Have pen, will travel. Sending letters.
A letter from Lithuania. In which is thrown a glance into the Baltic region’s pots and pans.
Vilnius, September 2016
of course it hardly is a secret that I’m rather curious and quite determined to learn about the foreign countries I’m travelling, their people and culture, by the observing participation method particularly when it comes to peculiar local dishes. ‘Cultural Delicacies’ as I like to call them always seem to exert a pull on me and, admittedly, I am more than content to get involved in that kind of experiment.
Naturally, when travelling to the Baltics for the very first time, for some archaeological conference to Lithuania’s capital Vilnius to be precise, I was quite curious about the local cuisine. Let’s be honest, little did I know about this region actually in the northeast of the Baltic Sea, actually not that far from home – yet, and it’s a bit embarrassing to admit this, quite terra incognita to me. Yes, I couldn’t even tell if Vilnius is situated in Latvia or Lithuania, much less could I point out the particular states (and we might well add Estonia to that list) on the map of Europe. Well, this has changed now, thankfully – see, travelling broadens the mind!
So, upon arriving in Lithuania and immediately noticing the very special diction it seems to have developed in architecture and culture, a most fascinating amalgam of Nordic and Slavic, and, yes, of course peculiar Baltic elements which finally produced a distinct character, I was more than curious to see how this might find its reflection in local cuisine. So, let’s have a look into these Lithuanian cooking pots! Admittedly, if you were a vegetarian Baltic cuisine maybe wasn’t really your most favourite choice. They really seem to be fond of meat. Or fat. And meat. Which could be quite a tasty thing – if you like it. Three lecture-packed conference days also meant three (comparatively) extensive lunch breaks and thus the chance to delve into local dishes.
Let’s start with some Didžkukuliai su mėsa or Cepelinai, ‘zeppelins’ as they are called. Large potato dumplings stuffed with meat. And a lot of these. I mean, we are talking about a whole kilogram of meat-stuffed dumplings here, my friend! That’s quite a task, even for a glutton like myself. Sure, the place I had lunch would’ve also offered half a portion as ‘women’s serving’, but you know I am no-one to support this kind of sexist discrimination – or, well … to show any weakness in the face of such a task. After all, food challenges are a matter of honour. Or so.
Well, the dumplings are pretty much what you’d expect – I mean, as a German I’m not completely unfamiliar with the concept of Kartoffelknödel, you know. Yet, it’s what’s inside which is the peculiar titbit here. There’s a meatball, a complete meatball embedded into this delicacy. Actually the whole concept somehow reminded me of a giant incarnation of pelmeni, maybe there is a slight relation with these Russian dumplings and this part of Lithuania’s history. Or maybe I’m just imagining things here. The first of these zeppelins however was indeed a good and substantial meal. The second admittedly somehow really was a challenge and I was quite happy having one of these pretty good Lithuanian beers at hand to make it easier – but, of course, I passed the challenge.
The other day I was digging a bit deeper into the ‘speciality’ section of a local restaurant’s menu and decided to have some Bulvių plokštainis su kiaulės ausimis for dinner. Does already sound like a proper dish, doesn’t it? Well, what’s actually described here in perfect Lithuanian (actually, but this only as an interesting side note, being considered the most authentic still existing old Indo-European dialect) are a pig’s ears – nicely covered by a potato pudding or kugel arranged with some bacon and (as I assume) even more ear stuff cut into thin strips.
This does only a first glance may seem unusual, but actually I do remember well that when my grandparents had to slaughter a pig in that Anhaltinian town’s rural outskirts (which usually was a big thing bringing together all family and neighbours, the real kind of traditional ‘Schlachtfest’, you know), nothing was wasted and indeed all of the animal put to use. Including fat, blood, and yes – ears. Yet hardly ever before did I find pig ears so tender. Well done, Lithuanian chef!
Next lunch hold some Gruzdintos stints ready. These peculiar cucumber-smelling little fish, deep fried completely as they are, actually gained some fame as the cream of the crop at a traditional annual fishermen festival in Lithuania, the ‘Palanga Smelt’. And yes, that reputation’s definitely earned. Or, as the restaurant (which served some nice dark bread and garlic and I don’t know how many sauces with it) advertised the dish: “Once you tasted it, you can’t stop craving it …” – quite adequate estimation in my opinion. And again the portion was huge. I mean, not just big, but really huge.
I could actually list a many reasons to visit Lithuania. A many – as the region offers a fascinating history and architecture and culture to explore. But yes, to me Lithuanian cuisine definitely would be one of these reasons for sure. It’s actually well accompanied by some nice glass of beer – and quite the variety of beers they have, I’m telling you (there also seems a strong IPA movement by the way). Well, that and kvass. Yes, my friend, kvass – seriously, I have no idea when I drank kvass the last time! There we’ve got our traditional Slavic Baltic ingredient to the local kitchen, right?