One of the reasons people love to travel is to learn about and try the local food. I’m no different in that respect however for me this goes far beyond eating at a hip restaurant or finding an authentic hole in the wall take away place. I love to understand how and what locals eat on a day to day basis and one of the best ways to do this is by browsing supermarket aisles or produce markets. As I travelled to Riga, the birthplace of my parents, my excitement for eating Latvian food went far beyond my usual levels. The food that my mum would source from specialised delis and stores in Australia was available on a mass scale and I couldn’t wait to gorge myself on all my favourites!
Latvian food is influenced by many of its geographical neighbours, and whilst a lot of popular items you find in Latvia are common throughout Russia and Poland, its location on the Baltic Sea means you will also find a lot of similarities with Nordic cuisines. Rather than this article focusing on a range of dishes that you can order from a restaurant menu, I want to share ten core food and drink items of Latvian cuisine that you will encounter when travelling to Latvia.
The most distinguishable feature of Latvian cuisine to Russian or Polish is the large variety of fish that is available throughout the country. Whether it’s smoked salmon, pickled herring or dried fish, it’s difficult to avoid when in Latvia! One of the best ways to sample fish is to head to the local supermarket or fresh market where you will undoubtedly see whole fridges reserved to showcase the large variety of fish on offer. In fact, Riga Central Market has a whole pavilion dedicated to fish with different varieties of salmon being a popular choice amongst vendors.
One of my greatest discoveries, as I explored the aisles of my local Latvian supermarket, was when I stumbled across the giant barrels of pickles in the fresh fruit and vegetable section. However, the pickles here aren’t the typical tiny variety that you encounter in Western countries but rather, full-sized cucumbers that have been pickled in a delicious blend of dill and other spices. As you pay by the kilo, make sure you take note of which variety you buy as you will be asked at checkout!
3. Black Bread
If a restaurant or cafe in Latvia serves you white bread, you can be almost sure that it’s not a local place! Dark black bread, known locally as rupjmaize, is a staple of Latvian food and will often be served as a side for most main meals. It’s also a perfect base for some herring or smoked fish!
Latvians have also engineered a soft drink, known as kvass out of their beloved black bread which can be found throughout the country and tastes somewhat like root beer. You can buy it by the bottle from supermarkets or convenience shops, however, if you want to try the best quality kvass then head to a market where you will often find it being sold freshly brewed from a giant barrel. You can usually buy different size glasses or even litre bottles to take back home!
Whilst many types of meats are eaten throughout Latvia, the one constant that you will find in almost all main meat dishes is that they’re served with a pile of potatoes! Heck, you don’t even need the meat as Latvians will happily eat potatoes as a stand-alone dish. Whether they are boiled, fried (my favourite!) or served as a pancake, Latvians like many Eastern Europeans can’t get enough of them!
No matter the time of year, or weather outside, soup is nearly always served as an entree to the main meal. Many of the soups you’ll find in Latvia are similar to those in other Eastern European countries. Cold beetroot soup (make sure to add plenty of garlic!), vegetable soup and Frikadelle (type of meatball) soup are common varieties. A distinctly Latvian soup is Maizes zupa, or Latvian bread soup which is actually served as a dessert and consists of black bread, fruits and cream.
Piragi are a type of bread roll commonly filled with bacon, minced meat, cabbage or cheese that are one of the most common baked goods you will encounter at a local Latvian bakery. They are most commonly eaten as a snack or served as an appetiser before the main meal.
Poland has pierogi, Ukraine has varenyky and Latvia (and Russia) has pelmeni. Whilst each country might argue about the peculiarity of their own dish, they are all essentially the same type of dumpling. Most commonly filled with minced meat, you can also find potato or cheese fillings. Large bags of frozen pelmeni are extremely cheap in Latvian supermarkets, making them a popular choice for penny-pinching students or even a broke backpacker!
8. Sour Cream
Sour cream is to Latvians what ketchup is to Westerners – it’s by far one of the most popular accompaniments to Latvian food (including pelmeni!). This means Latvians take sour cream extremely seriously. Unlike back home where you might just find a regular and fat-free option, in Latvia, you will see multiple varieties of sour cream with different fat percentages so choose carefully!
9. Curd Snacks
Throughout the Baltics, a popular sweet snack is a chocolate covered curd yoghurt. The brand to look out for in Latvia is Kārums which make a variety of flavours including plain vanilla, chocolate, caramel, berries and my personal favourite -coconut! You can be sure that you’ll find these little packets of goodness at most Latvian grocery stores!
10. Black Balsam
Latvia’s national drink, Black Balsam, is a herbal liqueur made of 24 different ingredients including various plants, berries and spices. It can be drunk straight, in a cocktail or even by putting a shot into a cup of coffee or tea. At 45% alcohol, it might not be for everyone however you can also taste it by sampling Black Balsam chocolates that have the unique flavour without somewhat less alcohol content!
Where to try traditional Latvian food?
If you find yourself in Riga and want to go to a restaurant to try a large variety of traditional Latvian cuisine, then one of the best places to go is one of the many Lido restaurants. These operate as a cafeteria-style restaurant where you pick up a tray when you enter and can then browse the rows of Latvian food and drink before paying at the end.
There is a huge variety of dishes to try including pre-prepared soups, salads and desserts as well as freshly cooked hot dishes. The restaurants are also quite affordable if you’re visiting Latvia on a budget and you can expect to pay around €6-10 per person for dinner depending on your choices.
There are also a number of restaurant in Latvia, particularly in Riga, that are taking traditional Latvian cuisine and modernising it with international culinary influences. One great place to see this in action is at Riits where there is a strong focus on utilising local produce and serving seasonal dishes. Make sure to book a table in advance as it is quite a popular restaurant amongst locals!
Latvian food might not be synonymous with the world’s best cuisines however as somebody of Latvian heritage, travelling to Latvia enabled me to savour plenty of different foods that I had enjoyed growing up. Even if you not familiar with Latvian food, I urge you to take the time to understand the peculiarities of Baltic cuisine as you will undoubtedly be surprised about some of the flavours you will encounter!
Have you tried Latvian food before? What’s your favourite dish? Leave a comment below!