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Estonian cuisine

Estonian cuisine
For a lot of foreign visitors, traditional Estonian food can be, frankly, daunting. People from most parts of the world are simply not used to chowing down on marinated eel, or swallowing spoonfuls of jellied meat for that matter. And it goes without saying that a lot of people would flinch before attempting anything called 'blood sausage.' Most Estonians, on the other hand, wouldn't think twice before digging into these home-spun delicacies.

So is traditional Estonian food really as frightening as they say? To answer this question, Tallinn In Your Pocket assembled a team of average foreigners from a number of different cultural backgrounds, and conducted a taste test dinner at the famed Eesti Maja restaurant, which specialises in classical Estonian dishes.To avoid bias, participants had to be unfamiliar with Estonian cuisine. What's more, we refused to tell them what they were eating. We didn't want trivial details (like the fact that they were eating tongue) to influence people's opinion of the flavour. As each new dish arrived, it was assigned a number, and the diners were asked to write brief comments on each one.

Our brave participants were Maya from Switzerland, Chuck from the USA, Chi Lee from Taiwan, Martin from Germany and Nathalie from Portugal (by way of France). Their reactions, from before they were told what they were eating, are recorded here. Their reactions from after they were told were, of course, unprintable. Most are not speaking to us now. If this piques your curiosity, try these dishes for yourself at Eesti Maja or one the other fine restaurants listed.

Cuisine background
Estonian cuisine has been influenced over the centuries by the traditions of more powerful neighbours (don't forget that Danes, Germans, Swedes, Poles and Russians have taken turns ruling parts of the country) but the main characteristic of the local fare is its peasant origin. Estonians were for the most part country folk before the last century, and since food was scarce, they had to be inventive in preserving and stretching what little meat they had on hand.Later, when urbanisation took hold, the kinds of fried chops and potatoes common in the rest of Europe became the standard. This is what you're likely to see on the lunch menu at the local pub these days, along with a side of cabbage. Thankfully though, the more uniquely Estonian recipes are still prepared in many families, and served in a number of restaurants around Tallinn.

Traditional favourites

Marineeritud angerjas
Marinated eel, served cold. A true Estonian favourite.
"Tastes better than it looks."- Chi Lee, Taiwan
"Quite difficult to eat (fish bones)." - Maya, Switzerland
"Once you get past the Ghostbuster slime, the fishy stuff is quite tasty. My cat would love it." - Martin, Germany

Keel hernestega
Another cold appetiser whose identity we didn't want to divulge, for obvious reasons: tongue. At Eesti Maja the dish has been dubbed "Gossip's fate." It's served with horseraddish, which gives it a lot of zing.
"Thought it was liver, thank God it wasn't. Best with the sauce it comes with." - Chuck, USA
"Looks like the sole of a shoe and is probably some big animal's heart. Tastes good." - Martin, Germany
"Meat. Maybe tongue. It's good, I like it." - Nathalie, Portugal

Boiled pork in jelly. The jelly is made by boiling the pork bones, sometimes hooves and heads. It's often made in large batches, so many Estonian families have stories of jars and jars of solidifying s?lt all over the house. Sound intersting? See below for the recipe.
"It looks like cat food ... but it's not so bad. I like the meat." - Nathalie, Portugal
"Which way to McDonald's? Seriously, more jellied fish best eaten simultaneously with the side dish." - Chuck, USA
"Some chewy stuff in more Ghostbusters slime. Not my cup of tea." - Martin, Germany
"Not much flavour, good texture." - Chi Lee, Taiwan
"Jelly again, but now with meat. Tastes good with vinegar." - Maya, Switzerland

Blood and barley sausage, similar to what the English diplomatically call 'black pudding' due to its colour. In Estonia, this is traditional Christmas food, and is served with a red, berry jam. Our guests loved it.
"A surprisingly good combination!"- Maya, Switzerland
"Once you chainsaw through the outer skin, it tastes good actually. The berry jam is real value added. Don?t do without it."- Martin, Germany
"Close your eyes and enjoy it with the berry sauce and cabbage." - Chuck, USA

Sauerkraut stew with pork, served with boiled potatoes. This one also turned out to be popular with theparticipants, one of whom slyly had the remaining portion wrapped up to take home.
"Seems to be a complete and healthy meal, with or without the traditional potatoes."- Maya, Switzerland
"Very tasty, but not my cup of tea."- Chi Lee, Taiwan
"The look is not so good as the taste - it's good."- Nathalie, Portugal
"Some kind of chicken - sauerkraut hybrid. Very good."- Chuck, USA
"Soup gone too thick to enjoy. It won't make it to my menu."- Martin, Germany

Baltic sprats with bacon in sourcream. We thought this would be a tough one for our testers to identify since, as the above photo shows, it's completely covered in sauce. They did just fine though.
"The presentation is good, but fish with bacon?"- Nathalie, Portugal
"Soft, delicious." - Chi Lee, Taiwan
"Non-jellied fish. An intersting concept around here."- Chuck, USA
"Fish on bacon with mushroom sauce. Very tasty!" - Maya, Switzerland
"Overdose of onion on the tasty, fishy stuff. Okay in limited amounts." - Martin, Germany

One of our desert items was this cake-like barley bread. This one, at least, didn't have blood or tongues in the mix. Still, participants were expecting something sweeter.
"A not very sweet cake with raisins. Reminds me of I-don't-know-what." - Maya, Switzerland
"Looks like bricks for the house. Unfortunately also tastes like it. They forgot the sugar. Doh!" - Martin, Germany
"Not so sweet as I expected, but it's good with [the kama]" - Chi Lee, Taiwan
"Dry, could be sweeter. Would be good with ice cream" - Chuck, USA

There's really no equivalent in most other traditions. Basically it's a thick desert drink made with sour milk (keefir), and a mixture of ground grains - rye, oat barley, and pea flour.
"Muslification. Naughty kids don't drink it." - Martin, Germany
"Interesting!!! Something I won't try too many times."- Chi Lee, Taiwan
"Like drinking breakfast cereal."- Steve, USA
"Nut milk shake? Interesting!" - Maya, Switzerland
"Looks like a coffee mlkshake. Sour milk with coffee grounds. Yum Yum!" - Chuck, USA

Besides the wine, the one packaged food we had was the very Estonian, non-alcoholic beverage called Kali. Referred to as "the Estonian Coca-Cola," Kali is a kind of unfermented beer. It's sweet and has a very light fizz to it.
"Unfermented beer or liquid bread? Tastes really special. I like it!" - Maya, Switzerland
"Better than Coke." - Chi Lee, Taiwan
"OK for the first sip, but becomes sticky too quickly."- Martin, Germany
"Tastes good, like water strained through black bread."- Chuck, USA
"It's sweet and strong at the same time."- Nathalie, Portugal


A favourite traditional Estonian dish that most foreigners are understandably too squeamish to try is sült, a jellied meat dish made from boiled pork. Any of our readers who are brave enough to try concocting it at home will earn bragging rights and the admiration of In Your Pocket staff. This recipe comes to us from
2 pork legs (2 thighs, 2 hooves), 500g bony beef, 3 medium onions, 1 garlic cloves, 2 carrots, 10-12 grains of black pepper, 5 grains of mixed spices, 2 laurel leaves, salt.
Wash meat and put to boil in large stew pot. Water must be cold when meat is added. Remove foam when water starts to boil. Keep water just above the boiling point, allowing it to simmer. After the first hour, add whole onions (tops and bottoms removed, but not peeled), garlic, and carrots (cut into rounds). Continue boiling until meat is loose from bones (three to four hours). Add salt and spices 15 minutes before boiling process is finished. Remove all meat and separate it from bones. Cut meat into small pieces, mix with the liquid and heat to boiling point once more. Pour sült mixture into several smaller bowls, and allow to harden in a cool place (five to eight hours). Serve cold with horseradish or strong mustard, and with hot potatoes and pumpkin salad on the side.

Estonian sauerkraut (mulgikapsas)
1 kg sauerkraut, half a glass of barley grouts, 500g bacon, two onions, salt, sugar, water. 
Put sauerkraut in a saucepan with pearl barley and meat. Cover it with water and stew it under the lid. It is important to see that the water does not boil off. Add salt and sugar. Cut the onions into little cubes and fry them with little fat or oil. Add them to the sauerkraut. Serve with boiled potatoes and pork.

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Estonian cuisine comments Add Yours

  • Tia - 08 August 2014
    My relatives are Estonian and many of these recipes bring back memories. My grandma used to make bidi cut (not sure of spelling) and we all loved them so very very much. I pulled up this site trying to find a recipe because unfortunately it was not passed down. They were ground up beef, pork, egg wrapped in dough from what i can remember then cooked to perfection.... They were sooooo delicious.... Really
  • Michael - 20 July 2014
    I have been eating these foods my entire life, and can not get enough blood sausage. My grandparents are Esto and I didn't realize these foods were strange until I was about thirty. My wife nearly gags when these foods are mentioned.... Does anyone have a recipe for bidicuit (sp?). I think it is beef wrapped in pastry bread.
  • Susan - Estonia 30 April 2013
    What bothers me here is this bottle of "Kali". In this bottle is limonade with taste of Kali. It is not traditional drink. Kali is natural fermented drink made of bread, not carbonated sugar water with flavorings.
  • Olivia - Pella, Iowa 24 March 2013
  • Lembi - Everett, Washington State,USA 18 January 2013
    I'm Estonian by birth, grew up in New York City.I remember these foods from my childhood. The one you didn't mention was "rasolja" a potato salad, with meat, pickles, apples, beets. The longer is stands, the better it tastes!
  • A.Dudek - Hungary 13 October 2012
    Try and get this right. Sült is not boiled, it's simmered. If you understood something about cooking, you would know the difference.
  • islander - estonia 15 March 2012
    These are basics and like seasonal foods sült and blood sausage is usually made in Christmas. Also eel is usually eaten smoked. And in Islands you can get many fish dishes thats not made in mainland.
  • Riina - Estonia 01 July 2009
    In most cases SÜLT consists of pure good meat(pork,beef,sometimes chicken),the rest is there to give flavour and to help to get good jelly and later removed. Yes, one can keep it(add horseradish,mustard,vinegar when eating) in bowls in a fridge and eat it with boiled potatoes.Very filling.Nothing near Scottish haggis.

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