Over the past few months I have been interviewing all kinds of interesting people regarding various topics like restaurant culture during the Soviet occupation of Estonia, what meals were cooked at home, what foods were consumed while traveling, what were their impressions of food in other Soviet states, etc. The one question I always leave for the end is: What do you think Estonian food is? or If you had to describe a typical Estonian meal to someone who had never heard of Estonia, what would you recommend they try?
These questions are always followed by a long series of ‘hmms’ and ‘I don’t knows’ and inevitably end with one or more of the following answers:
– pork chops (or just pork in general)
– roosa manna (a frothy cream of wheat whipped with cranberry juice)
– kama (a powder of roasted barley, rye, oat and pea flour mixed with buttermilk and served at breakfast)
Except for maybe kama, these answers were swiftly followed by “but I don’t eat that everyday.”
I grew up in Canada (both my parents are of Estonian descent) and I’ve tried to define Estonian food with other second or third generation Canadian-Estonians. Rosolje (chopped beetroot and potato salad) and herring are often described as Estonian food, oh and of course sült(headcheese).
Let’s not forget all of the cookbooks that I have been perusing over the past few months, which boast 200 ways of cooking with potatoes and sour cream. While I’m convinced that Estonians did and still do eat a lot of potatoes, this is not their national dish. The potato is a staple of many other nation’s cuisines as well. I’m not convinced, however that these cookbooks are a true reflection of what and is consumed in Estonia.
Benedict Anderson writes that in order “to understand nations properly we need to consider carefully how they have come into being, in what ways their meanings have changed over time.” This applies to understanding national cuisine as well. So what can be said about the cuisine of a country that has seen less than 50 years of collective independence? Dare I say it, is there such a thing as Estonian cuisine?
Sidney Mintz writes:
“…new food ingredients or new plants were provided new homes; and ordinary people…turned these novelties into their own possessions by the innovative and delicious ways in which they wove them into their local horticulture, diet and ritual. Thus new foods can be re-embedded –in local life, in new lands, in new cultures. They sometimes even become nationally representative of the peoples who came to know and like them and then at times to become known by them.”
The influence of Estonia’s many occupiers is reflected in its food. Rosolje is a Russian dish. Beetroot sugar was a substitution for sugar during the Soviet occupation. Despite its origin, rosolje has become a food recognised as ‘being’ Estonian.
One of the more interesting responses I’ve had to my question was that, never mind what Estonian food is, it’s rather about how Estonians acquire it. Estonians have a long agricultural tradition, and extensive knowledge of preservation techniques.
As with any national cuisine, the people of its nation have certain memories attached to certain dishes, good or bad. And while it seems important to define a national cuisine, would it not be more practical to preserve its cultural traditions, something that food will no doubt be a part of.