12 October 2006

Hyvää ruokaa Oulussa

A year or so ago, French President Jacques Chirac managed to offend people in two countries at once by saying of England that “After Finland, it is the country with the worst food.” Then Silvio Berlusconi of Italy piled on. Or maybe it was he who started it; I don’t remember the exact sequence. Either way, people around here were pretty sore. As our guest columnist said in this space a few weeks back, Finns are proud that their food is straightforward and nutritious. It was not they who invented Slurpies and Biggie Fries.

I have eaten well in Oulu even though I’m on a limited budget. So, the presidential critique seems to me not only uncharitable and rude, but just plain wrong. And it occurred to me that this blog could perhaps help set things straight by celebrating the virtues of Finnish cuisine.

But that raises a rather sensitive point, which is that I haven’t quite figured out what Finnish cuisine is, for reasons that we’ll be exploring below. I thought about calling this post Fine Dining in Oulu, but that would have seemed rather a stretch, given my budget, not to mention the unpretentiousness of the Finnish national character, if I may resort to a concept that has gone the way of the dodo. So, let’s just call it Good Eats in Oulu—that’s a rough translation of the title—and let it go at that. We’ll just have to hope that Alton Brown doesn’t sue. Today, I’ll be reviewing my three favorite meals for the month of September, and we’ll work our way up from the level of the merely lofty to “the pinnacle of culinary achievement,” as they say on Iron Chef.

Third place goes to New Bombay, over by the central railway station, for their spicy chicken dish, kanakorma. New Bombay is a very appealing place, first recommended to me by my landlord. Meals come with a fresh salad, and a good one at that, though New Bombay conforms to the widespread Oulu practice of asking cabbage to do its lame impression of lettuce. That, I don’t understand. But entrees are served with a huge bowl of truly fabulous steamed rice. With all that starch, one needn’t order a naan, but I always do.

I have been back to New Bombay several times. I must say that I approve of their shrimp and vegetable curry, as well. The food is reasonably priced. You can get it mild, medium, or hot (go with the medium). The total damage for dinner is usually around 18 euros, and that’s with a naan and a glass of wine. You don’t need a reservation. The service is attentive, and the atmosphere is pleasant, even homey.

An aside: at New Bombay, as at most moderately priced restaurants in Finland, you just sit where you will, which is, to my way of thinking, infinitely preferable to being escorted to a vinyl table at Applebee’s or Cracker Barrel by a high-school girl masquerading as a maitre-d’. They won’t try to sell you bottled water here, because Finnish tap water is pure and tasty. And of course there is no tax on food. At the end of the meal, you don’t need to ask the wait staff to bring you your check: Saisinko laskun? You may, if you like. But the default method is just to stroll up to the counter whenever you’re ready, and there they will ring you up and say kiitos and hei hei. There is, finally—thanks be to God—no groveling for tips in Finland.

For me the only unresolved issue is, why is it New Bombay, and not Mumbai? I’ve noticed, too, that there are several “oriental” restaurants in Oulu, a sure sign that the local restauranteurs have not been reading their Edward Said.

But I digress. In second place this month is a wild duck dinner I enjoyed at Zakuska, on Hallituskatu in the city center. This is one of several Russian restaurants in Oulu. I’ll confess that I had been avoiding the place, mainly because it advertises in the brochures that are handed out to tourists. Always be wary of restaurants that depend on the tourist trade, rather than on a cadre of loyalists. I also was suspicious because it sits next to an Irish pub and along a strip of establishments that look more like bars than restaurants.

But I had a wonderful meal at Zakuska. Wild duck was the special that night, and the waitress encouraged me—though very gently—to give it a try. I always worry about duck being greasy, but this was just right, carefully prepared and beautifully served. Zakuska, like the wooden buildings in the city center, has a patina of Old World dignity, as well as a very skilled chef. My duck was served with red cabbage, fried potatoes and gravy, apples, something delicious that I didn’t recognize, and home-made bread. “What do you call this bread?” I asked the waitress. “It doesn’t have a name. We have a girl who bakes the bread. For a long time I used to do it myself.” A pitcher of tap water and a bread with no name. Charming.

Among European cuisines, the Russian—if one chooses not to challenge its European credentials—stands out for being well represented here. If the phone book can be trusted, there appears to be not a single restaurant with a French name in this city. No Chez André, no Maison Provençale. There are plenty of places with Italian names, but they are all pizza and kebab joints; pizza and kebabs have been joined at the hip in Finland. Russia alone has been accorded the status of a culinary mission. Why, I can’t say. Other Euro-cuisines are delivered by chains (such as Torero, a tapas place in the center of town) or by restaurants that prefer to do a little of this, a little of that, instead of trying to fill a distinctive niche.

And now, the drum roll, please. The winner of the grand prize for Good Eats in September is . . . Sokkeri-Jussi Kievari (see photo above), which is housed in an old wooden structure on Pikisaari Island, just far enough out in the harbor to have sat out the great fire of 1822. So, the setting and the ambience are hard to beat. And I’ll confess that right away I acquired a soft spot in my heart for “Sugar John” because someone else was picking up the tab. That always makes me a little dewy-eyed. I ordered the salmon, lohi. It was delicious.

That said, this is a blog, and so there must be, if not a full-blown rant, at least a caveat. In this case, the engine that launches the kvetch is the curious status of fish in Finland. This is a Baltic country with innumerable lakes and rivers. Fish is served pretty much everywhere, and yet I have not seen anything like what in the States we would call a “fish house.” You would think that Finland would have salmon houses or whitefish houses or herring houses or crayfish houses the way Maryland has crab joints. Why does it not?

After jettisoning the booster, the multi-stage kvetch proceeds to ask how, absent a particular recipe or approach, fish per se—or any other food group, for that matter—could be considered the culinary equivalent of Sibelius, or Alvar Aalto. It would be like saying that the national music is notes, or the national architecture is bricks. The salmon at Sokkeri-Jussi Kievari was outstanding, but what was distinctively Finnish about it? One thing is certain: it definitely was not French. Jacques Chirac would have gagged on it because it was not smothered in a sauce that began life as two cups of heavy cream. But what would it mean to assert that it was “Finnish”?

From the guidebooks, and even from language texts, I get the impression that if there were a distinctive Finnish cuisine, it might well be that of Karelia, that eastern land of the Kalevala that was more or less swallowed up by Russia in the course of the twentieth century. Karelia is extremely well represented in the national imagination, perhaps because historically it was relatively uncontaminated by Sweden. All across Finland, one can find karjalanpiirakoita, or Karelian pastries, which are a little like pierogi stuffed with rice or potatoes. Similarly, Karelian stew, karjalanpaisti, is available everywhere; it’s made with several kinds of meat.

A shrewd, albeit mean-spirited, reader might nominate the sweet little reindeer as the national dish. Distinctive as it is (like haggis in Scotland), I get the impression that there is no peculiarly Finnish approach to cooking the meat. For whatever reason, it doesn’t have a particularly high profile in restaurants. There are no “reindeer joints.” I have resolved to order poro the next time I visit Sokkeri-Juusi Kievari, but the world, I’m afraid, will have to wait for Donder and Blitzen find their Colonel Sanders or Frank Perdue.

Perhaps there simply is no such thing as Finnish cuisine. There would be nothing wrong with that. One time I asked an innkeeper in Amsterdam to recommend a restaurant where I could sample “Dutch food.” He directed me to an Indonesian rijsttafel. I’m sure he was having fun with me, but in truth the food was excellent. Yes, I know it’s not the same. For if Finland lacks a national cuisine, it also lacks an imperial cuisine to fall back on—though now that I think of it, there are those Russian restaurants, just as there is good roast beef to be had in New Delhi.

The third and last stage of this rocket—the one that gets us out of the earth’s gravitational field—is fueled by full disclosure: my lohi was, in a word, plain. Also, it was just a tad overdone. That is to say, it was not served on the rare side, and I have acquired—only recently, mind you—a taste for salmon that is pink in the middle.

The lohi at Sokkeri-Jussi Kievari made me a little homesick because it called to mind a long weekend spent in Portland, Oregon, almost exactly a year ago. In the Pacific Northwest, the wait staff will help you choose among Chinook, Coho, and Copper River sockeye salmon, each of which has its special virtues. They will grill it, poach it, smoke it, stuff it with dungeness crab, or serve it on a cedar plank, depending on the attributes of the given sub-species, and also on your preferences, if you have any. They will make it crawl on its belly like a reptile. They will turn the roe into pudding, if you please. The point is, they won’t offer you a single, generic “salmon,” and then trot out a fish that has been simply reeled in and thrown on a grill. The chefs in Portland and Seattle and Vancouver are constantly innovating because they’re obsessed with topping the competition down the street. Why are things here in Finland so much less intense? And why are diners not as demanding in the ravintola as they are at the opera? I have no idea. But any way you cut it, Jacques Chirac is still wrong, and that's all that matters.

And that’s the way it is. See you next month on Good Eats in Oulu. For now, so long, and

Hyvää ruokahalua!