The most important tip I can give you on Finland local food, and the only one that will make you elevate from being a tourist to becoming a real traveler immersed in the local culture, is “Stay away from McDonalds“. When visiting Finland, there is awesome local food to try. Head to the local eateries too, and go where the locals go. For me, the food, wine and and even the water is part of the travel experience.
What to Eat in Finland
Finnish cuisine is heavily influenced by its neighbors, the main staples being potatoes and bread with various fish and meat dishes on the side. Milk or cream is traditionally considered an important part of the diet and is often an ingredient in foods and a drink, even for adults. Various milk products such as cheeses are also produced. While traditional Finnish food is famously bland, the culinary revolution that followed joining the EU has seen a boom in classy restaurants experimenting with local ingredients, often with excellent results. Seafood With tens of thousands of lakes and a long coastline, fish is a Finnish staple, and there’s a lot more on that menu than just salmon (lohi).
Specialities include: Baltic herring (silakka), a small, fatty and quite tasty fish available pickled, marinated, smoked, grilled and in countless other varieties Gravlax (“graavilohi”), a pan-Scandinavian appetizer of raw salted salmon Smoked salmon (savulohi), not just the cold, thinly sliced, semi-raw kind but also fully cooked “warm” smoked salmon Vendace (muikku), a speciality in eastern Finland, a small fish served fried, heavily salted and typically with mashed potatoes Other local fish to look out for include zander (kuha), an expensive delicacy, pike (hauki) and perch (ahven).
Meat dishes Reindeer stew (poronkäristys), a Lappish favorite Meatballs (lihapullat), served with mashed potatoes and lingonberry jam Karelian stew (karjalanpaisti), a heavy stew usually made from beef and pork (and optionally, lamb), carrots and onions, usually served with potatoes Liver casserole (maksalaatikko), consisting of chopped liver, rice and raisins cooked in an oven; it tastes rather different from what you’d expect (and not liver-y at all) Loop sausage (lenkkimakkara), a large, mildly flavored sausage; best when grilled and topped with a dab of sweet Finnish mustard (sinappi), and beer Meat balls (lihapullat, lihapyörykät) are as popular and tasty as in neighboring Sweden Reindeer (poro) dishes, especially sauteed reindeer shavings (poronkäristys, served with potato mash and lingonberries), not actually a part of the everyday Finnish diet but a tourist staple and common in the frigid North Swedish hash (“pyttipannu”), (originally from Sweden, Swedish: “pytt i panna”) a hearty dish of potatoes, onions and any meaty leftovers on hand fried up in a pan and topped with an egg Makkara traditional Finnish sausage. Affectionately called “the Finnish man’s vegetable” since the actual meat content may be rather low.
Milk products Cheese and other milk products are very popular in Finland. The most common varieties are mild hard cheeses like Edam and Emmental, but local specialities include: Aura cheese (aurajuusto), a local variety of blue cheese, also used in soups, sauces and as a pizza topping. Breadcheese (leipäjuusto or juustoleipä), a type of very mild-flavored grilled curd that squeaks when you eat it, best enjoyed warm with a dab of cloudberry jam Piimä, a type of buttermilk beverage, thick and sour Viili, a gelatinous, stretchy and sour variant of yoghurt Other dishes Karelian pie (karjalanpiirakka), a signature Finnish pastry Pea soup (hernekeitto), usually but not always with ham, traditionally eaten with a dab of mustard and served on Thursdays; just watch out for the flatulence! Karelian pies (karjalanpiirakka), an oval 7 by 10 cm baked pastry, traditionally baked with rye flour, containing rice porridge or mashed potato, ideally eaten topped with butter and chopped egg (munavoi) Porridge (puuro), usually made from oats (kaura), barley (ohra), rice (riisi) or rye (ruis) and most often served for breakfast Bread Bread (leipä) is served with every meal in Finland, and comes in a vast array of varieties.
Rye bread is the most popular bread in Finland. Typically Finnish ones include: hapankorppu, dry, crispy and slightly sour flatbread, occasionally sold overseas as “Finncrisp” limppu, catch-all term for big loaves of fresh bread näkkileipä, another type of dark, dried, crispy rye flatbread ruisleipä (rye bread), can be up to 100% rye and much darker, heavier and chewier than American-style rye bread; unlike in Swedish tradition, Finnish rye bread is typically unsweetened and thus sour and even bitter. rieska, unleavened bread made from wheat or potatoes, eaten fresh Seasonal and regional specialities Attack of the killer mushrooms The false morel (korvasieni) has occasionally been dubbed the “Finnish fugu”, as like the infamous Japanese pufferfish, an improperly prepared false morel can kill you.
Fortunately, it’s easily rendered safe by boiling (just don’t breathe in the fumes!), and prepared mushrooms can be found in gourmet restaurants and even canned. From the end of July until early September it’s worthwhile to ask for crayfish (rapu) menus and prices at better restaurants. It’s not cheap, you don’t get full from the crayfish alone and there are many rituals involved, most of which involve large quantities of ice-cold vodka, but it should be tried at least once. Or try to sneak onto a corporate crayfish party guestlist, places are extremely coveted at some. Around Christmas, baked ham is the traditional star of the dinner table, with a constellation of casseroles around it.
There are also regional specialties, including Eastern Finland’s kalakukko (a type of giant fish pie) and Tampere’s infamous blood sausage (mustamakkara). Around Easter keep an eye out for mämmi, a type of brown sweet rye pudding which is eaten with cream and sugar. It looks famously unpleasant but actually tastes quite good. Desserts An assortment of pulla straight from the oven For dessert or just as a snack, Finnish pastries abound and are often taken with coffee (see Drink) after a meal. Look for cardamom coffee bread (pulla), a wide variety of tarts (torttu), and donuts (munkki). In summer, a wide range of fresh berries are available, including the delectable but expensive cloudberry (lakka), and berry products are available throughout the year as jam (hillo), soup (keitto) and a type of gooey clear pudding known as kiisseli.
Finnish chocolate is also rather good, with Fazer products including their iconic Sininen (“Blue”) bar exported around the world. A more Finnish speciality is licorice (lakritsi), particularly the strong, salty kind known as salmiakki, which gets its unique (and acquired) taste from ammonium chloride. Places to eat Cold fish buffet at Liekkilohi, Savonlinna Finns tend to eat out only on special occasions, and restaurant prices are correspondingly expensive. The one exception is lunchtime, when thanks to a government-sponsored lunch coupon system company cafeterias and nearly every restaurant in town offers set lunches for around 8-9, usually consisting of a main course, salad bar, bread table and a drink. University cafeterias, many of which are open to all, are particularly cheap with meals in the 2-4 range for students, although without local student ID you will usually need to pay about 5-7.
There are also public cafeterias in office / administration areas that are open only during lunch hours on working days. While not particularly stylish and sometimes hard to find, those usually offer high-quality buffet lunch at a reasonable price (typically 8.40 in 2011). The cafe scene has quickly developed, especially since the 1990s and above all in Helsinki . The array of cakes and pastries is not perhaps as vast as in Central Europe, but the local special coffees (lattes, mochas etc.) are worth trying when it comes to the two big local coffee house chains: Wayne’s Coffee (originated in Sweden) and Robert’s Coffee (Finland).
You can now also find Starbucks in Finland. For dinner, you’ll be limited to generic fast food (pizza, hamburgers, kebabs and such) in the 5-10 range, or you’ll have to splurge over 20 for a meal in a “nice” restaurant. For eating on the move, look for grill kiosks (grilli), which serve sausages, hamburgers and other portable if not terribly health-conscious fare late into the night at reasonable prices. In addition to the usual hamburgers and hot dogs, look for meat pies (lihapiirakka), akin to a giant savoury doughnut stuffed with minced meat and your choice of sausage, fried eggs and condiments. Hesburger  is the local fast-food equivalent of McDonald’s, with a similar menu.
They have a “Finnish” interpretation of a few dishes, such as a sour-rye chicken sandwich. Of course most international fast food chains are present, especially McDonald’s, which offers many of their sandwich buns substituted with a sour-rye bun on request. The Finnish word for buffet is seisova pöytä (“standing table”), and while increasingly used to refer to all-you-can-eat Chinese or Italian restaurants, the traditional meaning is akin to Sweden’s smörgåsbord: a good-sized selection of sandwiches, fish, meats and pastries. It’s traditionally eaten in three rounds first the fish, then the cold meats, and finally warm dishes and it’s usually the first that is the star of the show.
Though expensive and not very common in a restaurant setting, if you are fortunate enough to be formally invited to a Finn’s home, they will likely have prepared a spread for their guest, along with plenty of coffee. Breakfast at better hotels is also along these lines and it’s easy to eat enough to cover lunch as well! If you’re really on a budget, you can save a considerable amount of money by self-catering. Ready-to-eat casseroles and other basic fare that can be quickly prepared in a microwave can be bought for a few euros in any supermarket. Note that you’re usually expected to weigh and label any fruits or vegetables yourself (bag it, place it on the scale and press the numbered button. The correct number can be found from the price sign), and green signs mean possibly tastier but certainly more expensive organic (luomu) produce. One should be aware that more often than not, cheap food contains disproportionate amounts of fat.
At restaurants, despite the high prices, portions tend to be quite small, at least when compared to USA and Canada, and even many European countries. Dietary restrictions Traditional Finnish cuisine relies heavily on meat and fish, but vegetarianism (kasvissyönti) is increasingly popular and well-understood, and will rarely pose a problem for travellers. Practically all restaurants offer vegetarian options, often marked with a “V” on menus. Two ailments commonly found among Finns themselves are lactose intolerance (laktoosi-intoleranssi, inability to digest the milk sugar lactose) and coeliac disease (keliakia, inability to digest gluten).
In restaurants, lactose-free selections are often tagged “L” (low-lactose products are sometimes called “Hyla” or marked with “VL”), while gluten-free options are marked with “G”. However, hydrolyzed lactose (HYLA brand) milk or lactose-free milk drink for the lactose intolerant is widely available, which also means that a lactose-free dish is not necessarily milk-free. Allergies are quite common among Finnish people, too, so restaurant workers are usually quite knowledgeable on what goes into each dish and often it is possible to get the dish without certain ingredients if specified. Kosher and halal food are rare in Finland and generally not available outside very limited speciality shops and restaurants catering to the tiny Jewish and Islamic communities. Watch out for minced meat dishes like meatballs, which very commonly use a mix of beef and pork. The Jewish Community of Helsinki  runs a small kosher deli in Helsinki.
What to Drink in Finland
Thanks to its thousands of lakes, Finland has plenty of water supplies and tap water is always potable (In fact, never buy bottled water if you can get tap water!). The usual soft drinks and juices are widely available, but look out for a wide array of berry juices (marjamehu), especially in summer, as well as Pommac, an unusual soda made from (according to the label) “mixed fruits”, which you’ll either love or hate. Coffee and tea Finns are the world’s heaviest coffee (kahvi) drinkers, averaging 3-4 cups per day. Most Finns drink it strong and black, but sugar and milk for coffee are always available and the more European variants such as espresso and cappuccino are becoming all the more common especially in the bigger cities.
The biggest towns have had French-style fancy cafés for quite some time and modern competitors, like Wayne’s or Robert’s Coffee, are springing up in the mix. For a quick caffeine fix, you can just pop into any convenience store, which will pour you a cuppa for 2 or so. Tea hasn’t quite caught on in quite the same way, although finding hot water and a bag of Lipton Yellow Label won’t be a problem. For brewed tea, check out some of the finer downtown cafés or tea rooms. Dairy In Finland some people like to drink milk (maito) as an accompaniment to food at home or at the cafeteria at work or school.
The most popular beverage is water, though. Another popular option is piimä, or buttermilk. Viili, a type of curd, acts like super-stretchy liquid bubble gum but is similar to plain yogurt in taste. It is traditionally eaten with cinnamon and sugar on top. Fermented dairy products help stabilize the digestion system, so if your system is upset, give them a try. Alcohol Chilling out at the Arctic Icebar, Helsinki Alcohol is very expensive in Finland compared to most countries (though not to its Nordic neighbours Sweden and Norway), although low-cost Estonia’s entry to the EU has forced the government to cut alcohol taxes a little. Still, a single beer will cost you closer to 4-5 in any bar or pub, or 1 and up in a supermarket.
While beer and cider are available in any supermarket or convenience store (until 9 PM), the state monopoly Alko is your sole choice for wine or anything stronger. The legal drinking age is 18 for milder drinks, while to buy hard liquor from Alko you need to be 20. ID is usually requested from all young-looking clients. Some restaurants have higher age requirements, up to 30 years, but these are their own policies and are not always followed, especially at more quiet times. Surprisingly enough, the national drink is not Finlandia Vodka, but its local brand Koskenkorva or Kossu in common speech. However, the two drinks are closely related: Kossu is 38% while Finlandia is 40%, and Kossu also has a small amount of added sugar, which makes the two drinks taste somewhat different.
There are also many other vodkas (viina) on the market, most of which taste pretty much the same, but look out for Ström, “The Spirit of Santa”, a Finnish attempt at a super-premium vodka. A local speciality is Salmiakki-Kossu or Salmari, prepared by mixing in salty black salmiakki licorice, whose taste masks the alcohol behind it fearfully well. Add in some Fisherman’s Friend menthol cough drops to get Fisu (“Fish”) shots, which are even more lethal. In-the-know hipsters opt for Pantteri (“Panther”), which is half and half Salmari and Fisu. Other classic shots are Jaloviina (Jallu) cut brandy and Tervasnapsi “tar schnapps” with a distinctive smoke aroma. Beer (olut or kalja) is also very popular, but Finnish beers are mostly nearly identical, mild lagers: common brands are Lapin Kulta, Karjala, Olvi, Koff and Karhu.
Pay attention to the label when buying: beers branded “I” are inexpensive but has low alcohol content, while “III” and “IV” are stronger and more expensive. In normal shops you will not find any drinks with more than 4.7% alcohol. You may also encounter kotikalja (lit. “home beer”), a dark brown beer-like but very low-alcohol beverage. Imported beers are available in bigger grocery stores, most pubs and bars, and Czech beers in particular are popular and only slightly more expensive. In recent years, some microbreweries (Laitila, Stadin panimo, Nokian panimo etc.) have been gaining foothold with their domestic dark lagers, wheat beers and ales.
The latest trend is ciders (siideri). Most of these are artificially flavored sweet concoctions which are quite different from the English or French kinds, although the more authentic varieties are gaining market share. The ever-popular gin long drink or lonkero (lit. “tentacle”), a prebottled mix of gin and grapefruit soda, tastes better than it sounds and has the additional useful property of glowing under ultraviolet light. At up to 610 kcal/liter it also allows to skip dinner, leaving more time for drinking. Different variations of lonkero have become quite popular as well, for example karpalolonkero, which is made from gin and cranberry soda.
Remember that most long drinks you buy from a supermarket are made by fermenting, and if you wan’t to get real mixed drink you’ll have to look for them in Alko. During the winter don’t miss glögi, a type of spiced mulled wine served with almonds and raisins which can easily be made at home. The bottled stuff in stores is usually alcohol free, although it was originally made of old wine and Finns will very often mix in some wine or spirits. In restaurants, glögi is served either alcohol-free, or with 2cl vodka added. Fresh, hot glögi can, for example, be found at the Helsinki Christmas market.
Quite a few unusual liquors (likööri) made from berries are available, although they’re uniformly very sweet and usually served with dessert. Cloudberry liquor (lakkalikööri) is worth a short even if you don’t like the berries fresh. Homemade spirits: you have been warned! More common in rural areas, illegal and frequently distilled on modified water purification plants – which are subject to import control laws nowadays – anecdotical evidence suggests that those are occasionally played as a prank on unsuspecting foreigners.
Note that “normal” alcohol slows the metabolism of poisonous methanol and thus acts as an antidote. Politely decline the offer, especially if still sober. Finally, two traditional beverages worth looking for are mead (sima), an age-old wine-like brew made from brown sugar, lemon and yeast and consumed particularly around May’s Vappu festival, and sahti, a type of unfiltered, usually very strong beer often flavored with juniper berries (an acquired taste).
Other local foods, or drinks that you recommend? Please add and comment.