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Food tours are our favourite way to get to know a new city. We find learning about a culture most engaging through its cuisine, and as vegetarians it’s the best way to discover what local dishes we can try. When I found Happy Guide Helsinki’s Words and Veggies food tour it seemed perfect for us, a chance to “get familiar with the most common Finnish words of organic, local and vegetarian food…find the best places for organic lunch and local coffee” and visit neighbourhoods that tourists don’t usually go to.
Our cheerful guide Karri Korppi met us at the Helsinki University’s Porthania building for our first stop—a typical Finnish breakfast of porridge. We joined the students helping themselves to large portions of aamupuuro (morning porridge) and tried it served the classic way with a big knob of butter and with fruit soup—today’s flavour was strawberry. Porridge isn’t our favourite food but I can see why this hearty and warming dish is so popular in chilly Finland.
Over breakfast we learnt our first Finnish words of the day–aamupala is breakfast or literally morning portion. Karri valiantly tried to get the words to stick in our heads, but Finnish is so unlike any other language we know (its closest relation is Estonian) that it was a definite challenge.
The tour includes a transport pass which makes it easy to get around and our next stop was a short tram ride to Hakaniemi—Helsinki’s biggest market. It’s full of stalls selling vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, cheese, olives, nuts, and pastries. We browsed at a new organic vegetable stall which listed which farm each product came from—much of it grown close to Helsinki. Organic food is becoming very popular in Finland and many Finns are prepared to pay 3-4 times more for organic produce— knowing where their food comes from is worth it. Luomu means organic and it’s a word we noticed throughout the day.
Although Finnish food isn’t traditionally vegetarian friendly—with over 187,000 lakes fish is naturally popular—Karri is vegetarian and says it’s easy here, and that Finland has one of the highest vegetarian populations in Europe. Kasvissyöjä means vegetarian in Finnish and kasvisruoka is vegetarian food. Luckily during our stay in Helsinki we didn’t need to wrap our tongues around those as everyone spoke English and was happy to translate menus for us.
In the market we did try a meat-free typical Finnish snack—Karelian pastries or piirakka which come from the part of Finland close to Russia. A rye crust is traditionally stuffed with barley, although rice is more common these days. We tried both, as well as one with a sweet blueberry filling which I liked the best.
We walked out of the market towards the hipster neighbourhood of Kallio passing an organic knitting shop, a green bookstore, and an organic supermarket chain. Organic really is big in Helsinki. We stopped at Silvoplee, the biggest vegetarian restaurant in the city. We were too early for the extensive buffet so visited their smoothie bar that sells raw cakes, snacks, and juices. We tried a few juice shots—a warming ginger and orange, and sea buckthorn with pineapple, made from a tart Finnish berry grown on the coast that is being embraced as a local superfood.
As Karri knew Simon was on a mission to find the best coffee in Helsinki he took us on a slight detour to his favourite cafe Good Life Coffee. He and Simon got takeaway aeropress coffee with no sugar or milk to best appreciate the flavour. Finns prefer filter coffee like this, and drink a lot of it—seven cups a day is normal. Simon loved the Ethiopian coffee which despite its pale muddy colour tasted smooth and chocolatey.
We took a short metro ride to a bulk buy shop in the station. We’d noticed these shops all over the city where you can buy as much or as little as you like of things like nuts, seeds, and dried fruit. We were here to try some Finnish sweets. Finns go crazy for salmiakki or salty liquorice, a black liquorice spiced with ammonium chloride, and the shop had a huge variety. First we sampled regular black salmiakki and quite enjoyed the sharp, sour flavour.
Then we tried a powder covered sweet that didn’t look like liquorice at all. It was a shock as I put it in my mouth and it began to burn—what on earth was this?! I got some relief from the spice as I bit in revealing sweet chocolate and a crunchy nut below. It turned out this was an award winning version of salmiakki with an almond covered in chocolate and peppery salmiakki powder. It was unlike anything we’d ever eaten, but strangely moreish. We keep going back for more, trying to make sense of what we were eating. It was a love-hate relationship—the pungent initial bite repulsed, but the unique combination of flavours was intriguing. I can see how salmiakki can be an acquired taste.
Next we learnt the most important Finnish word—suklaa or chocolate. The Petris Chocolate Room is in the Töölö neighbourhood, close to the centre but off the beaten track, and somewhere we’d never have stumbled upon. We tried milk chocolate with sea salt which brings out the flavour, and got lucky as it was cake tasting day. The champagne and strawberry and blueberry and white chocolate cakes were light and delicious—more like mousse with a cake bottom.
Our final stop was another local shop that offers friendly and personal service. The Anton & Anton grocery shop was full of organic fruit and vegetables, health food items, and an inviting deli counter. Finns eat lot of dairy so our last tasting was some juusto (cheese). We were surprised they make cheese in Helsinki, and even more surprised that the Hakaniemi cheese we tried was a pungent, gooey brie that rivalled the French version.
We really enjoyed the Words & Veggies tour which took us to places we would never have known about. We tried some typical Finnish dishes, and learnt more about the city, its people, and language. Karri was the perfect guide—warm, knowledgable, and always smiling. It was our favourite day in Helsinki.
The Words & Veggies food tour runs on Wednesdays & Fridays at 9.30am for 3 to 4 hours. It costs €65 which includes tastings and a 24 hour public transport ticket which you can use after the tour. Breakfast is included so don’t eat beforehand!
Thank you to Happy Guide Helsinki who provided us with a complimentary tour and to Karri for being such a great guide to the city.