Finland may be known for the Northern Lights, snowy-white winter beauty of Lapland, Salla Reindeer Park and Santa Claus Village, but there is so much more to be found in this stunning country. An under-the-radar culinary world that rivals that of cities far larger is quietly but powerfully making enormous impressions on those with an appreciation for the talent that creates dishes worthy of award recognition.
Without the glitzy fanfare of their neighbors, this low-key, yet sophisticated country has an impressive food and beverage space. They may not have the publicity garnered to French restaurants, but they should. Their culinary scene is well thought out, creatively evolving and yet honed around tradition. As with any culture, what you eat starts with what grows around you. In a country situated on the water and with forestry making up 70 percent of the landscape, its no wonder you see recipes filled with ingredients that live and grow in these places. Finnish people believe in eating local, building dishes that are simple but incredibly flavorful. Plating is clean with a focus on the food itself.
With plans to explore food styles in Helsinki and Turku on this trip, we took advantage of all the opportunities found in each city. For a more expanded list of traditional Finnish foods, please see this list.
Finland’s Food World
With a pen and paper ready, we began our education in, of all places, a grocery store. Led by Heather’s Helsinki Fork in Hand food tours, we walked into a sleek ten story department store called Stockmann’s where Food Market Herkku was located. Well maintained, organized and with a large variety of items that gave us a window into what grocery shopping was like in Helsinki.If you haven’t thought about stopping in food markets on your travels, it’s definitely something you want to do. It is the closest thing to understanding how local’s cook and include food into their daily lives. At Stockmann’s, Heather walked us through the various sections of the grocery explaining the types of ingredients, where they were grown, what made them special, how chefs and home cooks incorporated them in their recipes and the impact of the climate. We even were able to taste an item or two.
A sampling of the foods in the Finnish diet include:
- Meat – Reindeer, Elk, Deer
- Rye bread
- Root vegetables
- Berries – Lingonberries, Cloudberry, Blueberry, Bilberry
- Herbs – Coriander, Dill, Caraway
- More here
Signing up for a food tour is a brilliant way to learn about the history of food in cities, and to see favorite or famous cafes, restaurants and bakeries. If you are as lucky as we were to have Heather as our guide, you would also be entertained with amusing stories and history of the area as we walked through town.
In Finland, food halls are very popular. There are three indoor markets in Helsinki including Old Market Hall, Hietalahti Market Hall and Hakaniemi Market Place. In Turku, go visit Turun Kauppahalli. Built within historical buildings, food purveyors offering cheese, meat, seafood and sweets (to name just a few) as well as restaurants selling items to take home or eat on premise. Visiting the store fronts was an opportunity to learn about native foods all in one location.
Distilleries, Liquor Stores and Craft Breweries
In keeping with the Finnish philosophy of supporting local foods and brands, the number of distilleries and breweries in Finland are growing. The first craft distillery in Helsinki in over 100 years is Helsinki Distilling Co. It was started by an Irishman and his two Finnish partners in 2014 to produce Finnish Whiskey. The area, once a slaughterhouse, has transitioned into a food and entertainment area called Teurastamo thanks to Helsinki’s efforts to repurpose empty buildings into viable businesses. Helsinki Distilling Co. now makes an assortment of spirits including their well known whiskey and premium gin which has ingredients like lingonberries, citrus, rose petals and coriander all made on the first floor of their building. See for yourself how the spirits are made and try the tasting menu. An interesting piece of trivia regarding the choice of a rectangular bottle shape was shared with us. During prohibition times, this particular shape could be hidden easily under coats against the body to keep you safe from trouble.
Bryggeri is a craft brewing house located in the heart of Helsinki. Come sample the variety of beers and pair your drinks with the menu that fluctuate with the seasons.
At the top of the Kakola hill in Turku, is Kakola Brewery. Ninety percent of production is sold within two miles of the brewery. The three owners use traditional Nordic ingredients like berries and spruce to flavor the beer. The brand can be found in Alko stores. The creative labels on the bottles are done by artists.
Notes on Liquor laws in Finland
Liquor stores in Finland operate differently than in the United States. Beer, cider and long drinks are sold in grocery stores until 9 pm every day but wines, liquors and spirits are sold in Alko stores. Finland law prohibits selling above 5.5 percent alcohol in stores. Their operating hours are shorter than what we are use to closing at 6:00 pm on Saturday nights. The legal drinking age is 18 years old. Patrons must be 20 years old to buy bottles of alcohol.Fun facts:
- In Ireland, gin is considered a woman’s drink. In Finland, women drink everything that their male counterparts drink.
- A Finnish drink might be a Long Drink which is a fruit juice and gin.
Finland has a very strong coffee culture. They have the largest number of coffee drinkers per capita. The average Finnish person drinks 5-6 cups of coffee a day. Their preference is brewing coffee through a drip coffee maker. The Moccamaster is the coffee brewer of choice which is sold in the United States as well. 80 percent of the population drink really light roasted coffee. Espresso drinks are not yet mainstreamed in the Finnish lifestyle. Just a tip for you. Turning down an offer of a cup of coffee is considered impolite in Finnish society. In fact, coffee breaks are standard in the business world in Finland.
In Turku: Frukt Coffee Roasters Oy
One of the most unique food experiences that is offered in Finland is the opportunity to go foraging for wild herbs, berries and mushrooms. Whether you go independently or with a tour, it’s a part of the Finnish food culture that includes fishing and hunting. They define it as “Everyman’s Right” which essentially means that you can pick berries, mushrooms and flowers in areas that are not privately owned by anyone. Ingredients that you pick are used in recipes made at home and in restaurants, truly supporting the philosophy of eating local.
Even the major airline of the country reflects the commitment to maintaining a culinary mission. In line with the views of the Finnish people, locally grown ingredients are used in dishes in-flight. Every meal is packed by hand. Accommodating food preferences for dietary or religious reasons is done with respect and care.
Creating meals that exceed passengers expectations is the goal. Finnair developed collaborations with world class chefs to design menus for Business Class travelers. On our flight to Helsinki, award winning Chef David Posey of Elske Restaurant in Chicago shared his Nordic inspired recipes.
(Roasted root vegetable salad with chicories in a creamy vinaigrette, Roasted pork collar with crushed fingerling potatoes, broccoli creamed spinach and caramel-pork jus)
Finnair’s efforts to to manage food waste and environmental concerns go from the kitchen to aboard the aircraft.
From Finnair, we lose 25 percent of our taste due to noise, dry air and the altitude. Unami works well to solve this with ingredients like onions and tomatoes. Beverages to consider are a Bloody Mary and Ginger Ale. We were served the ceviche as an appetizer to accommodate the loss of taste in the air as the acidity in the vinaigrette solves the issue.
Restaurants in Finland
To truly immerse yourself in the culture of the country you are visiting, exploring the culinary space is not only educational but delicious. Finland’s landscape offers a diverse food scene filled with traditional items that support their philosophy of “eat local and simply” to dining on the dishes created by extraordinarily talented chefs. From a Michelin starred restaurant to a neighborhood spot, you will encounter innovative, flavor-filled dishes that incorporate ingredients from sea, farm and forest along with breads you will never get enough of!
Casual lunch spot with dishes that are comfort food focused with large portion sizes. In an area now known as Teurastamo, Helsinki has repurposed the land once used as a slaughterhouse to a multi-use gathering spot for locals, tourists and businesses to enjoy. Restaurants (coffee roastery, pasta factory, ice cream shop), distillery, outdoor event space and party venue are found in this neighborly development.
(Salmon with beets and root vegetables)
A modern European restaurant designed in an elegant manner. Food is plated beautifully with ingredients chosen based on the season.
Legendary restaurant and bakery with wide selection of confections. Known for Geisha chocolates.
An elegant restaurant overlooking the Esplanade Park in the heart of Helsinki. Originally designed by famed architects Aino and Alvar Aalto in 1937 and then renovated in 2019/2020, the restaurant’s interior uses high quality, natural materials and vivid fabrics in keeping with tradition. Along with a wine cellar that is one of the largest in the country, the Savoy menu is Finnish-French with a slight Russian touch. The restaurant’s design is beautiful with multiple terraces surrounding the main dining space.
(Lobster with aubergine caviar)
(Grilled Pike Perch with butternut squash)
A casual lunch and dinner spot with wonderful soups. Located along the water.
Along the riverwalk in Turku is a restaurant focused on Nordic cuisine utilizing seasonal and local produce adjusting their menu every eight weeks. From casual to upscale dining, this menu offers it all.
(Roasted Pike Perch, funnel chanterelles and puree of cauliflower)
Part of the VoiVeljet restaurant group that owns Smor, this cozy restaurant and wine bar offers artisan cocktails and innovative menu using seasonal ingredients. Located along the riverfront.
(Gin cocktail with Kyro Gin, cranberry and rosemary)
The only Michelin starred restaurant in Turku. Small cozy restaurant with just 36 seats. Four or six course menu is focused on Nordic traditions and local ingredients from water, forest and farms. Plating is artistic. This is a dining experience. Book reservations far in advance.
(Juniper salted whitefish, celery, apples, almond milk, and lemon thyme oil)
(Grilled Beetroot, rhubarb, pickled red currant, cherries, rose water and petals, raspberries)
(Sea buckthorn and honey pie)
What was once a notorious prison is now a well respected restaurant. Take the funikulaari up a hill and experience dishes cooked over an open fire creating an almost gourmet bbq flavor.
(Apple Tarte Tatin)
To get hands on training along with the understanding of how to use local ingredients in recipes, look for mixology and cooking classes.
- Deep water fish are fishy tasting because they are eating shellfish and other fish from the bottom of sea.
- The Baltic Sea is low salt while the Atlantic Sea is salty.
- Adults in Finland drink milk with their meals.
- Spruce flavor is used in cocktails as another example of an ingredient coming from the vast amount of forest in Finland.
- Arctic Blue Gin comes from a small distillery in eastern Finland that uses wild berries, cardamom, hints of pine and juniper berries in their gin.
- The brand name, Napue Gin, has changed its name due to its similarity to the word napkin. The new name is Kyro. Kryo Gin has flavors of sea buckthorn, birch leaves and cranberry in the gin. Winner of “the World’s Best Gin for Gin & Tonic” by the International Wine & Spirit Competition.
Traveling to Finland to explore the culinary world was an incredible experience. Take the time to learn about the history in each of the places you visit while there, as it creates a full picture of the people and their way of life. It’s a vacation you will never forget. See the official website of Helsinki, Turku and Finland to plan your excursion.
All images courtesy of DLX Contributor, Julie Gordon of Inspiring Kitchen, unless otherwise noted. Follow Inspiring Kitchen to learn about trends in luxury culinary travel, kitchen design and housewares as well as favorite finds in the food and cooking world.