Thursday, 19 January 2017

The adorable search for the Finnish national dish

Being an expatriate changes you. Among other things, it makes you look at your old homeland with a mix of newly found objectivity and immense affection. I got a shot of those sentiments a while ago, when a popular vote to choose a national dish for Finland was announced.

Years ago, when Parma and Helsinki were competing over where to locate the European Food Safety Authority, Silvio Berlusconi made fun of the primitiveness of the Finnish food culture compared to that of Italy. After reading the list of 12 candidates, chosen by an appointed panel, of the national dish vote... I am alternating between adoring Finns' simple, no-nonsense attitude toward food, and chuckling to myself while imagining what Berlusconi would have said about this array of awesomeness. Since I'm family, I am allowed to make a bit of good-spirited fun, right? Let us look at the entries one by one...

Pea soup. A bowl of guaranteed hyper-accelerator of intestinal gases, digested with mustard. It is the traditional weekly Thursday meal in the Finnish army. The following night is known in the barracks as "the night of the flapping blankets".

Fish soup. Well, it is a soup that has fish in it. It certainly gets points for elegant simplicity.

Mämmi. A traditional dessert famous for its uncanny resemblance to human excrement. Nowadays associated specifically with Easter, which I assume was originally some sort of religious self-punishment ritual.

Dark rye bread. This one actually makes perfect sense. It is Finnish, it is delicious, and it is one of the literally two foods whose absence one actually bothers to register when living abroad.

Karelian pies. This is the other one.

Viili. One of the many variations of the theme "a fancy kind of spoiled milk".

Pizza. ... OK, at this point the panel apparently just gave up and admitted there are not 12 Finnish-invented foods in existence.

Blueberry pie. I did not know there was something specifically Finnish about this. At least it tastes good, unless it belongs to that variant which has only some dry blueberry skins on top, to fool an unsuspecting consumer to think that he will get actual berries.

Fried herrings with potatoes. I thought this as a potential winner (spoiler: turns out I was wrong). Fried herrings are actually delicious, and their combination with the ever-present boiled potatoes would symbolize Finnish food quite well. You'll get a gourmet version of this by placing a piece of dill on the potato.

Karelian stew. Pieces of meat floating in a mix of greasy water and mushy vegetables. It is not all bad, which is largely thanks to the grease. Given that salt and grease make anything taste good, why does it not work when I mix only salt and grease and try to eat it? The world does not make any sense.

Gravlax. A dish consisting of raw salmon, cured in salt, sugar and dill, usually served as an appetizer. No, of course I did not need to look that up on Wikipedia.

Liver casserole. A revolting mass of indistinct substance that in an ideal world would be prohibited by the Geneva convention. It is so cheap that it is the country's most popular microwave meal (which was one reason cited for qualifying it as a candidate), so it doubles as a reminder that you are poor as hell. In the words of a panel member, "If it is made of a moose calf's liver, for example, the rice replaced by barley, and eaten with mashed lingonberries, it is delicious". So, basically, if you swap its ingredients to something else, cover it in a substance that blocks its taste, and kill a Bambi, it becomes edible. I'm sold.

Yes, I admit, a couple of these are genuinely worth longing for. But not having access to them is a fair price to pay for not having the chance to be accidentally exposed to the rest.

The results are in, and dark rye bread won, obviously. It is like Finland itself. Strong, sour, tough and trustworthy. One of these days I'm going to go and get some.