Sandwiched between Sweden and Russia, Finland reflects culinary influences from both in its food, from smoked and cured fish to game, wild berries and mushrooms. Some Helsinki restaurants participate in the “HelsinkiMenu” and only use ingredients that are sourced locally and in season with recipes that interpret Finnish food traditions in new and exciting ways.
In a city that has been named the European Capital of Culture, here are the top palate-pleasing dishes and eateries you should try:
A mild, sweet, semi-hard cheese usually from cow’s milk, curdled and then fried or baked in a pan, it’s often called “Finnish squeaky cheese” on menus because the fresh cheese squeaks when you bite into it. Traditionally topped with cloudberry jam, made from a tart, creamy, orange berry (highly prized in Finland), this delicious treat is certainly one to try before you head back to the cruise ship.
Where to find it: Get it to go at one of Helsinki’s market halls, which are covered marketplaces with stalls and cafes selling seafood, cheese, meat, produce, open-faced sandwiches and snacks.
Reindeer stew (poronkäristys) is a specialty of the Sami people, one of the oldest living cultures in Norway, and possibly the world. Reindeer is low-fat and rich in omega-3s and is great sautéed, smoked, put on top of pizza or mixed in with sausage meat.
Where to find it: Sauteed reindeer topped with lingonberry sauce and reindeer-stuffed beefsteaks are deliciously prepared at Salve. Sea Horse is a cozy traditional restaurant in Punavuori with seahorse murals on the wall; it serves fillets in a lingonberry-red wine sauce. Its artist and writer customers have ranged from Jean-Paul Sartre to Dizzy Gillespie to Pablo Neruda.
Best served hot from the oven, these small, round savory pastries are made of rye flour, filled with boiled barley, rice or mashed potatoes, and topped with butter. Karelian pies are a specialty of Karelia, a region in east Finland next to Russia. They’re important to the country’s identity, as it’s a very traditional food that has been made for generations and are often packed for hunters, fishermen or farmers for long days outdoors.
Where to find it: You’ll find them at market halls and at Hopia, a bakery café in Helsinki’s Toolo district founded by Karelian immigrants in 1949.
A glamorous rooftop restaurant with city views and a minimalist design, Savoy, which opened in 1937 near the Hietalahden Market Hall, serves gourmet New Nordic multicourse menus. But it’s also synonymous with a classic: minced lamb and pork stew with anchovies and/or herring, onions and spices.
The restaurant’s best-known (and fussiest) customer, Baron Mannerheim, Finland’s ex-President and ex-Army commander, after trying it in Poland, decided life wasn’t worth living without it. He insisted that Savoy serve the stew, which may be of Russian or Polish origin, giving the chef the recipe. And since he was one of their best customers with his own table, his offer couldn’t be refused.
Finns are crazy about the small red crustaceans and consider them a delicacy. Crayfish season starts in late July and it’s common to find them cooked with dill in a salty broth with a bit of sugar. They also tend to be pricey to order.
Where to find it:
- Built in 1900 on Valkosaari Island, NJK is an elegant, white villa-style restaurant and the undisputed crayfish king, serving 60,000 to 70,000 mudbugs until the season ends in late September.
- Saaristo, a red-roof- white villa on Klippan Island, with lovely views of Suomenlinna Fortress, the Helsinki skyline and the sea from its dining room, which is adorned with Art Nouveau woodcuts.
Salmon is adored in Finland and found everywhere. Creamy salmon soup (lohikeitto), made with chunks of salmon, potatoes, juniper berries and cream, is a popular way to eat salmon, even in the summer. Other popular styles include flamed salmon (loimulaki) where the fish is mounted on wood planks and cooked over a wood-burning fire, cured raw salmon (graavilohi), smoked salmon or even the familiar styles of baking and grilling the salmon.
Where to find it:
Baltic Sea herring is so beloved that there’s an annual herring festival in Helsinki’s Market Square. Herring fried crispy with heads on (silakkapihvit) is a traditional style, but herring can also be baked with various fillings or pickled. Choose whatever you’re in the mood for.
Where to find it: Fried herring and herring with a Finnish blue cheese/onion stuffing are served at Sea Horse.
Muikku is a tiny white fish found in lakes in and around Helsinki. You will find them prepared with garlic and cream, or even wrapped in bacon and baked inside large savory pastries as fish pies (kalakukko).
Where to find it: Fish pies made with muikku are sold at the market halls and Market Square.
A favorite Finnish hard candy, salt-flavored black licorice comes in many varieties, from spicy to sweet mixed with chili peppers and even milk chocolate. Consider getting a sampling of a few flavors to bring home.
Where to find it: You can find these at many stalls in Market Square and various candy shops throughout the city.
If you’re not sure what to try, what about a little bit of everything?
The Helsinki tourism board created a clever downloadable map that outlines 50 restaurants, their locations and suggested tram routes to get to each. They carefully grouped five to seven restaurants in each neighborhood so you wouldn’t have to go too far to try a few specialties. And because you’ll most likely be exploring during lunchtime, you can get smaller portions of meals and for less money than you would spend for dinner.