Of all the things Finland (and more specifically Helsinki) is known for–design, sauna, coffee, the baby box–one thing that somehow isn’t on that list but should be is lunch. The lunch game in this town is strong, and in so many ways, all of which I’m about to lay out for you.
THE CURATED SALAD BAR
Walk into almost any coffeeshop or café around noon and feast your eyes on what I like to call the curated salad bar. Unlike America, where salad bars are a mile-long display of every vegetable under the sun, often wilting and picked over, the salad bars here offer a limited, but delectable selection.
Every salad bar in town is unique and often changes daily, offering around 5-8 different kinds of mixed salads, along with the standard base of mixed greens and a raw vegetable or two. The accoutrements are equally tailored down to olive oil and vinegar, seeds or croutons, and salt and pepper.
What I particularly love about this setup is that there is little margin for user error. My usual salad bar journey back home at Whole Foods goes a little like this: I make approximately 3.5 laps around all the different salad options, mixing, matching, contemplating if the items I select pair well together, until finally I douse it all with a combo of oil/vinegar/soy sauce/hot sauce that ultimately makes it all taste the same anyway.
Here though, they’ve done the choosing for me. Most of the descriptions are in Finnish so I’ve done most of my choosing off of looks and so far, I have yet to meet a salad I don’t like. And all I had to do was dollop it into my bowl and enjoy. I love that I don’t have to commit to a whole bowlful of one salad, nor am I tempted to “make my own” because that’s not really an option. Plus this forces me to try new combos and flavors that back at good ol’ Whole Foods, I might skip over. But the beauty of lunch in Helsinki does not stop here. Oh no, there’s more.
THE HOT ITEM OF THE DAY
I feel like Helsinki knows a thing or two about decision fatigue, and is doing its citizens and people like me a service by removing some of the decision-making when it comes to lunch. It’s true with the curated salad bar, and even more so with cafés’ tendency to only offer one or two hot items as a lunch option.
And just like their salad bar curation, their hot item curation is on point, too. Most cafés offer at least one, but usually two, soups to pair with the salad bar. One is often lohikeitto, Finnish salmon soup, and the other is usually a vegan option, like the one I had yesterday: Carrot Ginger Coconut soup.
Beyond the soup, many places offer a daily hot item that again, is again, pretty damn delicious. Items like mushroom risotto, eggplant parmesan, chicken satay, and chickpea curry. A lot of restaurants list their daily lunch specials on their website and on chalkboards out front so you can check out what they have ahead of time. And if you don’t like it, you can go to the next place, or, just stick with the salad bar.
LESS MEAT, MORE VEGETABLES
Helsinki has its fair share of burger joints and steakhouses but take a little gander at the lunch menu at almost every restaurant in town and you’ll see not one, not two, but quite a few vegetarian and vegan options.
They’ve got tofu, chickpeas, mushroom patties, lentils, falafel, and seitan but my favorite option just might be their own little Finnish invention called pulled oats. It’s a mix of oats, fava beans, and yellow peas but has the look and texture of pulled pork. And it is tasty. I’ve had it in Thai and Mexican dishes so far and am a BIG FAN. It came out a couple years ago and was so popular that it sold out in the grocery store in 11 minutes. Saveur even wrote an article singing the praises of pulled oats, so it must be good. Also, their packaging is pretty rad, too.
Now, to be clear, I’m not vegetarian or vegan. But I can get behind consuming less meat, and that’s the mindset for a lot of Finns. I asked a friend here if a lot of Finns were vegetarian, hence all the options, and she said that it was more about eating less meat for health and environmental reasons. I mean damn. Those Finns are just such responsible citizens. I love it.
FOR THE LOVE OF MONEY AND VARIETY
My number one reason for loving on lunch here has to be the cost. You see, Helsinki is a pretty expensive place to eat and drink out. That is, until you discover the lunch special. You get so much food for over half the price it would cost at dinner time. And the best part? EVERY RESTAURANT HAS ONE.
Which brings me to Part B of this section: the variety. Now this might be a bit of a misunderstanding on my own part, but when I moved to Finland I was not expecting a lot of culinary variety. And I was wrong. Helsinki has so many different cuisines and not just that, they’re all (for the most part) really good! Granted, they tend to go light on the spice level, but if you ask for it they will deliver. If you ask a Finn for food recs, chances are 90% of the places they tell you to go do not serve Finnish food. Although, if you’re town, one of your lunches has to be traditional Finnish salmon soup.
Well that’s it. My argument for why lunch is one of the unsung heroes of Helsinki. After I get a few more months under my belt maybe I’ll make a top 10 lunch spots list. And I can’t even imagine what throwing summer patio season into the mix will do.
Until next time. Moi moi.