Lithuanian Cuisine / A Brief Introduction
When we think of Lithuanian cuisine, we think of the stereotype - meat and potatoes, pickled herring, dark bread and, probably, more potatoes. But does the stereotype really live up to itself in the everyday life of a Lithuanian? Probably not. Let’s dig a little bit deeper and see what we really eat - at home, on the go, when we go out, and what we put on the family table.
“Abstract to me is not knowing what to say, but saying it anyway.”
Lithuanian cuisine, just like every other aspect of life, has undergone a great depression during the Soviet times - we had massive shortages - people were standing in queues just to get a loaf of bread, and our grandparents hadn’t seen an exotic fruit up until somewhat twenty years ago. But then everything changed - produce started flowing in - slowly and gradually at first, but over the last ten years - at an incredible pace. Now we have everything you can think of - papayas, dragon fruit, and lychees all year round - and we don’t need it. Just like everywhere else in the world, we got tricked by consumerism - we wanted everything we couldn’t have before, not knowing which of the shortages was natural, and therefore we forgot about the heart of Lithuanian food and cooking - seasonality.
Let’s not be too hard on ourselves - just like kids, allowed to have all the candy we want, once we tried it all, we got bored. We wanted our true, wholesome foods that we know and love, so we went back to small, too local, to organic. The whole wheel turned really quickly - and now we’re back to the drawing board - we cherish what nature gives us, we value the seasons, and we sense what our bodies need when the weather changes - and that’s the Lithuanian cooking I love and want to keep talking about, so let’s talk about the seasons.
Just like everywhere else in the world, spring in Lithuania brings freshness and opportunities to our plates. Us, Lithuania being a really green country, mostly have little allotments where we try and grow our own vegetables, be it somewhere outside the city or simply on our balconies. Spring is probably the only season when we don’t try and save the things we get from nature for the colder months. We enjoy sweet peas, radishes, and the early herbs and just live in the moment.
The summer is, without a doubt, the most fruitful season, quite literally. We harvest all of the vegetables, all of the fruits and all of the berries. We eat them, we enjoy them, but we also start getting ready for the winter. Jams, pickles, sauces, anything dried or in a jar - we make these and store them in our pantries, leaving that tiny bit of warmth for the cold seasons. Also, nature feeds our animals in the summer, and they feed us - milk and its products such as kefir, cheese or curd have always been a staple in the Lithuanian cuisine.
Autumn is a very special time in the year of a Lithuanian - autumn is the time of foraging, because our forest floors are suddenly covered with an incredible array of mushrooms - we boil them, pan fry them, dry them, marinate them or make soups - we eat loads of them and we can’t ever get enough.
Although nowadays we’ve got any fresh produce available to us all year round, we’ve got the feeling of when things should be eaten and when it’s time to wait for warmer months. Winter is the time for root vegetables, fattier meats, salted or marinated fish, sauerkraut, and bread - everything to keep us warm and give us energy, and we learned this from our ancestors.
This, of course, is a really rough interpretation of what our diet looks like, almost making it medieval - simple, what nature gives us, seasonal. Of course, a modern kitchen doesn’t look so primitive - time changed things up - we’ve got various spices, cheeses and meats available, we’ve got produce that’s popular in other parts of the world, and we’re learning to work with it. Slowly, but we’re learning.
Over the last decade, the food we eat has been changing dramatically, the culture was picking up on the most popular things and just producing it massively - we started following trends. I remember about four years ago, when I came back to Vilnius for a holiday (I was living in London at the time), I couldn’t believe how many coffee shops have opened - every street in the old town had at least three - and that’s excessive. Then followed the pizza and then the burgers and now Vilnius is swamped with vegan, healthy food places. We still to this day think that there’s nowhere to go out for dinner in Vilnius; however, we’ve got more restaurants per person in Vilnius than New Yorkers do, so maybe we just got spoiled!
In this piece of writing, I touched upon the surface of various aspects of the Lithuanian kitchen, but if I were to make a brief conclusion about what we eat, it would be this:
We’re still such a natural country, loads of what we eat are grown organically and we are finally starting to appreciate it and take advantage of it. We constantly want more from our food and try to bring exotic or unfamiliar flavors to our kitchens, which is great, but we pick up on trends so easily, I really wish we were more careful with who we are as eaters and just trust our guts (pun intended). Lithuania is a place with such distinct seasons and it affects our foods, whether we want it or not, so let’s embrace that! Come to think of it, seasonality is a real foodie trend right now, and don’t we just love trends?