Long winters and cool weather shaped Lithuanian cuisine. Potatoes are a major staple, particularly as the base for stomach-stretching dumpling dough. Smoked and fried fish reigns in coastal and lake areas, foraged foods like mushrooms and berries make seasonal appearances, and dairy is everywhere. Casual taverns are common; increasing numbers of restaurants offer upmarket takes on rustic Lithuanian fare. Find the most choice (and veggie options) in Vilnius and Kaunas.
Staples, Specialities & ‘Zeppelins’
Lithuanian food is epitomised in the formidable cepelinai (tsep-e-lin-ay), sometimes jokingly called zeppelins. These are parcels of thick potato dough stuffed with cheese, mesa (meat) or grybai (gree-bai; mushrooms). They come topped with a rich sauce made from onions, butter, sour cream and bacon bits.
Another favourite is sour cream–topped kugelis – a ‘cannon ball’ dish borrowed from German cuisine that bakes grated potatoes and carrots in the oven. Koldūnai (kol-doon-ay) are hearty ravioli stuffed with meat or mushrooms and virtiniai are stodgy dumplings.
Lithuanians tend to like the less popular bits of animals: liežuvis (lea-zhu-vis; cow’s tongue) and alionių skilandis (a-lyo-nyoo ski-lan-dis; minced meat smoked in pork bladders) are delicacies, and Lithuanians pork out on vėdarai (fried pork innards).
Hodgepodge or šiupinys (shyu-pi-nees) – often mistakenly assumed to be hedgehog – is pork snout stewed with pork tail, trotter, peas and beans. Smoked pigs’ ears, trotters and tails are popular beer snacks alongside kepta duona (kep-ta dwa-na) – sticks of black rye bread heaped with garlic and deep-fried. Order them with or without a gooey cheese topping.
Wild boar, rabbit and venison are popular in the Aukštaitija National Park, where hunted birds and animals were traditionally fried in a clay coating or on a spit over an open fire in the 18th century. When perpetually drifting sands on Curonian Spit on the Baltic Sea in the 17th to 19th centuries made growing crops impossible, locals took to hunting and eating migrating crows in winter: one bite (followed by a generous slug of vodka) at the crow’s neck killed the bird, after which its meat was eaten fresh, smoked or salted.
Blyneliai (blee-nyal-i-ay; pancakes) – a real favourite – are sweet or savoury and eaten any time of the day. Varskečiai (vars-ko-chyai) are stuffed with sweet curd, and bulviniai blyneliai are made with grated potato and stuffed with meat, varske (cheese curd) or fruit and chocolate.
The Twelve Dishes of Christmas
Christmas is the major culinary feast of the year. On 24 December families sit down to dinner in the evening around a candlelit hay-covered table topped with a white linen cloth; the hay anticipates Jesus’ birth and serves as a place for the souls of dead family members to rest. (Indeed, one place around the table is always laid for someone who died that year.)
The Christmas Eve feast that unfolds comprises 12 dishes – one for each month of the coming year to ensure year-long happiness and plenty. Dishes are fish and vegetable based, and often include festive kūčiukai (koo-chiu-kai) – small cubed poppy-seed biscuits served in a bowl of poppy-seed milk; others like herrings, pike, mushrooms and various soups are not necessarily seasonal.
Šakotis (sha-ko-tis) – ‘egg cake’ – is a large tree-shaped cake covered with long spikes (made from a rather dry, spongecake mixture of flour, margarine, sugar, sour cream and dozens and dozens of eggs), which is served at weddings and other special occasions.
Cold Pink Soup & Other Starters
Lithuanians love soup and no self-respecting chef would plan a meal without one, but one soup rises above all others (maybe for its shocking pink colour, or maybe simply because it’s delicious). Šaltibarsčiai (shal-ti-barshi-ay) is a cold beetroot soup popular in summer and served with dill-sprinkled boiled potatoes and sour cream.
Other soups to look out for include nettle, sorrel, cabbage and bread soup (not to mention blood soup, which does indeed have goose, duck or chicken blood in it). Eel soup is specific to Curonian Spit, where eel also comes as a main course. In Aukštaitija, fish soup served in a loaf of brown bread is the dish to try.
Popular starters include silkė (herring), sprotai (sprats) and salads. Lietuviškos salotos (lea-tu-vish-kos sa-lo-tos; Lithuanian salad) is a mayonnaise-coated mix of diced gherkins, boiled carrots, meat and anything else that happens to be in the fridge.
Mushrooms are popular, especially in August and September when forests are studded with dozens of different varieties – some edible, some deadly. Mushrooms are particularly abundant in the Aukštaitija and Dzūkija national parks. In spring and early summer the same forests buzz with berry pickers; locals stand at roadsides in the region selling glass jam jars of wild strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and so on.
Where to Eat & Drink
Dining Lithuanian-style can mean spending anything from €7 for a three-course meal in a self-service cafe in a provincial town well off the tourist trail to €35 or more in a swish upmarket restaurant in the capital.
In Vilnius, the choice of cuisine and price range covers the whole gamut, and an English-language menu is usually available (likewise along the coast); elsewhere the choice is limited and menus are not always translated. Service is at its best in the capital – and generally average to poor everywhere else.
Eating Habits & Customs
A traditional dose of hospitality means loosening your belt several notches and skipping breakfast. Feasting is lengthy and plentiful, punctuated by many choruses of Išgeriam! (ish-ge-ryam; Let’s drink!) and Iki dugno! (Bottoms up!). Starter dishes can be deceptively generous, leading unsuspecting guests to think they’re the main meal. To decline further helpings may offend and be taken to mean that you don’t like the food or the hospitality.
The family meal is a ceremonious affair and one that is taken very seriously, albeit one increasingly reserved for feast days, birthdays and other occasions in urban Lithuania’s quicker-paced society. Each member of the family has a set place at the table – father at the head, mother opposite. If you arrive at someone’s home while the family is seated, be sure to say skanaus (enjoy your meal!).
Eat Your Words
Caught in a restaurant without a phrasebook? Here are a few useful sentences to get by.
|boiled potato dumplings stuffed with meat||tsep-e-lin-ay||cepelinai|
|breaded pork chop||kar-bo-na-das||karbonadas|
|cold beetroot soup||shal-ti-barshi-ay||šaltibaršciai|
|A table for …, please.||stah-lah … prah-show||Stalą …, prašau.|
|May I see the menu, please?||ahr gah-leh-chow gow-ti man-yew prah-show||Ar galėčiau gauti meniu prašau?|
|Do you have the menu in English?||ahr yoos tu-ri-ta man-yew ahn-glish-kai||Ar jūs turite meniu anglieškai?|
|I’d like to try that.||ahsh naw-reh-chow ish bahn-dee-ti taw||Aš norėčau išbandyti to.|
|I don’t eat …||ahsh na-vahl-gow||Aš nevalgau …|
Anyone wanting to build their own cepelinai (zeppelin), bake a rabbit or butter-braise a hen should invest in the excellent cookery book Lithuanian Traditional Foods, compiled by Birutė Imbrasienė, or the more widely available The Art of Lithuanian Cooking, by Maria Gieysztor de Gorgey.
Essential Food & Drink
Beer and mead Švyturys, Utenos and Kalnapilis are regional beers; midus (mead) is a honey-tinged nobleman's drink returning to popularity.
Beer snacks No drinking session is complete without smoked pigs' ears or kepta duona (deep-fried garlicky bread sticks).
Beetroot delight Cold šaltibarščiai (beetroot soup) is a summer speciality, served with potatoes; sour cream turns it neon pink. Hot beetroot soups, with or without cream, are common year-round.
Potato creations Pop a button for cepelinai (potato-dough 'zeppelins' stuffed with meat, mushrooms or curd cheese), bulviniai blynai (potato pancakes) or žemaičių blynai (heart-shaped mashed potato stuffed and fried), or vedarai (intestines stuffed with mashed potato).
Smoked fish Curonian Spit is famous for smoked fish, particularly the superb rūkytas ungurys (smoked eel).
Pastries Bite into Trakai specialities kibinai, pasties crammed with mutton, or sate your sweet tooth with šakotis, sweet, spit-roasted batter.
Hunter's table Sample local game, such as beaver stew or boar sausages.