Rupjmaize, rugušpiens, and piragi are just some of the delightful names of traditional Latvian foods. Though modern cuisine has adapted to city living, many ancient food recipes and customs continue to this day.
— By John Jacobs
Sitting in Northern Europe on the Baltic Sea, Latvia cuisine represents the culmination of an agricultural history, centuries of German rule, a period of Russian rule, and numerous regional influences from Sweden and South Europe. Despite this complex food history, if any food culture could be defined as basically consisting of “meat and potatoes”, it would be Latvian cuisine. Yet, the meat and potatoes do not seem quite so plain after learning that foods like sipolklopsi (steak and onions) were introduced by German chefs for the table of barons. With a fondness for bread, potatoes, bacon rolls, a variety of meats, dairy products, and lots of fresh berries, meals represent a fusion of history, practicality, and classic European recipes.
Find Flavor Without Spices
Historically, Latvian recipes were designed for low-cost ingredients produced at home by self-supporting families, many of whom were serfs until the late 1800s. Most had gardens and small farms, which is still true today. The families living in the countryside were unable to purchase expensive imported spices, so the flavors had to come from the ingredients mixed together, simmered, baked, and pickled. Homesteads pickled a variety of foods for storage, including mushrooms, cucumbers, herring, and meat.
Knowing that up until World War II the Latvians were mostly farmers or other types of outdoor workers, until the age of industrialization arrived, also explains why traditional foods have a high calorie content. There are three other cultural factors that came to bear on the cuisine. First, Latvia did not have nutrient-rich soil, and the winters could be long and harsh, so cooks turned to filling foods like bread. Second, when kartupeli (North American potatoes) were introduced, they became a staple because of their ability to be stored through the winter. Third, the Latvians living on or near the coastline were fisherman, so fish was regularly included in their diet, whereas inland people primarily ate beef, pork, game meat, goose, duck, with smaller quantities of pickled herring or salmon added when possible.
With few spices and limited staples, the innovative cooks began to adapt food preparation methods introduced by Germans and then Russians and other visitors. They used garlic, onion, white mustard, caraway seeds, honey, dill, and other types of ingredients to add flavor. German influence is found in foods like sautéed sauerkraut and sipolklopsis, which is steak with onions, and pork dishes like karbonade (pork schnitzel). In fact, pork is now a national meat, and most restaurants will use some kind of pork in their dishes whether it is as meat or bacon fat.
Describe it as Hearty
Latvians speak a Baltic language, making the country one of two living Baltic languages officially recognized. The names of popular Latvian dishes reflect many centuries of a preserved set of dialects. They sound deliciously authentic. Latvian living over a 100 years ago loved rugušpiens (curdled milk), and even today this drink and other dairy products (especially cheese) are enormously popular. Also still enjoyed are piragi (bacon rolls), berry jelly, and rupjmaize, a dark rye bread that remains a staple. The Latvian table may hold karbonade ar kaulu (grilled pork chops), pelekie zirni (gray peas boiled and then fried with bacon), and frikadelu zupa (meatball soup).
If someone said, “Describe food from Latvia in one word,” it would have to be “hearty” because that covers the entire menu. Breakfast is hearty with thick Latvian crepes or biezpien maizites (cheese pastry). The soups are hearty, like solanka (tangy tomato soup filled with potatoes, sausage, kidney and pickles). The salads are hearty, like rosols which is a traditional Latvian potato salad. The main dishes are hearty, like Kugelis (potato pie).The desserts are hearty, like maizes zupa (rye bread pudding). The only other word that best describes Latvian food is “practical.”
Bring Out the Special Dishes… It is Time to Celebrate
Modern Latvians have adapted their menus to fit busy schedules and city living. Cooking three large meals every day is nearly impossible unless the family is still working and living in the countryside. However, one of the charming traditions in Latvia is the return of traditional food during each holiday that has been celebrated for as long as Latvians have been eating dark rye bread!
Some of the holidays are the same as those celebrated in most countries. They include Easter and Christmas, but there are other major celebrations that harken back to the days when most Latvians were peasants living off and grateful for the land. The Harvest Festival held in the autumn is still celebrated as the Autumn Solstice or Martini day. Out come the gray peas, stewed pork, dark rye bread, homemade cheese, and a host of desserts such as sweet breads, poppy seed rolls and buberts (Latvian manna).
Many of the desserts are made with various berries, which ancients used frequently since they could be picked in the countryside and did not have to be grown on farms. One of the largest celebrations each year is Jani (Summer Solstice). Lasting all night, the traditional foods include sweet platter breads, piragi, and jana siers (special cheese made with caraway seeds). Beer flows at all the Latvian celebrations. The traditional beer is made with barley and hops, and honey was added to make medalus (honey beer). Birthdays call for klingeris, a yeast dough bread made with saffron and dried fruits and twisted into a figure eight.
Anyone visiting Latvia will not have any trouble finding restaurants serving traditional foods. The country is focusing on healthier eating and saving fat-rich foods for the holidays, but enjoying a Latvian meal in all of its glory is an experience to be savored. A meal of cold beet soup, pork tongue, pickled vegetables, savory lamb stew, or any of the other classics, must absolutely be eaten without guilt. The hearty and nutrient rich foods remind the diner of Latvia’s interesting history and the ability of its country people to thrive on what the land had to offer or what could be made in the home.