A Book on Baltic Cooking

Baltic: New and Old Recipes: Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania

by Simon Bajada

Hardie Grant Books, $35

Earlier this year, the New York Times featured an item by Florence Fabricant about this book. She is a food and wine writer, writes the weekly Front Burner and Off the Menu columns, as well as the Pairings column, which appears alongside the monthly wine reviews. She has also written 12 cookbooks. 

According to her, “Nordic cuisine has garnered interest recently, but the nearby Baltic States, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, also deserve attention.” Wonderful news! As we already knew, the Balts and the Scandinavians rely on similar ingredients like fish (especially smoked), potatoes, caraway, cabbage, dairy, and foraged and fermented products.

By the way, I wondered about the difference between Nordic and Scandinavian. So Scandinavian is anything relating to Scandinavia, Finland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands. Scandinavian means a native or inhabitant of Scandinavia, or a person of Scandinavian descent, or refers to the North Germanic languages (Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, Faroese) descended from Old Norse. It seems that Nordic is just shorter and easier to spell. But read on:

“Baltic showcases the unique culinary landscape of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Bringing the Baltic’s answer to New Nordic to your kitchen, nearly seventy recipes celebrate this wholesome, creative and intensely seasonal cuisine. As well, stunning photography captures the colour and vibrancy of the produce, culture and landscapes of these unique countries.

This new, beautifully photographed book that explores their cuisines fine-tunes the character of each. Estonia is the most Nordic of them, there are Russian influences in Latvia, and Lithuania, once an empire, is more diverse, with a Jewish component [my italics]. The book offers dishes like hearty soups, a hotpot of smoked fish with potatoes and cream, stuffed cabbage, yeasted potato bread, a kugel-like shredded potato dish from Lithuania and Latvian butter seasoned with toasted hemp seeds.”

Of course we know that she speaks of our famous dish which is not “kugel-like”, but is, actually and historically, the one and only “kugelis”. Interestingly, several visitors to Lithuania have noticed that our beloved parish-hall and banquet “kugelis” is not seen on menus in Vilnius. Called “plokštainis”, I suspect that it may not be considered “haute” enough for the cuisine of the capital city we love to visit.

Kugel is defined as being Jewish (specifically Ashkenazi) in origin, from Central Europe, and made of egg noodles or potatoes. Further research tells us that the common denominators of all true kugels are a starch base, eggs (or egg substitute), and fat, without the addition of water or other liquids. If the dish lacks any of the basic ingredients, it is technically a casserole or cake, not a kugel.

Here is an interesting reference from Jamie Geller who traced the origins of kugelis and writes on her website: By the sixteenth century, rice kugels, typically reserved for special occasions, emerged in parts of eastern Europe, influenced by the Ottoman advances into Europe and their introduction of numerous Middle Eastern foods. Potatoes, after their popularization in the mid-19th century, provided an inexpensive and filling kugel, subsequently becoming the predominant type in the impoverished shtetls of eastern Europe. Whence the popular Yiddish folk song, “Sunday potatoes, Monday potatoes, Tuesday and Wednesday potatoes, Thursday and Friday potatoes, but Shabbos, for a change, a potato kugel”.

Historically, of course, Lithuania had a substantial Jewish population.

“Beginning in the late 1700’s, groups of Chasidim and students of the Vilna Gaon [the famous Jewish scholar who lived in Vilnius – hence Gaono gatvė/street] began moving to Israel, bringing with them the traditions of eastern Europe, including clothing and foods.”

Interested in more about kugelis? Share your thoughts, questions and recipes with us at info@tevzib.com.