EDITOR’S NOTE: Traveleater and Latvian food expert Kārlis Šulcs from Riga shares with us 15 traditional dishes you need to try on your next trip to Latvia.
It’s been said that God created the world in seven days, but not everyone knows that he didn’t mention a few details. At one time, God’s toes touched the shores of a white sand beach with pine trees in the distance. He knew what to call that land – Latvia.
Latvia is the beating heart of northeastern Europe. It’s situated on the shores of the Baltic sea, which provides Latvia with its pulsating vein of life – the river Daugava. The people living on these shores are called Latvians, and our ancestors loved this land dearly. The lakes, evergreen trees, fields of grain in summer, and golden leaves during autumn…it was something dear to hold on to.
They worried that such a wondrous land would be desirable to many strangers. “They’d surely love to put their feet up on our tables”, they thought. So, they asked God for advice, and he gave them hearty food to fill those tables. They thanked him because they knew that their bellies needed to be full to protect their precious home.
Nowadays, we love sharing those meals, whether it be with family, friends, guests, or strangers. Perhaps, you’re a stranger for now, but I hope you’ll be a friend after I share our cuisine’s stories.
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WHAT IS TRADITIONAL LATVIAN CUISINE?
All right, I admit it. I made that tale up. That’s just how I like to imagine it. But every tale has a part of truth to it. We truly think our land is so beautiful and generous that it could’ve been made only by God himself.
Latvians are creative, sturdy, and hearty people, and we love what our land can gift to us. We dance until we drop, we love until we’re dizzy, and we sure like to eat well.
Our creativity transcends into cooking too. It’s no accident that potatoes are called “second bread” in Latvia, as we know how to make many dishes from just a few things. The same goes for many other Latvian dishes, as you’ll see further on.
We love pork, fish, dairy, vegetables, berries, and anything made of flour. I could talk about the variety of Latvian cuisine for days, but I’d rather share our most beloved dishes first. Just imagining the scent of freshly-baked rye bread will make you bedazzled, and the relief of having cold soup on a hot summer’s day will make you forget about other refreshments.
I didn’t mention a tiny detail about the tale. God was actually so spellbound by the beauty of our land that he forgot to give us any recipes. So, we came up with a few ourselves!
MUST-TRY LATVIAN DISHES
1. Rupjmaize (Rye Bread)
A friend once jokingly told me – “What is it with Latvians eating rye bread? The Second World War is over! You can eat white bread now”. He had a point, though.
We’ve had some tough times in the past. Culturally, dark rye bread was a savior for our ancestors as it was fairly easy to make and very nutritious. I didn’t mention to my friend at the time that there was an irony to that statement. We love our rye bread so much that we would wage war if someone tried to take it away!
Rupjmaize or Latvian rye bread is a simplistic beauty that can be used in diverse ways. Take some rye flour, yeast, water, sugar, salt, and caraway seeds, and you’re ready to bake your own loaf.
But be wary! You’ll need a pair of strong hands to knead the dough. You wouldn’t want to arm wrestle Latvian women of the past, that’s for certain. But you’d surely love to try what we can make out of rye bread.
2. Maizes Zupa
If you too wondered why we love dark rye bread so much, bread soup is one of the answers. It’s a marvelous Latvian dessert that isn’t too sweet and won’t leave you with a toothache.
Latvian moms in the past had to make sure of that because there weren’t many dentists in the countryside. However, they loved their kids too much and still wanted to make them a treat after dinner.
What they came up with is maizes supa or Latvian rye bread soup (or is it rye bread pudding?) We love gathering berries and drying fruits for recipes just like this one. So, we decided to mix things and see what our taste buds say!
You’ll need soggy rye bread, sugar, water, cranberries, dried fruits, cinnamon, and whipped cream. If it seems these things don’t go together, let me tell you…there was nothing tastier during childhood summers in Latvia after playing outside with friends.
3. Aukstā Zupa
Summers…aren’t they getting hotter? Some Latvians think that we implemented a bottle deposit system embarrassingly late.
I think there are two good reasons why we don’t need to worry about contributing to climate change. Firstly, we have plenty of forests. Secondly, we don’t like air conditioning – we eat cold soup instead. Literally meaning “cold soup”, aukstā zupa has been the number one refreshment for Latvians for a long time, and it won’t change anytime soon.
Our mind is built in a way that when the temperature goes above 25° C, we miraculously find ourselves in the store looking for ingredients. Marinated or fresh beetroot, kefir, cucumbers, boiled eggs and potatoes, dill, spring onions, and horseradish. Sausage is optional.
The heat you feel from the boiling process will be immediately relieved after you put everything together and eat the soup in a bowl. Why shouldn’t we enjoy soup in the summer?
4. Frikadeļu Zupa
Got through summer in a breeze? Then autumn and winter must be approaching. We don’t worry about that too much, though. Latvians love soups, and meatball soup is one of them.
Grandmothers watched their grandchildren building snowmen and didn’t worry about them getting blue lips from the cold. They just made meatball soup! It’s the Latvian way of feeling hot in the winter.
Frikadeļu zupa or Latvian meatball soup is made with minced meat, potatoes, vegetables, and spices. During childhood, I had to quickly fish out the meatballs from the mix of potatoes and carrots. It’s a shame to admit, but I came to appreciate soups a lot more during adulthood only.
Maybe you’d like to correct my foolishness and make a bowl right now? Latvian meatball soup is delicious on its own, but it’s truly best when enjoyed with some dark rye bread and a dollop of sour cream.
5. Skābeņu Zupa
Don’t we all judge by looks? The pinnacle of shame of my culinary experience during childhood was skābeņu zupa or sorrel soup. Yes, Latvians have those.
Over time, I found myself putting sorrel soup in my top five favorite Latvian dishes. How can something so visually bizarre be so marvelously delicious? That’s beyond me, but as we know, Latvians know how to be versatile in the kitchen arts.
This delightful dish is made from Latvian-beloved smoked pork ribs, potatoes, eggs, spices, and sorrel. In the end, you’ll end up with a lovely bowl of bog green that tastes like a spoonful of heaven!
Try this dish and you’ll surely eat it to the last drop. Unlike me, who went to bed with a scolding, a full bowl, and an empty stomach.
This is the reason why no child in Latvia was afraid to go to bed with an empty stomach after a scolding. This traditional Livonian dish has been the cornerstone of a proper breakfast for hundreds of years.
Sometimes, I suspect that I got it served so much because my grandma wanted me to have extra energy for countryside chores. And that I did have!
Bukstin porridge is made from barley groats, potatoes, onions, bacon, dill, and a dash of sour cream. If that doesn’t sound like a combination that will give you all the calories for the day, then I don’t know what does.
7. Kartupeļu Pankūkas
Remember when I said potatoes are called “second bread” in Latvia? These potato pancakes are one of the reasons for that noble title.
Culturally, Latvians grew and stored potatoes in basements for hundreds of years because you could make anything from them. Mashed potatoes? Sure! Need to make a salad? Potato. Soup? Potato, potato, potato.
Kartupelu pankukas or Latvian potato pancakes are something that comes like a storm from a blue sky. At first, they’re so light, and you can eat them without noticing. Probably due to the crunchy taste!
But be aware not to eat too many. Served with sour cream, they’re very nutritious, and you’ll end up not being able to move and help out with preparing Christmas dinner.
8. Pelēkie Zirņi ar Speķi
This wonderful Christmas season… so peaceful, so quiet, and rife with seasonal Latvian food. You can almost hear the grey peas soaking in water overnight!
In the past, when Latvians couldn’t afford fancy Christmas dinners, grey peas with bacon were the traditional dish. And then, we realized that there’s nothing fancier and tastier, and that’s why it’s a traditional Christmas food to this day.
Pelēkie zirņi ar speķi is easy to make, and it only takes patience to watch the peas soak. Grey peas, bacon, fried onions, oil, spices, and a truckload of patience.
But that patience will pay off, especially if you’re a superstitious person! In Latvia, we believe you need to empty your plate to not shed a single tear in the upcoming year.
9. Štovēti Kāposti
Do you still have some space in your belly? Štovēti kāposti or Latvian stewed sauerkraut is another magnificent Christmas dish. The table would seem empty without it, no matter how full it was.
This recipe has been handed down from generation to generation and is sure to make every Latvian remember their childhood and time spent with their family. Every self-respecting Latvian has their own twist on stewed cabbage too.
Sauerkraut, pig fat, and sugar don’t encompass the whole essence of this Christmas dish. It’s something that everyone should try at least once.
However, it would be quite sly to give one extra shot of Riga Black Balsam to the Latvian granny who’s making stewed sauerkraut for you. Those kitchen secrets are nothing to sneeze at.
By now, your belly should already be full of Christmas delight. But you can’t just sip on Riga Black Balsam without having a light snack on top, trust me!
Latvian speck or lard patties is another Christmas dish made for snacking. It’s one of the lightest and puffiest pastries you’ll ever enjoy and one of the nine mandatory Christmas dishes.
Dough, lard, onion, sour cream, speck, and seasonings are all the ingredients you need to make your home smell like Christmas. However, I suggest not waiting until a holiday to try them. We make them throughout the year.
After all, Latvians traditionally owned livestock. What else are we supposed to make from the meat of a whole pig?
11. Karbonāde ar Kaulu
Latvians have always known how not to let any food go to waste. And since we’ve always grown livestock, we had to make sure that we learned how to cook every part of an animal. Bone-in pork chops are one of the finest meats you can try, and they were reserved for the top guests alongside pork loin.
To make this Latvian food favorite, you’ll need spices, butter, water, bullion, and bone-in pork chops. After a portion of these – often with a side of boiled potatoes – I never needed to wash my hands because I always licked my fingers clean. I suspect that you’ll do the same.
You didn’t think I was kidding when I said we were efficient, did you?
A Latvian dish that might seem controversial, asinsdesa is a type of blood sausage that’s been a delicacy since ancient Latgalian times. It’s nothing fancy since blood isn’t the finest part of a pig, but if you can get over the name and the ingredients, you’ll never forget its excellent taste.
Made from barley groats, lard, lingonberries, pig intestines, and blood, this Latvian sausage sounds like something out of a horror movie. Throw in the fact that we love to eat it with sugarless lingonberry jam, and you’ll think that we’ve lost our minds. Especially since we have a seashore for endless fishing!
13. Smoked Fish
“God save us from the plague, fire, and the Curonians.”
It’s an inscription found written inside a Danish church circa the 11th century. Thankfully, Curonians stopped being the scourge of the seas because the region of Courland started to raise more fishermen than fighters.
Of course, that influx of fish needed proper fish preparation methods. Smoked fish has been eaten in Latvia for centuries, and it’s still a beloved dish today.
There is no singular recipe for smoked fish that can be put above another, but my favorite would be smoked lamprey. If you ever come across a fishing village on the shores of Courland, then it’s a must-have.
14. Rupjmaizes Kārtojums
We’ve come full circle, dear reader. It’s difficult to make a top 15 list of Latvian dishes without mentioning rye bread at least several times.
A dessert so well-known it has its own Wikipedia page, rupjmaizes kārtojums or layered rye bread is every child’s dream dessert. Unlike rye bread soup, the ingredients aren’t mixed but layered. After a spoonful, you’ll experience a rainbow of flavors on your taste buds!
Rye breadcrumbs, jam, whipped cream, and cinnamon are all that you need to make this classic Latvian dessert. But don’t think it can’t be even more diverse. You can use many types of jam or even sprinkle chocolate on top instead of cinnamon.
We’ve talked about Christmas, but what about other holidays? On the summer solstice, Latvians celebrate “Jāņi”. It’s a magical holiday when Latvians jump over bonfires, drink beer, and look for the fern flower.
As a child, I wanted to look like the adults drinking beer, but I wasn’t allowed to, of course. So, while the adults were drinking beer, I drank kvass!
Kvass is made from malt extract, water, sugar, yeast, and – you guessed it – rye bread crusts. During childhood, Latvian kids knew it had a tiny bit of alcohol content, so we loved to pretend to be adults while drinking it.
Nowadays, you can buy kvass in the store, but would it be the real taste of Latvia?
FINAL THOUGHTS ON TRADITIONAL LATVIAN FOOD
By now, you’ve probably noticed a trend. There aren’t too many ingredients, but there’s so much variety.
Our Latvian ancestors have been through thick and thin in the past, and sometimes, food was scarce. Latvia is small but it has a fiercely beating heart, and that fire is still present in today’s Latvians. Resilience, patience, and the love of our mothers and grandmothers are the essence of our cuisine.
No matter if you take a bite of a potato pancake or have a sip of kvass, it’s not just the food you’re tasting. You’re also feeling the spirit of Latvia. Latvians feel it in their hearts! Hopefully, you’ll feel it too.
And no matter under which sky we may be, we never forget where we came from. So while gazing up into the sky and tasting our traditional dishes, put your ear to the ground and listen. Can you hear the thumping? It’s Latvia’s heartbeat calling for you.
Cover photo by Karlis Dambrans. Stock images via Shutterstock.