza’ and kebab is ‘kebab’), or easy enough to guess (viski is ‘whiskey,’ jugurtti is ‘yogurt’). But there are some words that are useful to know that might not be obvious, so here’s a little vocabulary for you:

  • aamiainen – breakfast
  • ainekset – ingredients
  • appelsiini – orange (note: not apple)
  • gluteeniton – gluten-free
  • hinta – price
  • juomat – drinks
  • jäätelö – ice cream
  • illallinen – dinner
  • kahvi – coffee
  • kahvila – café
  • kauppahalli – market hall
  • kiitos – thank you (also used when asking for something, rather than “please”: “Yksi olut, kiitos” = “One beer, please”)
  • kpl – short for kappale: each or per piece
  • lakritsi – licorice
  • laktoositon – lactose-free
  • lounas – lunch
  • olut – beer
  • omena – apple
  • pannukakku – pancake (see above)
  • pantti – deposit (as on a beer or cider bottle)
  • poro – reindeer
  • pulla – a lightly sweetened bread or bun, served in many different varieties
  • ravintola – restaurant
  • ruoka – food
  • ruokakauppa – grocery store
  • ruokalista – menu
  • siideri – cider (the alcoholic kind, what Americans call “hard cider”)
  • suklaa – chocolate
  • tori – open-air market
  • vero – tax
  • vesi or vettä – water
  • viili – a more sour, tangy variation on yogurt
  • vähälaktoosinen – low-lactose

In Live and Active Cultures we talk about cultures and cultural differences.

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