A Taste of Latvia: Popular Latvian Dishes
Upon arriving to Latvia, I was unsure what to expect in terms of gastronomy, especially as a vegetarian. However, I have been delighted by the wide range of dishes that the country boasts, and the fantastic both independent and chain restaurants which serve them. In this article, I will delve into the world of Latvian cuisine, and hopefully will inspire you to step outside of your comfort zone and try, or even have a go at cooking, a taste of Latvia.
Pelēkie zirņi ar speķi (Grey Peas with Bacon)
This soup is the national dish of Latvia due to the rich history behind the dish, dating back to the 18th century. The dish became popular as the ingredients were healthy, cheap and could be preserved for the cold winter months. The peas could be dried when harvested in summer, and the bacon could be sourced at any time, then cured. Grey peas are uncommon in most other countries apart from the Baltics, but they are comparable to chickpeas, and are high in protein.
This protein rich dish helped workers through the day, and became so popular it is rare not to find it at a Christmas meal.
To cook this dish, you will need grey peas, a cured meat (preferably bacon), onion, salt and pepper. All of these ingredients are relatively cheap to buy and easy to source.
However, if you would like to try this dish without the preparation, Lido serves it for less than two euros. It is hard to walk down a street in Riga without stumbling upon a Lido restaurant. My personal favourite is a stone’s throw from the school on Krišjāņa Barona Iela 11. This restaurant boasts a wide variety of reasonably priced dishes, catering for all kinds of dietary requirements. The interior is also astounding with a stream running through it churned by miniature watermills. You will probably stumble across some hungry Liden and Denz students there too!
Kartupeļu pankūka (Potato Pancakes)
When I first started learning Russian, I distinctly remember seeing ‘potato pancakes’ in my textbook. Coming from England where the only pancakes we have are either American or crepes, this seemed somewhat strange to me. However, after being explained they were reminiscent of hashbrowns, they made more sense, and I simply had to try them. They are very popular in Latvia, and are even the national dish of Belarus, Ukraine, and Slovakia.
Potato pancakes are usually served as the main part of the dish with a salad, vegetables, or meat. They are made from ground potato, flour, and a binding agent such as egg or apple sauce. They can be flavoured with onions and a wide range of seasonings.
The majority of restaurants, chain or independent, will have these as a side dish or main course.
Although today we see potato pancakes as a delicious, albeit unhealthy dish, they were once reserved for peasants in the 1800’s. After a bad harvest, peasants in Eastern Europe had to turn to potatoes for all their meals as they were the only crop that survived. They cultivated a variety of recipes from potatoes such as soups and salads, but these pancakes were so delicious they lasted the test of time.
Pelmeņi originated from Russia but have since been adopted into Latvian cuisine. They are dumplings filled with pork, lamb, beef, fish, or mushrooms that swim in a broth. The original Udmurt recipe’s fillings consist of 45% beef, 35% mutton and 20% pork. Sour cream is usually served alongside them, as what would be a Latvian dish without sour cream?!
The name translates to ‘ear bread’ due to their size and shape. Their origins are disputed as to whether they came from Siberia or from China carried by the Mongols. The spices that are required to make these do not originate from Eastern Europe which further corroborates the Chinese origin theory. Wherever they originated from, they are now undoubtedly part of ‘traditional’ Latvian gastronomy.
If you would like to taste these dumplings with their fascinating history it is hardly difficult to do so. Many restaurants are simply called ‘Pelmeņi’ which serve a wide variety of these dumplings. Smaller, Russian-owned restaurants, such as Pasaka, also serve a more traditional version of these with many different flavours.
This blog was brought to you by Emily Gray, currently studying Russian at Liden and Denz in Riga
These images were taken from Pexels