It is midsummer in Finland. Or rather today it's midsummer eve. Midsummer or Juhannus is a big thing in Finland. There's a mass exodus to cabins and the traditional way to celebrate is to get so drunk that you fall into any one of Finland's numerous lakes while having a wee and never come out again.
As in most countries, when there's something to celebrate there's generally some kind of traditional food to accompany it, and it's usually weird. Since I'm often the only foreign person present, Finns like to make me taste all the weirdest, most traditional food they can find, food that sometimes not even Finns themselves can stomach. I know that this is fun for them, because they grin while I'm tasting the food and stare intently to see if I'll throw it up or spit it out. It appears to be some kind of initiation ritual - if I can eat the food and keep a relatively straight face then I am accepted as one of the family. I have culinary sisu. I am definitely NOT trying to say that Finnish food is bad. No, I love Finnish food. But as we know from my home country with its jellied eels and Iceland with its fermented shark, the most traditional food is often the oddest. Below is a list of food-related challenges I have had to undertake:
Salmiakki isn't associated with any holiday but like the Kalevala and perkele it is a national symbol. It's NH4Cl, or ammonium chloride. You may know it as salty liquorice and it is brilliant to take home as a souvenir and make people eat it while giving them the impression that it's a national delicacy and that Finland will actually be offended if they don't like it. Most people I've given salmiakki to try have said that at first it tastes foul. There have been many times when, motivated to like ALL things Finnish I've eaten a piece of salmiakki and then had to spit it out mid-chew because it's disgusting. Eventually after much willpower I got used to salmiakki and now quite enjoy it, though I don't usually crave it. Difficult to comprehend as it is, Finnish people on the whole love salmiakki. It's all over the sweet aisle in supermarkets and there's salmiakki flavoured vodka, ice cream, chocolate and even pizza.
2) Easter - mämmi
Yeaaaah it's Easter and that means chocolate eggs and sweeeets! Or so you think. In Finland, chances are that you're going to eat Mämmi. Mämmi is made of rye malt and some other fairly uninteresting stuff, but the tradition is to ignore the generally sweet, yummy pasha eaten by orthodox Finns and go for a bowl of mämmi with cream and sugar:
The first time I tried mämmi my then-boyfriend Ari told me to just "take a spoonful and eat it". This was bad advice. It took me about a month to get the mämmi down. It was probably only the next Easter that I was enlightened as to the practice of adding sugar and milk or cream. Much better =) Personally I think it tastes like weetabix, which I rather like. Just so you know what you're missing out on when you eat mämmi, here's a picture of pasha:
(the picture is from soppakellari.blogspot.com, if you're the owner: hi, if you don't want me to use this pic, let me know :))
3) Christmas - lipeäkala
Lipeäkala is made by taking an otherwise perfectly good piece of cod, immersing it in cold water for days on end, then by adding lye for 2 days. Lye has a pH of 11 or 12, and the fish swells and its protein content decreases by 50%. Yummy! At this point it's currently poisonous, so you'll have to just try to contain yourself and wait while it sits in cold water for another few days becoming marginally less poisonous. the result is something that looks like cod, behaves like jelly and tastes like an eggy fart. What a brilliant way to exact revenge on cod, should you be holding an odd kind of grudge. I would show you a picture, but it's fairly uninteresting. You might as well google cod.
4) Juhannus - hera
This one was new to me and inspired this post. i had sailed through the last 4 years blissfully unaware of hera until two days ago when I arrived at my boyfriend's parents' house and boyfriend's mum asked boyfriend's dad to go and see if there was any cheese soup at the parish. Cheese soup, I thought, that sounds nice. Why does boyfriend's dad look repulsed? I decided to go along with boyfriend's dad to pick up some of this "cheese soup", or hera. It smelt nice, sort of like ambrosia rice pudding. Boyfriend's dad assured me it doesn't look or taste anything like rice pudding. Old ladies were putting huge vats of milk into huge buckets of hot water, and they told us to come back on Juhannus eve to see if there was any left over. Cheese soup was in hot demand.
On the way home, boyfriend's dad explained to me that the cheese soup is made by boiling milk with rennet to curdle milk and make whey. The cheese soup contains big, hard lumps of curd floating in what I think is whey. It's like eating funny tasting tofu in kind-of-rice pudding flavoured water.
I took about two or three lumps of curd and it took me about 15 minutes this morning to eat them. But I did it, I have culinary sisu, and I have been accepted into this Juhannus celebration. Boyfriend and boyfriend's dad did not try the hera, which means that I am a kova jätkä.
Happy midsummer :)