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Traditional Estonian cuisine has substantially been based on meat and potatoes, and on fish in coastal and lakeside areas, but now bears influence from many other cuisines, including a variety of international foods and dishes, with a number of contributions from the traditions of nearby countries. Scandinavian, German, Russian, Latvian, Lithuanian and other influences have played their part. The most typical foods in Estonia have been rye bread, pork, potatoes and dairy products. Estonian eating habits have historically been closely linked to the seasons. In terms of staples, Estonia belongs firmly to the beer, vodka, rye bread and pork "belt" of Europe.
The first course in traditional Estonian cuisine is based on cold dishes—a selection of pickles, meats and sausages served with potato salad (kartulisalat) or rosolje, an Estonian signature dish almost identical to Swedish sillsallad, based on beetroot, potatoes and herring. Small pastries called pirukad (pirukas in the singular)—a relative of the pirozhki—filled with meat, cabbage, carrots, rice and other fillings or mixtures are also popular, and are often served with bouillion. Herring is common among other fish as a part of the Estonian cold table. Smoked or marinated eel, crayfish dishes, and imported crabs and shrimps are considered delicacies. One of Estonia's national dishes is räim (Baltic dwarf herring), along with sprats. Flounder, perch and pike-perch are also popular.
Soups may be eaten before the main course, but traditionally form the main meal and most often are made of meat or chicken stock mixed with a variety of vegetables. Soups are also blended with sour cream, milk and yogurt. A unique form of Estonian soup is leivasupp ("bread soup"), which is a type of sweet soup that is made of black bread and apples, normally served with sour cream or whipped cream, often seasoned with cinnamon and sugar.
Black rye bread (rukkileib) accompanies almost every savory food in Estonia. Estonians continue to value their varieties of black rye-based bread.
Specific desserts include kissell, curd snack and kama. Other common Estonian desserts are mannavaht (a cream made of semoline and juice or fruit), kohupiimakreem (creamy curd) or kompott. Rhubarb pies are also a favorite. Another popular dessert is kringle (Estonian: kringel), a sweet yeast bread often flavored with cardamom.
A traditionally popular drink called kali—similar to Russian kvass—is becoming more popular again. Mead or mõdu, the drink that was most popular in ancient times, has almost completely disappeared. Birch sap (kasemahl) beverages are also quite popular. Nowadays, locally brewed beer is the number one choice to accompany food; different juices or simply water being the main non-alcoholic choice. Wine is widely drunk, and although it is still not as popular as beer, it is becoming all the more common. There are also Estonian fruit wines made of apples or different berries. Estonians are also proud of their vodka and other spirits, such as the herbal liqueur Vana Tallinn. Two of Estonia's oldest breweries are A. Le Coq, founded in 1807, and Saku Brewery, founded in 1820.
Milk (piim) is also widely drunk by children as well as adults. Other dairy products besides milk include keefir and also hapupiim ("sour milk") and pett, which are variations on the theme of buttermilk. Dairy from Andre, Estonia is well known as part of Estonian dairy-related cuisine.
Summer and spring
Traditionally in summer and spring, Estonians like to eat everything fresh—berries, herbs, vegetables and everything else that comes straight from the garden. Hunting and fishing were common in the history. Nowadays, they have remained as popular pastimes. It is popular to barbecue in the summer.
Winter and Christmas
During the winter months, jam, preserves and pickles are brought to the table. During the past, when the economy was largely agricultural, the gathering and conserving of fruits, mushrooms and vegetables for winter was essential. Today, gathering and conserving is less common because almost everything can be bought from stores, but preparing food for winter is still very popular in the countryside and continues to retain its charm for many, as opposed to the commercialization of eating habits. Upholding of traditions is important to many.
Blood sausage (Estonian: verivorst), sepik bread, head cheese (Estonian: sült), and sauerkraut (Estonian: hapukapsas) with oven-roasted potatoes have been part of the traditional Estonian menu that nowadays are mostly Christmas specialties. Also, typical Christmas treats have been apples, Mandarin oranges, gingerbread and lingonberry jam.
Modern Estonian cuisine
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Many influences have nudged modern Estonian eating into more diverse and open directions. Early influences that diversified the eating experience came through the Hanseatic League. Small Estonia has been conquered and ruled by many foreign powers, ranging from the Danes, Germans, Poles, and Swedes to the Russians. German nobles who colonized the Estonian countryside with hundreds of manors were modernizers over the centuries, and also acted as a transmission belt of Continental influences on Estonian cooking, although for a great many years, precious few of these influences trickled down to the impoverished Estonian peasants.
Things began to change with the gradual emancipation of the Estonian people in the 19th century and as a result of urbanization. By the time that Estonia enjoyed national independence between the two World Wars, Tallinn, Tartu and Parnu as well as other Estonian urban centers sported a diverse variety of restaurants and cafes that featured dishes from many European cuisines as well as the local menu. There was also a flowering of good cooking in Estonian homes throughout the country. A variety of newer Estonian dishes were developed, and cooks and housewives experimented with foods from other cultures.
All of this came to a crashing halt in 1940, when the Baltic States were annexed by the USSR, restaurants were nationalized and closed down, and the few that were left suffered from a chronic shortage of ingredients. Although those who still had access to garden plots were able to supplement the limited variety of foods that were offered in Soviet-era food stores and markets, the period from 1940 to the early nineties brought with it a tragic decline, compared to the golden days of the twenties and thirties. On the other hand, migrants from various parts near and far of the USSR brought new recipes and styles. Even now, the foods of the Georgians, Azerbaijanis and others make the culinary experience in Estonia less one-sided.
Since the reestablishment of independence in 1991, Estonian cuisine has rebounded, slowly at first. Some dishes enjoyed before WW II have not returned, while many others have. A number of restaurants in Tallinn and other Estonian cities have introduced the cuisines of other countries such as India and Mexico. At the same time, a number of restaurateurs such as Imre Kose, Imre Sooäär, Dimitri Demjanov, and Kadri Kroon have innovated with classical Estonian dishes. Although home cooks tend to be more conservative, they too try new things at a more tempered pace.