24 November 2010

Lithuanian Food

You can't start a Lithuanian Food post with anything other than cepelinai, meaning 'zeppelin' for its shape and definitely not its airiness. From roadstops in the countryside to cafes in stylish Vilnius, people ordered cepelinai. They are potato dough stuffed with meat, cheese or mushrooms with a bacon and cream sauce on top. The first one Merlin had was disappointing, filled with cheese when he was hoping for meat and having some strange sour taste to it. This second order, on a day he dubbed "The Day of Food Redemption" was, well, redemptive, living up to all the hype or at least being much more palatable. The consistency reminded me of boiled yucca and Merlin called it "gluey." I guess "glue" is better when fastened to meat.
The second traditional Lithuanian dish that was redeemed for Merlin that day was smoked pig's ears. His first helping, in Palanga, had been served whole, a thin, limp coffee saucer sized ear. Cutting into the strangely textured facial feature was somewhat off putting and, amazingly, it had been tasteless. This plate of it was shredded, had a strong smokiness and the cartilage had a bit more snap. Yellow beans that tasted like a cross between a yellow lentil and a chickpea were served alongside both and called "peas" on the menu.
A lot of food we saw pass by looked like this, but luckily only about three of our own plates did. After the second, we decided that anything that was translated to say "roast" meant breaded, fried and covered in cream or cheese. (The third plate was simply an ordering error). This was roast fish. It reminded me of German food, except with more veggies. That's the thing about Lithuanian food, it is almost always served with vegetables, which was really great. Broccoli, cauliflower and carrots appeared beside fish or meat time and time again and salads were always available.
Understand, though, that the term "salad" (salotos) here was pretty far-reaching. This was a sprat salad and, yes, that is mayonnaise on top. The sprats (like sardines or less boney smelt) were deliciously smoked and sat atop diced onion, carrots and hardboiled eggs mixed in with cream. Most often, I opted for a salad that said "vegetable." It was easy for both of us to recognize "Caesar" or "Greek" options and we wound up ordering quite a few of each between us, especially since they were a sure-fire way to avoid mayonnaise or sour cream. At the restaurant in Palanga where Merlin had his disappointing ear, my greek salad had cubed globs of cream cheese on it. Definitely a shocker when you bite in expecting feta.
When all else fails, there's herring. I've always liked pickled herring, but ever since this trip began, my love has really peaked. In Holland, I ordered it whenever I saw it, thinking my opportunity to savor the silky fish would soon vanish. But then, in country after country, there it was! In Lithuania, it is aptly named "silke" and always served with a big dollop of sour cream. It was less pickled tasting, a bit thicker and fresher tasting. The morsels on this plate at a tavern adjacent to a gas station reminded me of really great mackerel sashimi. The smoked fish here has actually been some of the best I've had and I'll always remember smelling the sweet smokiness all through the Curonian Spit. Merlin kept saying it was just wood smoke, but my nose knows seafood.
At a cafe in Klaipeda, between normal meal times, their menu simply had nothing without meat. Looking to the dessert menu for help, I found an apple pancake and was very pleased with my fried crepe with cinnamon-heavy shredded apple filling. Of course, served with a good amount of sour cream. After that, we started taking more serious note of the pancakes or "blyneliai" available everywhere. This was one Merlin ordered, filled with chicken and topped with (you guessed it) sour cream mixed with (surprise!) curry. The best blyneliai we had were cooked by the owner of our guesthouse in Nida. The first morning they were mini ones with jam and the second they were more crepelike, rolled around curd.

Some final notes on Lithuanian food: Šaltibarščiai is the best thing ever and widely available. Rye is always served and almost everything has dill.


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