laupäev, september 29, 2007

Tatrahelbed, sült, ja piimasupp

These were the darkest days of early February, and every morning in our apartment on Kentmanni Street in Tallinn I would awake to the active sound of my then girlfriend's feet on the floor, the sound of water boiling, and most of all the sound of Vikerraadio.

"Viker ... viker ... viker raadio", softly blared from the ancient (1980s) radio in our kitchen. Then old ladies with names like Laine or Ene would take to the air to wish each other happy birthday. Of course I didn't know what they were saying at that point. But the many mornings of listening to Vikerradio built up some sort of sound backlog in my head -- familiarized my brain with Finnic intonations.

From the kitchen would then springforth Epp, [students'] coffee in one hand, steaming bowl of tatrahelbed in the other. I had never drank 'students' coffee' until I moved to Estonia. Rather than boiling a pot like they did it back home, she would simply drop a tablespoon of ground coffee in a cup, pour boiling water on top of that, let that settle, then add milk, and voilla -- student's coffee.

But drinking ground coffee was the least of my concerns. What was on my mind was the tatrahelbed, which was, as usual, salty. That's right, in Estonia people eat salty porridge. And I was supposed to eat a lot of it. Salty bite after salty bite. Oh, how I yearned to drown it all in maple syrup. But I played along, trying to eat the mountains of salted porridge until one day I had enough.

"Do you think you could put raisins in it this time?" I asked demurely.

"But I don't think raisins will go with the salt," Epp responded.

"Well maybe you could put raisins and sugar in it, instead of salt?" I asked.

"But tatrahelbed is supposed to be eaten with salt, and sometimes some meat [you fool]," she retorted.

After some more pressure she gave in and gave me my tatrahelbed with raisins and sugar, set aside especially for me before she adds her salt, and it's been that way ever since. And oh, how I eat it all. It tastes good. I just had some yesterday. Tatrahelbed has a mellow taste that counterbalances the sugar. And you can never add enough raisins. Yum.

My revolutionary action of eating tatrahelbed with sugar and raisins did not go unnoticed in Estonia though. Epp quickly introduced the concept to her friends, all of whom gulped in disgust at the very idea of eating tatrahelbed with sugar and raisins. "How gross?" They must have thought. "Everyone knows it's supposed to be eaten with salt, and maybe [if you are lucky] some meat."


If anyone was gulping with disgust though, it was me the first time I laid my eyes on homemade sült, Estonia's popular jellied meat dish. This was the morning after I first met my father-in-law. I was seated at the family table. Everyone was digging in. And then it was presented: sült.

It's taken me various amounts of times to learn certain words. But I learned the word sült in one take. It stuck with me -- strike that -- it has haunted me ever since. The clear jelly surrounding the pieces of meat from unknown animals. The texture of the glimmering surface. Who knew what animal, let alone what part of the animal this stuff came from. It could have been chilled pig brains for all I knew. I was certain, however, that the shimmering, quivvering 'pie' in front of me was not pancakes and syrup.

Everyone smiled and loaded their plates. Everone except for me. I was appauled at myself. "I should be willing to eat this gunk to satisfy the curiosity of my new relatives," I thought. But every burst of cross-cultural bravery was extinguished the moment I took another look at the pieces of pig flesh floating in slimy goop. So I weasled out of it. I let everyone take second helpings, and loaded up on bread and cucumber instead.

When we visited Estonia after we had moved to New York our daughter Marta was then about 10 months old and eating solid foods. I'll never forget how awkward I felt holding her in my arms in the gray air of Tallinn in September, feeling that she would always be able to fit into this place, and I would always stick out like a sore thumb. I would always be a foreigner. She could change nationalities as she pleased.

Anyway, I was sent to Säästumarket down the street from our old apartment in Kalamaja to buy some badly needed Estonian food. We had survived for too long with out Tere! Pudding and that Latvian cheese with the long name and weird letters -- I could eat a whole chunk of that stuff in one sitting. Also on my grocery list for Säästu was one container of sült. I figured I could pick it up, so long as it was enclosed in plastic.

When I got back to the room I watched in horror as my wife opened the lid and began to share the contents of the gooey meat jam with our ten-month-old. And she ate the whole thing! It was then I knew that my child indeed carried with her some heavy duty Estonian genetic material. This was going to be 'their' thing, the same way that Marta and I could enjoy fresh mozzerell' together in solitude. It was official. My daughter liked sült.


One Estonian dish I expected to hate but wound up consuming with abandon is piimasupp, especially piimaklimbisupp [milk dumpling soup]. Epp once said that there can never be enough dumplings in piimaklimbisupp. Very wise. Very wise.

Whereas Estonian breakfast porridge is salty, Estonian milk soup -- usually consumed at lunch or dinner -- is sweet. Sometimes it is made with noodles, rather than dumplings, to great effect. Just add cinnamon and you are done. This is sort of indicative of a trend in Estonian cuisine as a whole, to take something that makes sense [soup] and add something that doesn't make sense [milk] to it.

Like this one time in London, where we were sharing a house with some Lithuanians for a few weeks, I decided to make pasta and the sauce, which means boiling down many tomatoes, garlic -- you get the picture. Because Brits call pasta "päästa" I had to scrounge for my ingredients. But I was working hard, and Epp got impatient. She began throwing frozen french fries into my sauce.

I was devastated. She had ruined my intricately crafted sauce with some base, useless food: fried potatoes. It took me several moments to regain my compsure while she assured me that the combination of fries with sauce would be quite good. And you know what -- she was right! It tasted damn good. I began to trust this woman.

What's on the Menu?

The reason I am telling you all of this is because one day in New York I was asked one of those questions you get asked when you have lived in a country that nobody has ever been to. Right up there with "what's it like?" and "what language do they speak?" is "what kind of food do they eat there?"

To which I replied, "salty porridge." This was followed by universal looks of horror and disgust, then a cautious, "what else do they eat?"

"Well they have this thing called sült. It's kind of like a jellied meat," I continued. "Jellied meat!?!" they reacted in horror. Now they started laughing. Like I was making it all up. "Anything else?" my colleague laughed, giddy with the knowledge of the disgusting new foods he had discovered.

"Milk soup." I answered. "Oh this is too good to be true," the colleague chuckled. And he wrote it up on the board in marker above his desk, "Estonian menu" it read, and below it "salty porridge, meat jelly, and milk soup."

As far as I know that menu is still sitting up on that board to this day, amusing my colleagues whenever they walk past it.

23 kommentaari:

Simon ütles ...

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LPR ütles ...

Reading this I have to confess, I look down on people who stick to what they know when it comes to experimenting with "exotic" foods. I'll hide this but the thing is, every time I hear somebody putting down other people's foods (some of which have centuries old traditions behind them!) WITHOUT EVEN TASTING them, I think they are dull. I guess that makes me a gourmand and a snob. Like Anthony Bourdaine. If it is edible and people praise it for whatever reason, damn it, I just have to crack their secret, compare and form my own opinion about it, be it monkey brains or suateed grasshoppers. You never know how you are gonna absolutely love it after a third time ... Come to think of it, I think food and sex are not that dissimilar when it comes to person's tolerance for adventure and the discovery of the unknown - people have different thresholds, fears and hangups, but let me not go there... That's too deep.

LPR ütles ...

Oops. What I just said probably came off as a personal "solvang". I hope it is not taken that way. I tried to make a general statement. It is just annoying to see an Estonian demanding a glass tomato juice or keefir in an Irish pub to go with the stew. I am telling you ... I've seen it all. Indians at my work ONLY eating indian food ... koreans not visinting italian restaurants ... aaaaahh. Well, think about it, maybe that's why we have wars - people are so closed minded. About everyting. Sorry, again going too deep, am I? But I DO have a point, do I?

Giustino ütles ...

Oh, I should definitely try sült. I at least recently ate some smoked fish that was transfered to the market in the trunk of someone's car, no doubt. So I am working my way up to sült, if you will.

Unknown ütles ...

But sült is so harmless. It's like pudding, only the ingredients are not so harmless :P But at least it tastes great, not like rotten meat in jelly or smth. It tastes mellow and nice.

tfk ütles ...

Yes, you should try first and complain later. I eat my porridges also with sugar and jam. This is not unusual. When you try sült then add some äädikas or sinep (estonian one is more spicy). One thing is about me also unusual - I drink my keefir with a little bit salt on top. When I was little I often ate keefir with black bread and salt - pretty good snack, like cornflakes with yogurt but salty. When my mother (a city girl from Tartu) married my father then she had first time in her life soolapekk. At first she didn't want to try it but now she is the biggest fan of it.

Wv Sky ütles ...

When my young friend from Tartu came to work in the U.S. a few summers back, I'd often fix her something to eat. (of which most she could tolerate) But one morning I fixed her Oatmeal (porridge?) like all Americans eat. That is, with milk and sugar. Often a dab of butter. She actually ate a spoonful before she realized it was sweet, and then this look of total disgust came over her face. She let let know in so many words (some Estonian) that sweet "porridge" was about as disgusting as anything she'd tasted, and than asked me to fix it again...with salt. I never tasted it, but in the last two years I've found myself using less and less sugar, and more and more butter. I think it's the saltiness of the butter I like. Anyway... I doubt salty oatmeal will catch-on here soon. ;)

Jim Hass ütles ...

In the U.S., commercial instant oatmeal contains a healthy amount of salt already. (quaker 260 mgs. of sodium, Marsh store brand 240 mgs.) Natual oatmeal only has 40 to 60 mgs. sodium, so I guess there must be a little eesti in all of us over here. Maybe with globalization, we will converge in this area as well.

gaborien ütles ...

When I moved to Eesti I had also these challenges with food, specially because I missed a lot southamerican fresh fruit, salads and spices.

But, I knew I had to be open minded and try everything because that is also a way to learn the culture and integrate.

Sülk wasn't a big problem, the only thing I didn't like was the fat that comes up to the surface but I used to take it off with a spoon. Verivõrstid were ok too (we also have them). Kama with keefir was ok, I just love it.

The most difficult was sauerkraut... It took like 2 months to try it without thinking how it is made.

Jaanika ütles ...

I actually grew up eating tatrapuder with milk and sugar (milk added cold) and I have never liked salty porridges.. I remember how I felt they completely ruined the porridge in the school canteen by making it salty..

Unknown ütles ...

I actually grew up eating tatrapuder with milk and sugar (milk added cold) and I have never liked salty porridges.. I remember how I felt they completely ruined the porridge in the school canteen by making it salty..


sofie ütles ...

My mother-in-law used to say:
"In the school canteens the stupid Russian cooks put SUGAR in the milk soup, that's why Estonian children don't eat it! If they made it salty as it should be, then the children would LOVE it (and eat it, and it would be good for their health, because, eating more milk is good for chlidren's health as everybody knows!)
I was astonished because I had nothing against sweet milk soup.
Milk soup should be ate with a kilu võileib, have you tried it, Justin;)
By the way, is there a connection between americans eating their porridge with sugar and americans being most overweight nation in the world?
I agree, that almost anything tastes better with a lot of sugar - loving sugar is in our genes. But is it good to our health to eat as much sugar as we wish?

Unknown ütles ...

My 6y old son and 3,5y old daughther does not eat sült, they have refused to taste it this far :). If i remember right I myself started eating it only when I attended the school aready and I have always eaten it with mayonnaise, "pure" sült never..As a kid I hated milksoups and especially vegetable milk soup which I also started eating in school-time only and since then love it, but only if it´s made right, some make it un-eatable and I love only my mom´s in fact, I can´t make it myself either.
Tatrahelbepudru again is something my kids love and I find it also quite tasty. I put there both salt and sugar btw and it tastes more sweet than salty in fact.

stockholm slender ütles ...

Oh, sült is nice - of course one should write and pronounce it syltty... I prefer it on rye bread with cucumber or mustard. There certainly is a smaller distance between my cultural/genetic background and Estonia, but it still feels somewhat strange to think that our son (and hopefully his siblings-to-be) will be half-Estonian, half something else and that he will be able to change nationalities at will.

I suppose at times it will feel like a burden too but surely it will be such an enriching factor in his life. Languages and cultures open views and spaces. This certain level of cosmopolitanism and openness is also an integral part of our shared Western heritage, so to have multiple identities is quite a natural state affairs for us. Something that we tend sometimes to forget in our European style ethnically based nations...

plasma-jack ütles ...

Anthony Bourdaine actually refused eating monkey brains, because the idea was too cruel.
Stockholm Slender, you could call our jellied meat "syltty", but you shouldn't call your sweet stuff "mustard". Yesterday I erraticaly bought a tube of Finnish mustard, because the tube looked like that of Põltsamaa. It was like getting herbal tea instead of pot.

Wahur ütles ...

There is a good reason why 'national food' is just that - because no member of other nation can eat it. Think of Estonian verivorst, Lithuanian zeppelins or, well, monkey brains.

stockholm slender ütles ...

Oh yes, that vile stuff that burns your tongue and throat... - well, actually I've grown to like Estonian mustard, but it does dominate everything it touches. Our mild and sweet varieties at least give room to things they are aimed to spice. Though as said these days I often prefer Põltsamaa to "Turku" (actually made in Sweden, the sacrilege.

Sverik ütles ...

See ei lähe küll absoluutselt teemasse, aga kas sinul on juba kastanimuna taskus?

Sverik ütles ...

Ja süldiisu ajasid sa ka peale, ostsingi poest karbikese ja kavatsen selle enne tööpäeva lõppu pintslisse pista!

Helen ütles ...

THank you for a good laugh:)!
I should try tatrahelbepuder your way... My daughter and we all love tatra(helbe) puder, the salty version.

Anonüümne ütles ...

Nowadays you can eat sült without fear. But in "good old" Soviet times when shops selled only pig heads and feet, you had to be cearful - "is it a snout or ear or part of intestines that I see in my sült"

plasma-jack ütles ...

Nõgesesupp, anyone? (the recipe does exist, you know)

KRISTIN ütles ...

and my son used to panic at the sight of a banana when he first saw it back in 1990 something :))