Finland's food scene has flourished in the last few years, as a wave of gourmet restaurants in the major cities has added gastronomic innovation to the exceptional fresh local produce.
Staples & Specialities
Finnish cuisine has been influenced by both Sweden and Russia and draws on what was traditionally available: fish, game, meat, milk and potatoes, with dark rye used to make bread and porridge, and few spices employed.
Soups are a Finnish favourite and one common in homes and restaurants. Heavy pea, meat or cabbage soups are traditional workers' fare, while creamier fish soups have a more delicate flavour.
One light snack that you'll see everywhere is the rice-filled savoury pastry from Karelia, the karjalanpiirakka. These are tasty cold, heated, toasted or with egg butter, and have several variations.
Fish is a mainstay of the Finnish diet. Fresh or smoked lohi (salmon), silli (marinated herring), siika (lavaret, a lake whitefish), kuha (pike-perch or zander) and delicious Arctic nieriä or rautu (char) are common, and the tiny lake fish muikku (vendace, or whitefish) is another treat.
Two much-loved favourites that you'll see in many places are grilled liver, served with mashed potatoes and bacon, and meatballs. Finns have been known to fight over whose granny cooks the best ones.
Reindeer has always been a staple food for the Sámi. The traditional way to eat it is sautéed with lingonberries. Many restaurants also offer it on pizza or as sausages. It also comes in fillet steaks, which, though expensive, is the tastiest way to try this meat.
Elk is also eaten, mostly in hunting season, and you can even get a bear steak – or more commonly, a potted or preserved meat – in some places, although the latter is very expensive, as only a small number are hunted every year.
Essential Food & Drink
- Coffee Eight or nine cups a day is about right, best accompanied with a pulla (cardamom-flavoured pastry).
- Offbeat meats Unusual meats appear on menus: reindeer is a staple up north; elk and bear are available during autumn's hunting season.
- Fresh food The kauppahalli (market hall) offers a stunning array of produce. In summer, stalls at the kauppatori (market square) sell delicious fresh vegetables and fruit.
- Gastronomy Helsinki is the best venue for fabulous New Suomi cuisine, with sumptuous, inventive degustation menus presenting traditional Finnish ingredients in crest-of-the-wave ways.
- Alcoholic drinks Beer is a staple, and great microbreweries are on the increase. Finns also love dissolving things in vodka – try a shot of salmiakkikossu (salty-liquorice flavoured) or fisu (Fisherman’s Friend–flavoured).
- Fish Salmon is ubiquitous, and tasty lake fish include Arctic char, lavaret, pike-perch and scrumptious fried muikku (vendace).
- Brunssi Weekend brunssi (brunch) is increasingly popular in Helsinki and other cities. Book ahead for these sumptuous all-you-can-eat spreads.
Finns tend to eat their biggest meal of the day at lunchtime, so many cafes and restaurants put on a lounas special from Monday to Friday. This usually consists of soup plus salad or hot meal or both, and includes a soft drink, coffee and sometimes dessert.
Most hotels offer a free buffet breakfast, which includes bread, cheese, cold cuts, pastries, berries, cereals and lots of coffee, and may run to pickled or smoked fish, sausages and eggs.
Finns have dinner as early as 5pm. It's often just a light meal, but eat much later if it’s an organised, ‘going out for dinner’ affair.
For a sweet snack at any time of day, hit a cafe for a pulla (cardamom-flavoured bun), korvapuusti (cinnamon whirl) or munkki (doughnut).
Weekend brunssi (brunch) has become a big deal in the cities.
Finns love their sweets, although some of them make the unsuspecting visitor feel like the victim of a novelty-shop joke. Salty liquorice, fiery 'Turkish peppers' and tar-flavoured gumdrops may sound like punishments rather than rewards, but are delicious after the first few times. Finnish chocolates, particularly those made by Fazer, are also excellent.
New Suomi Cuisine
Riding the wave of new Nordic cuisine is a new breed of Finnish chef experimenting with traditional ingredients such as lake fish, berries, wild mushrooms, reindeer and other seasonal produce in decidedly untraditional fashion. Especially in Helsinki, you’ll find a number of gourmet restaurants offering exquisite multicourse tasting menus that make a great contrast to the heavier, sauce-laden typical cuisine.
The forage ethos is one of the principal drivers of new Nordic cuisine, but it’s not a new concept. Finns head out gleefully all summer to pick berries and mushrooms: blueberries, jewel-like wild strawberries, peppery chanterelles and the north’s gloriously tart, creamy cloudberries, so esteemed that they feature on the €2 coin. People here are enthusiastic kitchen gardeners too, with tender new potatoes and fresh dill featuring heavily. The variety and quality of fresh produce means that summer is by far the best time to eat in Finland.
Big towns all have a kauppahalli (covered market), which is the place to head for all sorts of Finnish specialities, breads, cheeses, deli produce, meat and a super variety of both fresh and smoked fish. It’s also a top place for a cheap feed, with cafes and stalls selling sandwiches and snacks. The summer kauppatori (market square) also has food stalls, coffee stops and market produce, particularly vegetables and fruit.
Vegetarians & Vegans
Most medium-sized towns in Finland will have a vegetarian restaurant (kasvisravintola), usually open weekday lunchtimes only. It’s easy to self-cater at markets, or take the salad/vegetable option at lunch buffets (which is usually cheaper). Many restaurants also have a salad buffet. The website www.vegaaniliitto.fi has a useful listing of vegetarian and vegan restaurants; follow ‘ruoka’ and ‘kasvisravintoloita’ (the Finnish list is more up to date than the English one).
Finland has an extensive range of eating options in cities and larger towns, but elsewhere choices can limited, especially in low season. Reserve top-end restaurants ahead; otherwise same-day bookings are usually fine.
- Restaurants Finland’s restaurants span simple establishments serving home cooking to Michelin-starred addresses creating New Suomi cuisine. Many restaurants offer cheaper lunch buffets.
- Cafes During the day, cafes are good for breakfast, lunch (often a buffet), or pastry and coffee. Few open at night.
- Hotels Many top restaurants are set in hotels, particularly in spa and ski resorts. Nonguests are welcome to dine here, but expect a large bill.