Estonia is one of the three Jewels of the Baltic: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Together, they form the pivot point between Finland, Russia, Belarus, Poland and Germany. And their cuisine reflects aspects of all of those influences. Estonia is still celebrating its independence from Soviet rule…
Spicy Sprats on Rye Bread: The National snack of Estonia.
Like many Scandinavian countries, Estonia’s food traditions lean heavily on the fruits of the sea – notably herring – as well as incorporating such mainstream meats as pork and beef. Rye and barley are the country’s grains of choice. In fact, barley is used in Estonian cuisine in roles where other cultures use bulgar, rice beans and lentils. Root vegetables are universal on Estonia’s dinner plates. Sauerkraut, imported from German traditions, has a special place in the kitchen. Garlic is everywhere – in the mains, snacks and sides. And… You’ll find hard boiled eggs in the darnedest places!
On our menu today
Vürtsikilu Suupiste: Spicy Sprats on Rye Bread. Sprats – small members of the herring family – are ubiquitous to the cultures of all nations that line the Baltic Sea and Black Sea, as well as the Irish Sea and the Scottish Sea of the Hebrides. They’re consumed in similar ways and with equal relish to the Sardines of Portugal. One of the favourite sprat snacks of Estonia is Vürtsikilu Suupiste. It starts with a slice of Rye Bread onto which a layer of cream cheese mixed with lots of garlic is applied. Then come one or two sprat fillets garnished with boiled egg, green onion and fresh dill. Everybody eats ’em everywhere in Estonia.
Seapraad ja Hautatud Hapukapsad: Pork Roast with Sauerkraut. This is a hearty, flavourful favourite across the country usually featured at family suppers. It originated in Poland where it’s called ‘Żeberka Wieprzowe’.
The Pork is roasted by itself until it’s fall-off-the-bone tender. Somtimes potatoes are roasted with it. Then the fat is skimmed off the juices and they are added to a pot of sauerkraut and root vegetables – always carrots, often potatoes, too – which is simmered until the kraut is soft.
Hakklihakotlet: Estonian Ground Meat Patties. You might say these are some of the best darned Hamburgers you’ve ever had – but without the buns or toppings. Think Crab or Salmon Cakes, but with Veal, Beef or Pork instead.
Equal parts of meat and binder (composed of bread crumbs, onions and eggs) are blended thoroughly and the resulting mix is formed into large, round, smooth patties. The patties are pan fried until cooked through. Served with a side of pickled veggies and mashed potatoes, this is a classic Estonian supper enjoyed from the humblest homes to the fanciest of restaurants.
Mulgikapsad: Sauerkraut with Pork and Barley. Here’s an Estonian main where Barley stars! It’s also considered the national dish of Estonia and is favoured at Christmas and New Years, as well as being called on for supper throughout the year. Sauerkraut, barley and meat (usually something smoky or cured, like pork hocks or bacon) are placed together in a large pot and simmered until the kraut is tender and the barley is fully bloomed and soft. Simmering the barley long and slow gives this dish a nice, velvety sauce. This side is often served with slices of roast pork or pork chops, and lots of caramelized onions.
Rosolje: Mixed Beetroot Salad. Here come the beets – a sign of Russian influence. The dish was imported and popularized during the era of Soviet influence and Estonianized with the addition of herring.
Pickled herring, pickled cucumbers, boiled potatoes, beetroots, carrots, and eggs are all cubed fairly small and combined with mayonnaise. Technically, it’s a salad, found on just about every resto or café in Estonia.
Lillkapsas Juustukastmes: Cauliflower with Cheese. Not the every-day dish you know, which simply pours melted American (Processed) Cheese over overcooked Cauliflower florets, this is a real treat.
Like the North American version, though, this popular side is legendary as an example of how mothers from time immemorial have used cheese as an enticement for their kids to eat their vegetables! The cauliflower is first boiled until tender. Then a creamy cheese sauce, made with a milk-and-flour Béchamel and a loot of cheese is poured over top. A topping of bread crumbs is often added, and toasted under the broiler for a few minutes.
Kruubipuder: Barley Porridge. Not a dessert, but a savoury dish, this thick, creamy concoction is made in much the same way as Rice Pudding (see photo, top of page). But the barley is simmered in meat stock or water, not milk. Garlic, onions and other aromatics are added, to taste. And the whole thing is baked in the oven covered until the barley is soft. It’s often served with thin slices of smoked meat, caramelized onions and sour cream.
No need to rush out and buy a plane ticket
The basic ingredients of Estonia’s most beloved dishes are all readily available at a supermarket near you! While you’re planning your first Estonian feast, be sure to Google the dishes you want to include and check out some of the many regional variations common to most of that country’s colourful approach to food.
Asa has become our custom, tomorrow we’ll survey Estonia’s favourite breads and examine the central importance of Rye – a commodity that the country has been relying on for sustenance, and even exporting since the Middle Ages…
~ Maggie J.