Typical vs. traditional food

In Budapest, where we had a much-debated international festival, my Latvian friend once told me a funny story about his exchange semester in the US. When asked to make typical food for some kind of food day on a warm weekend, he didn′t hesitate to bring some meat skewers. To the shock of his Armenian colleagues, he made shashlik. “It is the most typical dish we eat in Latvia,” he later explained to those who contested it on the grounds of cultural appropriation. He did not read into the expectation of something ‘unique’ and ‘exotic’ in the request to cook typical food.

Answering questions about “typical food in your country” is a compulsory part of expat life, and it often happens in travels, too. I often have to explain that typical and traditional Lithuanian food are completely different, and both categories are entirely different from what I normally eat.

It should not be too difficult to understand that diets have changed drastically in countries that have gone over massive economic and social transformations. The majority of the population is no longer farming. Global trade and new technologies in preservation and transportation have reshaped the supply of products. It should be no wonder that what I eat as a middle-class urbanite is different from my parents′ habits, and these are radically different from those of their grandparents. People from South Europe are surprised to hear that, but it′s only logical. In addition to the supply, people′s diets are impacted by fashion, popular science, and availability of cooking advice. The USSR was all about rationalizing everything, including agriculture, child rearing and lifestyles, but marcoeconomically it was also relatively poor and badly managed, with food supply marked by regular shortages. This was when people got the habit of urban gardening, so fashionable again these days. Turbocapitalism of the 1990s curbed people′s purchasing power, but dramatically increased the supply of products from everywhere, as well as new fashions such as pizzas and cheeseburgers.

From what I remember growing up during that period, people jumped at all kinds of defrosted food for everyday consumption, while maintaining their habit of more elaborate meals on special occasions (shashlik, oven-baked fish, etc). This was when signature ketchup-soaked pizzas became a trend, McDonald′s happy meal became a festive treat for children, and Chinese cuisine developed into a luxury dining experience. Yet the new assertive middle class took to traveling, bringing new trends and effectively bullying restaurants and cafes into trying to compete with established French, Italian and Texan counterparts they are vaguely trying to emulate. Colored-water type of coffee largely disappeared. Oven-baked pizzas and pulled pork burgers became a norm. Now importers like Lidl are introducing new trends, such as affordable trout for grilling. It′s a big hit.

All in all, I think that anyone who wants to find out more about food in Lithuania should first of all distinguish between typical, traditional and local food.

  • Typical food is largely international, with local modifications. Local restaurants still offer schnitzels, very popular among the babyboomer generation, sometimes coated with bread crumbs, with potatoes and greens on the side. There was a point when these were topped with cheese, but it seems that the growing body of popular dietary advice is eradicating this trend – good riddance. Also, meatballs/ minced meat patties are disappearing. A typical canteen lunch is a stew with meat, potatoes or rice, and carrots or other similar vegetables, or some kind of friend meat with rice and vegetables. Since babyboomers tend to like herring, it is often served as a starter, but I believe it will eventually disappear. Crepes are popular among children and adults. They can serve as a main course or a dessert, with either meat, mushrooms or cheese, or bananas, strawberries or apples respectively. When I was a student, I used to have crepes all the time, as they were affordable and diverse. As for restaurants, it seems to me that shrimp salad is one of the most typical dishes – or at least so it seemed when I looked for a place to take my seafood-intolerant friend to, and she had some concerns with the local standards of food preparation. Otherwise restaurants often serve other variations of salad (with salmon, grilled cheese, chicken, etc), pizza and pasta for lunch. Unfortunately, many restaurants offer questionable tilapia – often as the only fish option. Yet this is changing. Burgers are still perhaps the trendiest item, but there are many restaurants that specialize in all kinds of things, such as Mexican cuisine, Asian fusion, etc. A typical veg(etari)an option includes eggplants – not local at all. At home people often eat dumplings/ a local version of gnocchi, soups, and whatever they have time for. The fact that traditional food doesn′t look good on Instagram is probably impacting people′s choices as well.
  • Tourist trap food mostly consists of Ashkenazi dishes (such as potato pancakes and kugel), de-kosherized with minced or caramelized pork. Cepelinai is probably a more unique dish, which is a heavy festive meal, although increasingly served as roadside takeaways. It is rarer to find vėdarai, stuffed intestines, because restaurants do not expect tourists to like them. One thing I always recommend to any visitors going to tourist trap restaurants is to scan the menu for mushroom soup in a bread bowl. Also, kibinai, pastries by the Karaite minority, make excellent street food and I′m always glad to see them served at festivals.
  • Historically common working class food consisted of stews, pottages, porridges and the like. According to my 11th-grade history teacher, before potatoes were brought from the Americans, Lithuanians used to eat thick soups from various root vegetables. Meat jelly used to be a common thing, but now few would know how to make it.
  • Local food will most likely involve root vegetables (carrots, beets, radishes) as they grow well and can be stored well into winter. Cabbages are also common, fresh and as sauerkraut. Balandėliai (stuffed cabbage leaves) is the local dish I usually make to show my country′s cuisine to people abroad. It′s easy to make it vegan. As Nordic cuisine is getting rediscovered, some restaurants are experimenting with local products to create new culinary concepts for locals and tourists alike. One of my favorite places is Vilties arbatinė in Kaunas, serving creatively improvised local fusion dishes, decorated with edible flowers when in season. I remember an interview with one chef who proposed introducing Lithuanian salad as a worthy competitor to the ubiquitous Greek salad. It would consist of beets, dry cottage cheese and other local ingredients. There are also many voices to point out that the mainstream catering sector is not exploiting the potential offered by the rich variety of mushrooms. If you have a chance to try boiled potatoes topped with chanterelles, don′t miss it!

  • There is one dish that is local, typical and traditional, and that′s šaltibarščiai, or cold beet soup. During my visit to Krakow, a local friend joked that Polish cuisine consists of Ukrainian borshch (or borscht for those with less flexible tongues), Jewish carp and Lithuanian cold soup (chlodnik litewski). This remark stayed with me, as I realized that despite pan-regional trends, there is one dish that is recognized even by our closest neighbors as Lithuanian. Three years ago it was voted to become the runner-up in the European Parliament′s food competition. As summer is coming, go out and enjoy it.

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