Food glorious food?

One of the best things about travelling is discovering the local cuisine in every country you visit. France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey to name but a few – take your taste buds on a trip to any of these places and you won’t be disappointed. Then you arrive in Latvia – home of grey peas and lard. You may have to drag your taste buds off the plane, kicking and screaming.

Unfortunately for me, I didn’t know what ‘zirņi ar speķi’ was when I first got here, and the friend I was with couldn’t think of what the English word for ‘speķi’ was. But we were in LIDO restaurant (after a few beers and on the way to a few more) so I was feeling brave. It looked harmless enough – sort of like a dry stew – and at around 1 lat for a bowl, I figured I couldn’t go wrong. Famous last words.

So there I was, chewing away, growing increasingly confused by the texture of the cubed ‘potatoes’. I mentioned this to my friend who gaily explained ‘Oh, they’re not potatoes, that’s the speķi’. On closer inspection, I realised I was actually eating cubed lard. After muddling on for a little longer, trying to avoid the lard and pick out the good stuff, my efforts were eventually rewarded by the gravel-like grey peas lurking at the bottom of the bowl. I gave up.

As national dishes go, grey peas and lard isn’t great, but if you’ve got a curious mind, it does raise a couple of questions.

1. Why would anybody willingly eat lard? I remember my summers in West Cork on my granny’s farm when I was a kid. A massive lump of ham would be boiled, the fat cut off and given to the dog. Topped off with potato skins, carrot peelings and anything else the humans wouldn’t eat, then some milk would be sloshed over it to help the mountain of skins and fat go down a little easier. (Bear in mind that this was back in the day, before dogs ate better than people.) Lassie eventually died after squeezing out through the gaps in the gate and being hit by a car. A cynical person might think that this was a deliberate act on the poor dog’s part. Especially as we went through about 8 ‘Lassies’ over the course of my childhood…

2. What exactly are grey peas? I’d certainly never heard of them before I moved to Latvia. Do they start off as normal, happy, green peas in another country, then as soon as they hit the Latvian cold, they shrivel, harden and turn grey? I know the Latvian winters have this effect on me so I guess it’s possible.

In general, meat isn’t of a particularly high quality in Latvia. Take sliced ham, for instance – something as simple as making a ham and cheese toastie can take up to 20 minutes. You have to start by cutting off the fat around the edges. Then cut out the fat that is meandering its way through the ‘meat’. If you’re lucky, you’ll end up with a few irregularly shaped circles, triangles and squares which you then have to arrange in such a fashion as to cover the surface of the slice of bread. The result looks a little like Frankenstein’s monster so add some tasteless cheddar to cover the meaty mess, place under the grill and wait until the cheese sweats and wilts. Remove from the grill and enjoy! (I might copyright this.)

Sliced bread here is also largely inedible unless toasted. As a result, I have adopted a rather Marie Antoinette approach to my eating, as cakes are something Latvians do very well.

Other tasty treats include cold beetroot soup, black bread, black bread ice-cream and pickled mushrooms. Hungry yet? Before you book your plane ticket, make sure that you like dill and curds. I don’t think I’ve come across a dish yet that doesn’t contain one or the other. And as someone whose only previous dealings with curds came from a nursery rhyme, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that they’re actually quite tasty. Little Miss Muffet knew her stuff – arachnophobia aside.

Tea is also very popular here. But my unadventurous Irish choice of black tea with milk and sugar is usually met with great disappointment. Fruity tea is big here. While trying to stave off a cold, a Russian will drink vodka with pepper, an Irish person will drink hot whiskey, a Latvian will drink fruity tea. After pretending they didn’t have black tea, some of my students have proudly presented me with a cup of tea with things floating around in it and twigs sticking out of it. Seemingly it’s very good for you, but I don’t really understand how a tea that can take your eye out can be in any way good for your health.

And finally, back to the aforementioned LIDO Recreation Centre, a must for any visitor to Riga. They have an incredible selection of food and all at very reasonable prices. Their serving approach, however, calls to mind my mother’s motto as she heaped dinners onto our groaning plates – ‘sure it all goes down the same way’.

My Lonely Planet guidebook has this to say ‘If Latvia and Disney Land had a lovechild, it would be the LIDO Atpūtas Centrs – an enormous wooden palace dedicated to the country’s coronary-inducing cuisine…’ I guess that makes it Disney Lard then?

Mmmm...

Mmmm…

Labu apetīti!

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About BerLinda

Adjusting to life in Germany, after living in Latvia for four years. Should be easy, right?
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57 Responses to Food glorious food?

  1. Anna says:

    That surgery you perform over a slice of bacon reminds me of myself in my childhood. There was not a thing more horrible than fat in your meet. The worst thing is, that it’s not just around the corners, but also goes trough the whole slice, so here I understand you very well. (not to mention any sausage that had visible pieces of fat in it – they all had to go too 🙂 But you can also get a “karbonāde” piece that has only a thin layer of fat on one edge and is easy to cut off. But unfortunately nowadays all the meat you can buy in the market or supermarkets is…filled with water, salt and liquid smoke (I do not dare to imagine what else is there…), so it’s better to stay away from that. If you are lucky enough to become the happy owner of a home made smoked piece, it most probably will contain more fat than meat 😦

    • Expat Eye says:

      Seems the standard of everything is going down these days! I have some Irish sliced ham at the moment – it’s probably still filled with water, salt, etc but at least it requires less surgery! 🙂

  2. TK says:

    Well, first of all why grey peas with lard became a traditional Latvian food is because of poverty, I mean long time ago when people were starving and looking for how to get sated, when they didn’t have enough provision they ate what they had, that is how that dish was appeared. The same is in all countries, do you think Asians really liked insects, they started to eat them because it was the only food for them. By the way Irish stew is the same dish, most probably created in poverty times, proper country food. You has showed very narrow assortment of food in that topic, but what about smoked fishes, chicken, sausages, wide assortment of cheeses, etc… At least that everything is more or less natural then filled with chemicals food in Ireland and UK. It`s anyways better to have food like that then Fish`n`Chips or Chineses on every corner, right? Every one is eating what he got used to eat and at some point I understand you, cause you have absolutely different point of view on food in Ireland. And I usually say, I am not a garbage bin to eat a trash 🙂 At least our nation is more or less healthy!

  3. Anna says:

    I didnt realize that ‘salo’ (bacon lard) is popular up north. It’s huge in Ukraine and esp. southern parts of Russia. I have never actually had it (though plenty of people around me have) bc I cannot stomach the concept.

    • Expat Eye says:

      I’m with you on that one! I like my meat to have more meat than fat 😉 Have you spent most of today reading all of my posts?? I’m honoured!! 🙂

      • Anna says:

        Lol, yup, it’s raining all day long, I’m still sick (Day 8 of The Plague) but going back to work tomorrow, figured it’s as good time as any to cuddle up with a couple of pints and some good reads 🙂 Yours are really fantastic – very clean (narratively) and lively, and hilarious! Though, to be honest, you’re not ‘selling’ Latvia very well 😉

      • Expat Eye says:

        Really? I’m still amazed that the tourist board hasn’t contacted me 😉 Hope you feel better tomorrow!

  4. Mompreneur says:

    Had a portion of good laugh! 🙂 Actually grey pees and bread ice-cream are not the only weird products in Latvia. There are also birch tree juice and aspic that Latvian drink/eat a lot and foreigners usually try to avoid. 🙂 Some other interesting products are also listed here: http://www.traveling365.com/2013/06/travel-to-riga-top-10-latvian-products-to-try-out/ Good to check out to know what to expect when traveling to Latvia 🙂

    • Expat Eye says:

      To my shame, I still haven’t tried the bread ice-cream but bread and ice-cream just don’t seem to go together! I’ve had birch juice and actually quite liked it! Thanks for the tips! Linda.

  5. robchiks says:

    LOL! Made me chuckle:) As a latvian living away from beloved Riga for about 8 years in the middle old blueflagged allegiance I once had to import proper grey peas over the mail.

  6. Nice post, I enjoyed reading it!
    Latvian national cuisine might seem quite poor, as it actually is so. (because of history). So, when our grandfathers killed a pork, they used all- ALL meet, what was possible to use, in order to feed more empty stomacs (pig snout, ears, liver, fat, ecc), and made various dishes out of these ingredients.

    And actually.. the same has been done in South of Italy, and still is.
    The pont is that out of the same main ingredients (i.e. pork) different cultures are making different food.
    About bbq and Midsummer festival- this year take chicken šašliks. It is better and without any fat!

    I suggest you to try other “benefits” of Latvia – salmon for example. You can find it fresh, for, comparingly with other EU contries, cheep price. But don’t buy it in big supermarkets like RIMi, MAXIMA ecc. Go to Central Market and take some Latvian speaking person with you. When you get home with juicy,orange, frech peaces of fish, squeeze a lemon over them and put rozmarin, and put in an owen. That is what my bf thinks is typical Latvian cuisine and he loves it. I am sure you will do, too! 🙂

    Looking forward for the next posts! :))

  7. Liene says:

    I really enjoyed your previous posts, but this one left me a bit confused. I lived in Ireland for a while and what I notices was that most Irish don’t really like trying new things when it comes to cuisine.
    Also I wanted to ask you – which national cuisine is your favourite? and, despite the pink colour, did you life the taste of cold beetroot soup? In a hot summers day, when the last thing on your mind is food, this soup is fantastic.

    Taking in account the history of the country, it is logical that the cuisine is a mixture of different traditions, but there are some foods that you probably haven’t tried, therefore you didn’t mention them. For example – sklandu rauši.
    The following homepage has some recipes that you might want to try:
    http://latinst.lv/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/The_Cuisine_of_Latvia.pdf

    Because of the harsh winters our food is very seasonal. Besides, one of the main aspects of Latvian cuisine is the organic ingredients that many Latvians grow in their own gardens. You have been here for three years, if I understand correctly, have you tried pancakes with honey and fresh berries from the garden, or berries from the forest? In one of your previous posts you asked, why anybody would like to pick berries in the forest, if you can buy them in a shop. The answer is – the taste. If you haven’t tried, I’d suggest you to do so this year.

    I don’t know about fruity teas, but herbal teas are quite popular here. You don’t need to keep the stems in your cup. Just take them out and drink your tea, They are lovely with honey. And there are so many of them. If you would like to have some more information on the subject, feel free to ask me.

    • Expat Eye says:

      Hi Liene, thank you very much for all the tips! I’ll have a look at those recipes and may drag my lazy Irish ass to the forest this summer to pick berries!

      I really like the food in all the countries I mentioned and also Mexican; Belgian food is also really good. And Polish actually – in a hearty, farmer’s feed sort of way!

      Sorry to say, I didn’t like the taste of beetroot soup – I think I’ll stick to ice-cream on a hot summer’s day – if it ever stops snowing!! Thanks again for your reply – it was very informative. Linda.

      • Or you can stay the same lazy and just buy berries from some cute, old lady in a Riga Central Market (behind Stockmann) or Matisa street market (Near Matīsa iela). That way, you will give some income to old lady and save your time! 🙂

      • Expat Eye says:

        That sounds like a much better idea – and I get to feel charitable at the same time 😉

    • nbr903 says:

      I’ve just had ‘sklandu rausi’ explained to me. It sounds very….er…..interesting! I’ll be pleased to hear your opinion after you’ve tried it!

      • Expat Eye says:

        Carrots in pastry? Sounds harmless enough… know where I can find them cos I’m not going to be making them!

      • Antuanete says:

        Sometimes you can buy sklandrauši in pastry shops, I have seen them in Elvi and Top! too, but not everywhere. When there are seasonal markets in Doma square and Esplanāde, usually some vendors carry sklandrauši too. It’s traditional food in Kurzeme, Western Latvia, therefore in Central and Eastern Latvia rarely baked or sold. Actually, classic sklandrauši is something people love or hate, because they have combination of sweet and savory flavor. But nowadays sklandrauši that are sold in pastry shops or markets are more on sweet side, so try to find and taste them!

        About cold beetroot soup – I don’t like it either (because of beets), but during spring and summer season you can find white cold soup too, which is about the same dish, but without beets. Really good in hot summer days! (if only they will come, which seems almost unbelievable, if you look in calendar and then outside window :))

      • Expat Eye says:

        When it snowed again last night, I nearly cried! Supposed to be 15 degrees this weekend – I’ll believe it when I see it! I’ll keep an eye out for sklandu rausi – thanks for the info! 😉

  8. astrameklere says:

    Poor Linda, Lido serves the worst, fatty food that I’ve ever had. Prices are too high for their quality, mostly visitors and tourists go to have food here. 🙂 LV has very few “national” dishes, because mostly it is a mix of German / Russian cuisine. If you want something modern and still Latvian, go to Biblioteka No 1, Kalku varti or Vincents. 🙂

  9. Antuanete says:

    You will not believe this, but in 1930ies Latvia supplied enormous amounts (proportional to another exported goods) of bacon (and butter) to Western Europe, including Great Britain. But I guess that these bacon pigs were specially raised so meat met bacon criteria better than today, when proper bacon (by English standards) is very hard to find. I wonder why you have problems with separating ham and fat, because there are lots and lots of ham in shops which have very little fat, though most of them are “artificial” – treated with nitrites (to keep color), boiled and then smoked (but it’s the same as ham everywhere). To get taste of real smoked ham or bacon you need to know which brands to buy, and often they can be found only in market.

    Those grey peas are separate species and are born that way 🙂 Historically, green peas have been consumed fresh when they are in season (we call them “sugar peas” as they are quite sweet) whereas grey pees can be dried and stored during the winter, like beans. Canned green peas have appeared in our shops during Soviet time, and frozen green peas in winter – only lately. To your relief, I can assure that most Latvians eat grey peas with cubed bacon only in Christmas and New Years eve as a traditional dish, and very rarely as everyday food.

  10. John says:

    Actually there are quite a few decent places around Riga to eat, the Korean place Soraksans in the old town, Tokio sushi, dada, steiku haoss (pricey, but decent steaks) and the Indian Raja. Dare I say it, but if you don’t mind interminable waits for food, Cili pizza is not all that bad quality wise. There is a Russian Lido, a bit further down Maskavas Iela, which does very decent and cheap food with a more Russian twist, ask a local about it. For ham, you really can’t go wrong going round the corner from New H into the shopping centre on Dzirnavu Street. On the ground floor in front of the Rimi there’s a Spanish shop which sells pretty decent ham. Not as good as the Jamon Iberico or Bellota that you’ll get in Spain but better than the local crap.

    • Expat Eye says:

      Will check out that Spanish shop – you mean Galerija Riga? I’m quite close to there most days! Didn’t know about the Russian Lido – good to know! There are some really nice restaurants here, it’s true, but most of them are based on foreign cuisine. There’s a lovely new Indian place called Spicy Affair – the food is amazing!

  11. Linda you never disappoint to make my day full of smiles while reading your blog entires 🙂 I can almost imagine you taking through that innocent piece of sliced ham with just a little bit of fat on top or in the middle 😀 It reminded me of my late grandparents. Back in my childhood they had a small farm, which by today’s standards would be considered all ‘green’ and natural, and they quite naturally grew their own bacon, chicken, etc., and one of the criteria to tell good bacon from not so good was the wideness of lard on top of meat. Anything less than 4 fingers in wide would result in comment that ‘Nowadays pigs are all wrong, they even cannot get properly fat’. How’s that for fat?
    On the side note, I think those grey peas might actually be chickpeas, and they’re not supposed to be green IMO 😉

    • Expat Eye says:

      4 fingers of fat?! My god! Chickpeas might explain it although I do kind of like my cold, shivering pea theory as well!! Glad I added a few smiles to your day! 😉

  12. Bob Lewis says:

    Right on the ball again, Linda! All of us seem to have to learn the hard way when we get here!
    I’m not sure that there is such a thing as Latvian ham or bacon. There is lots and lots of ‘pig-meat’ – far too much – but none of it, so far as I can tell is cured in the way that bacon should be. It might be smoked, or squashed flat, but not cured! We’re a lot nearer to Denmark than Britain is, but no Danish bacon ever appears here, worse luck. The nearest approach seems to be some salty Italian stuff at 4 times the price that bacon should be! Ah well! We can dream of bacon butties…..!

  13. Aggie says:

    Speķi, it`s fat from bacon… the same thing… and all that combination you have to eat at Christmas… that`s your tears for previous year…

  14. traveller says:

    I’ll have the cubed lard with pickled mushrooms, please! Mmm, yum.

    • Expat Eye says:

      Would you like a shovelful of dill with that madam? 🙂

      • traveller says:

        Dill goes extremely well with lard. I admit that living in a country that uses neither has possibly contributed to my romanticised memory of their awesomeness:)

      • Expat Eye says:

        My god, you were serious?!

      • traveller says:

        I was:) I know how you feel about dill but how about a dash of Liebster? I reckon it goes particularly well with peas so I nominated you on my blog, hope that’s alright.

      • Expat Eye says:

        It’s more than alright! It’s fantastic! Thank you so much! I actually don’t mind dill but I feel sorry for those who do! My ex-boss hated it and it’s pretty much unavoidable here!

      • Expat Eye says:

        Do I need to do anything? I see you’re answering questions etc… this is my first nomination so I’m a bit clueless! 😉

      • traveller says:

        You need to answer my questions, write 11 things about yourself and then write another set of 11 questions for those you nominate. I didn’t write any new questions as I liked those from Princess Orchid.

      • Expat Eye says:

        I think I’ll do the same then! Will be in a few days though! I’ll let you know when I do it! Thanks again! 🙂

      • Expat Eye says:

        Done! Thanks again! That was fun!

      • traveller says:

        Great read! I liked how you assured your readers I wasn’t your mother haha:) Further proof is the fact that I could never fall in a freezer (more likely be unable to spot it with that top shelf blocking my view)

      • Expat Eye says:

        That’s a problem I’ll never have! I could do with you around when I need to reach stuff on the top shelf! I have to wait for a random Latvian at the moment and then point and gesture 😉

  15. Yeah, you should get on that copywrite asap. Latvian Lunches for the Brave Stomach. And we never even discussed why its pink!??

    • Expat Eye says:

      Beetroot + kefirs (a type of fermented milk that’s also hugely possible here!). Even though it’s all very natural, I think there’s still something a bit weird about pink food. And it tastes as good as it looks…Latvian Lunches by Linda TM – I like it. 😉

  16. Ah. “Speck” is bacon in German… very fatty bacon, though, with hardly any ‘meat’ component. Never liked it 😦
    People give me evil stares here in Spain when I pull the excess fat off their holy ham…
    Oh, I do hate fatty meat.
    Cakes, on the other hand…!!!

    • Expat Eye says:

      I am a BIG cake fan! I do the same with the meat here. For their biggest festival (midsummer), people walk around eating lumps of pork from the barbeque – I spend more time burning my hands trying to pick off the fatty bits. There’s usually very little left when I’m done!

  17. the beginning of your post reminded me of an experience I had in Madrid. As I finished off a bowl of soup my friend pointed out the remains of the pig foot that flavored my soup.

    I do enjoy me some beetroot soup!

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