International Cooking: Food from Latvia

I was excited to cook food from Latvia because I really enjoy the food from this part of Europe—potatoes and rye bread are common and they’re some of my favorite foods. I got some great advice from Latvian Redditors which was very helpful. I also had two offers from kind Latvians to send me some of the ingredients I can’t get here but I had to reject them since I wasn’t comfortable giving out my address. I did really appreciate the offers though!

Latvia is located in a region of Northern Europe known as the Baltic region. The other Baltic countries are Estonia to the north and Lithuania to the south. Latvia’s earliest inhabitants settled the area around 3000 BC, and are known to have traded with Rome and Byzantium.

During the 12th century, missionaries were sent by the Pope to attempt to convert the local people to Christianity, but they were not particularly receptive. German crusaders traveled there to convert the people forcibly, and by the beginning of the 13th century, Germany ruled much of present-day Latvia.

Latvia as it is today was still not established as a state. Throughout the following period, various areas were under Polish, Lithuanian, Swedish, Russian, and German rule at times.

Latvia left the German Empire and established itself as an independent state after World War I. There was a coup in 1934, after which the country became increasingly autocratic. However, Latvia was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union after World War II, and emerged as a democratic country when it officially declared independence in 1991.

Latvia today is a developed country with an advanced high-income economy.

What Do People Eat in Latvia?

As you might imagine from the country’s history, there are a lot of German, Soviet, and Scandinavian influences on Latvian cuisine. This is evident in dishes such as aukstā zupa, reminiscent of Ukrainian borscht, and karbonāde, which is a variation of German jägerschnitzel.

Latvian food tends to be on the heavier side and uses few herbs or spices. A few that are very common include caraway seeds, black pepper, and dill.

Common ingredients include potatoes, wheat, rye, barley, beets, cabbage, and onions. The seasons are very pronounced, so the cuisine tends to change throughout the year depending on what is available. In autumn, picking wild mushrooms is a popular activity. The mushrooms are often used to make a mushroom sauce that is eaten with boiled potatoes and salted cucumbers.

Meat is included in most main dishes, with the most common being pork. However, Latvians also eat a lot of fish, especially in coastal regions.

Bread, particularly dark rye bread, and dairy products such as sour cream, cottage cheese, and soured milk are important parts of Latvian cuisine. They can be part of a main meal or used in desserts.

What I Made

Scroll down to read about other popular Latvian dishes I didn’t make!

Rasols (Potato Salad)

Rasols (Potato Salad)

I’ve made quite a few potato salads during this challenge, probably because it’s something I love and I like trying different variations. Latvian potato salad usually includes peas, carrots, pickles, boiled eggs, and a creamy dressing. Sometimes sausage is added too.

I started by boiling my potatoes, carrots, peas, and eggs. I also cooked some pork sausage. Once everything was ready, I chopped into cubes and combined with chopped dill pickles and a dressing made from mayonnaise, mustard, salt, pepper, and a little cream.

I thought this tasted pretty good. Adding sausage to potato salad was new for me, but I think it’s something that worked pretty well.

The recipe I used for this is one that someone from the Latvian subreddit linked for me. It is from the recipe section of TV Net, a Latvian news site. It’s in Latvian but my browser was able to translate it.

Rupjmaize (Rye Bread)

Rupjmaize (Rye Bread)

I’m always happy when I reach yet another country that enjoys rye bread, because I love making it and getting to eat it throughout the week. Proper Latvian rye bread (and rye bread from some other countries in the region such as Ukraine and Russia) is made using fermented rye malt. This is literally just rye that is fermented and ground into powder. Along with bread, it is used to make dark beer and kvass, a popular Latvian drink. I bought the rye malt here on eBay. I was looking for fast shipping and I was glad to find this option which ships from New York; supporting Ukraine is a nice bonus. I decided it was worth the investment because I love rye bread; this will just give me an excuse to bake more of it!

For this bread, I used a recipe given to me by someone on the Latvian subreddit. I didn’t quite do it justice because I had a timing issue. I had planned to start the bread in the morning but forgot I had a dentist appointment. My sourdough starter was ready to go (after feeding with rye flour the night before) but I didn’t have the time to make the bread so I decided to just make it in the afternoon instead. I fed my starter in the morning and started the recipe once it was ready. But it’s cold here at the moment so every stage took longer than it would have otherwise. My bread could have used a longer rise but I needed to go to bed so I just gave it as long as I could before baking. This resulted in a denser loaf than I think was intended, but I was still pretty pleased with it.

To make this, I first mixed fermented rye malt with caraway seeds and hot water. Here I used a lot less caraway than the recipe called for because it sounded like a lot and I find caraway to be a bit overwhelming sometimes. I let that sit until cool, then mixed it with my sourdough starter, warm water, dark rye flour, a small amount of regular white bread flour, salt, brown sugar, honey, and molasses. I was meant to use malt extract, but I didn’t have that so I used half honey and half molasses instead. I wanted to make sure the bread had enough sweetness but didn’t want it to taste too molasses-y.

I kneaded the bread really well, then let it rise. The recipe said 3-3.5 hours, which would probably be enough when it’s not the middle of winter. I think I gave mine close to 4 hours before I needed to move on.

Next, I shaped the dough and put it in my proving basket. This part was meant to take an hour but I think mine could have used longer. However, it was getting late. So I transferred the dough to my Dutch oven, which I’d been preheating, and let it bake. I baked it for about 25 minutes with the lid on, then 20 with the lid off at a slightly lower heat. Then I set it on a cooling rack and went to bed! Denser breads such as rye bread do take a while to cool completely, and the texture is best when you wait until that point to slice them. The person who gave me the recipe said it can take 8 hours, so I thought overnight would work well.

When I went to slice the bread the following morning, I was a little worried it would be too dense due to not letting the dough rest enough—I definitely don’t think the bread rose as much as it could have in the oven. However, I felt that the bread actually turned out pretty well. It wasn’t overly dense and the flavor was amazing. I’ve made similar rye breads before and the only major difference in ingredients is the fermented rye malt, so that has to be where the flavor is coming from. I’m excited to try it in other rye bread recipes, but I may give this one another go first when I can dedicate the proper amount of time.

Rupjmaize (Rye Bread)

Speķa Pīrādziņi (Bacon and Onion Buns)

Speķa Pīrādziņi (Bacon and Onion Buns)

I love making filled pastries and rolls so I knew I had to make these bacon and onion buns when I saw them. These are also known as ‘piragi’.

First, I cooked the bacon and onion mixture, which is just bacon, onion, salt, and pepper. I let that sit in the fridge since the recipe said the filling is easier to work with when cold.

Next, I made the dough out of flour, water, milk, butter, egg, yeast, salt, and a little sugar. I let it rest for nearly 2 hours, and then I was ready to fill and shape my buns.

The shaping seemed to be going pretty well at first. It was taking a while, so I decided I would just bake one tray at a time rather than having to mess with rotating trays in the oven. I figured I’d have the next batch ready for the oven by the time the first was done baking. This timing method worked pretty well, but my first buns all split open at the seams. Once I saw that had happened, I concentrated on sealing my buns better. But the next batch also split!

For my third and final batch, I felt like I did a really good job of sealing the buns. I couldn’t even see the seams. But they were there anyway and those buns also split. I’ve had similar recipes split before but I’ve never had it happen to every single bun/pastry!

The recipe didn’t include any detail about how to not have your buns open in the oven, aside from saying to seal them well. I’m now thinking that I should have placed the buns seam-side down. It seems obvious now, but again, I’d not had quite this issue before!

Regardless of what they looked like in the end, these were delicious. I’d like to give them another go and see if I can get them looking right.

The recipe I used is from Belly Rumbles.

Aukstā Zupa (Creamy Beetroot Soup)

Aukstā Zupa (Creamy Beetroot Soup)

This beetroot soup is made mostly from marinated beetroot and kefir. My supermarket was all out of full-fat, unflavored kefir, so I used Greek yogurt instead, with a bit of water so it wasn’t too thick.

This was easy to make and the recipe itself was very loose, without measurements for most of the ingredients. The day before, I roasted, sliced, and marinated some beetroots in a mixture of water, vinegar, salt, sugar, and caraway seeds. To make the soup, I chopped the marinated beetroot and mixed it with chopped cucumber, green onions, parsley, and dill. Then I added my Greek yogurt and water mixture, as well as mustard and horseradish to taste. I finished with a garnish of boiled egg and dill.

I’ll admit to not being too excited to make this. It’s a summer dish, and it’s winter here. I also wasn’t sure how much I would enjoy the flavors. But I have to say, this was actually quite good. Yes, it would have been better in summer, but it definitely wasn’t bad in winter. I think the horseradish was important for me; I ended up adding quite a bit.

The recipe I used for this comes from the Public Broadcasting of Latvia site.

Frikadeļu Zupa (Meatball Soup)

Frikadeļu Zupa (Meatball Soup)

This is a simple yet popular meatball soup. I had initially expected the meatballs to be made with pork, but beef seemed more common in the recipes I came across, so that’s what I used.

I started by cooking half an onion as well as some chopped carrot and potato in chicken broth. I also added a few bay leaves and peppercorns.

While that was cooking, I cooked some finely diced onion in a bit of oil. I combined that with ground beef, egg, breadcrumbs, salt, and pepper to make the meatballs. I rolled the meatballs, then coated them in flour which is a technique I’d not come across before making this. Then I saw it in a completely different recipe a few days later! So I guess it’s not that unusual. I’m not really sure what the purpose is; maybe it helps the meatballs brown quicker. They definitely had a really nice texture when cooked, so maybe the flour contributed to that too. But I can’t say for sure.

I browned the meatballs in oil, then added them to the soup and cooked for a few minutes. I took out the onion half, bay leaves, and peppercorns, and the soup was ready.

Although this was an incredibly simple dish, the broth and meatballs were very flavorful. This is something I would definitely make again!

The recipe I used for this is from Alla’s Yummy Food on YouTube.

Karbonāde (Pork Schnitzel with Mushroom Sauce)

Karbonāde (Pork Schnitzel with Mushroom Sauce)

Pork schnitzel is very popular in Latvia, and it is often served with a mushroom sauce. Chantarelles would be the mushroom of choice in Latvia, but I used regular white mushrooms.

I didn’t use a specific recipe for the pork, since pork schnitzel is something I’m already familiar with and from what I could see there weren’t any differences I needed to make for the Latvian version. I pounded some thin, boneless pork chops so they were thinner, then seasoned them with salt and pepper on both sides. I coated them with flour, followed by beaten egg, and finally breadcrumbs (regular, not Panko). To cook, I shallow-fried them in oil.

For the sauce, I cooked some onion in butter, then added mushrooms and garlic. When the mushrooms were done, I stirred in some flour, followed by water. When the sauce thickened, I took the pan off the heat and stirred in some sour cream, salt, and pepper.

I’m really not a mushroom fan, but I’ve discovered that I do like them in a creamy sauce like this. The recipe I used for the sauce is from Kitchen in the Hills.

I served this with boiled potatoes tossed in butter and dill, which is a traditional accompaniment, as well as a side salad. It was delicious but schnitzel always is!

Rupjmaizes Kārtojums

Rupjmaizes Kārtojums

Latvia has two interesting rye bread desserts. One is a soup, which you can read about in the next section, and the other is this trifle. It consists of layers of sweetened rye bread, whipped cream, and preserves or jam. In Latvia, the jam would usually be made from lingonberries or cranberries, but I used sour cherry jam, which I saw listed as a good alternative.

First, I toasted some of the rye bread I made earlier in the week and crumbled it. The recipe said to grate it, but that wasn’t working so I crumbled it with my fingers. I’d probably pulse it in the food processor a few times if I were making more than one serving. I tossed the crumbled rye bread with sugar and cinnamon.

Next, I whipped some cream and added a bit of sugar and vanilla.

I assembled the trifle in a glass by layering the rye bread mixture, sour cherry jam, and whipped cream, repeating until I ran out of rye bread and cream. I was going to add a dollop of whipped cream on top but I hadn’t quite whipped enough.

I was a little apprehensive about this, but I have to say, it was pretty good! The flavors all worked really well together.

The recipe I used is from The Kitchen Mouse.

  • Pelēkie zirņi ar speķi – a stew made from local grey peas, fried onions, and speck. It’s often served with kefir and/or rye bread. This is Latvia’s national dish, and I would have liked to make it but the grey peas were going to be expensive to buy and take a month to get here!
  • Rupjmaizes zupa – a dessert soup made from rye bread that is soaked in water and sweetened with sugar. Spices and dried fruit are often added too. The soup is served cold with whipped cream on top.
  • Skābeņu zupa – sorrel soup which also often contains other ingredients such as potato, carrot, and onion, sometimes meat too. Often served with boiled eggs.

Final Thoughts

This was a great week! I love this kind of food. My favorite food from Latvia was the rupjmaize! But if I had to choose a meal, I think I’d go with the frikadeļu zupa.

Next week, I will be cooking food from Lebanon.

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