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What do we mean when we talk about traditional Lithuanian food; food that you’ll find at any Lithuanian restaurant? Well, let’s start with the bread. It’s a popular mantra amongst locals in Vilnius that Lithuania has four religions: Christianity, basketball, beer, and bread. Christianity simply because it’s the most popular religion amongst the people in Lithuania – especially the older generations. Basketball is played, watched, and loved with fervour across the country. Beer – most alcohol, in fact – is drunk an awful lot by almost everyone all the time. And bread is a staple part of the Lithuanian diet. So much so that Lithuania has its own unique way of preparing a local bread simply known as ‘black bread’. Because it comes out black. Lithuanians are a very clear and literal people.
But, beyond black bread (which we will cover in detail) there’s a massive range of exciting traditional Lithuanian food to try when you visit Vilnius. For example, Lithuania is an agricultural country; lots of mushrooms, milk, and honey. Much of the food is based around root vegetables which grow easily in the cold climate. The food culture of Lithuania is rich and creative indeed, far more than most people expect it to be before they visit Lithuania. Let’s take a look at some of the most unique and delicious Lithuanian food.
Cepelinai (Potato Dumplings)
A staple Vilnius food. The original word for these dumplings was didzkukuliai, but the name slowly an unofficially changed to cepelinai during the course of the 20th century because of their physical resemblance to zeppelin airships (cepelinai is pronounced more like ‘zeppeliny’). But what are they? Cepelinai are similar in texture to Chinese bao dumplings, with a soft outer shell made of potato instead of dough. Inside, again similar to bao, they are filled with ground meat – or sometimes cheese or mushrooms. That makes them ideal for carnivores, vegetarians, and vegans alike! They’re an incredibly hearty food, meat-based and carb-heavy, and as such are typically eaten as a main meal with various sides.
Cepelinai were popular during Soviet times as there wasn’t much meat but plenty of potatoes around. Although they’re immensely time-consuming to make ad can go wrong very easily, it was a time for families to come and do something together and enjoy quality time without political issues. They became a kind of national food when food kiosks rose in number and popularity as they could be made in large quantities and stored easily for a long period You can find cepelinai at any traditional Lithuanian restaurant.
Kibinai (Savoury Pastries)
Kibinai are going to be incredibly familiar in sight, taste, and texture to any British person or anyone who has visited the UK. That’s because they’re essentially identical to Cornish pasties. They became a staple dish in Lithuania thanks to the Kariate people, an ethnically Turkic group of people who have lived in Lithuania for hundreds of years. These pasties are big, baked in a crusty, crunchy shell of pastry and filled with whatever meats and vegetables you like. Typically you’ll find them full of chicken, beef, mushroom, potato, or onion. While not strictly a Vilnius food, they’re really popular in the old capital of Trakai, which is now a small castle town outside of Vilnius. In Trakai, you’ll find bikinai at almost every Lithuanian restaurant.
Saltibarsciai (Pink Soup)
Served seasonally, this beetroot and kefir soup is accompanied by hardboiled eggs and boiled potatoes. It’s a Vilnius food that Lithuanians are exceptionally passionate about. One of the more unique things about it is that it’s served cold, as a traditional means of cooling down on those rare hot Lithuanian summer days. The beetroot causes it to turn a pink that often reminds American tourists of Pepto Bismol, to the laughter of locals in Vilnius. While at first the idea of a cold pink soup might seem a little off-putting, its full of delicate flavours and is incredibly soothing and wholesome.
If there’s one thing that sums up the personalities of Lithuanian people so perfectly, it’s the fact that every family has their own recipe and each person think theirs is the correct one. They won’t listen to, and will often be enraged and disgusted by, any other family’s tweak to the formula. It’s hilarious to watch their impassioned arguing, which is (mostly) all in good fun. Here, by the way, is one of the many possible recipes for pink soup, in case you’d like to cook it yourself. But if you don’t, every traditional Lithuianian restaurant in Vilnius serves their own unique saltibarsciai recipe.
Forest Mushroom Soup
Mushroom picking is integral to the culture of Lithuania. In fact, when we were asked if we, UK citizens who also have a home nation covered in mushrooms, had ever been mushroom-picking, even the younger Lithuanians among us were truly shocked by our news that we’d never been mushroom-picking ourselves. When the mushroom-picking season comes around in Lithuania, it’s best to avoid telling your neighbours about your chosen picking spots in order to avoid arguments and to make sure you have time to pick plenty so that you can dry them ready for the traditional Christmas eve dishes. In fact, picking your own mushrooms is so important that, rather than serving store-bought mushroom, it’s better not to serve them at all. You picked them yourself or got them from a family member of nothing.
Dried Apple Cheese
We should be clear: this is not actually cheese at all. It’s a big lump of dried apple, the kind you find in those super-healthy snack bars that are a poor substitute for chocolate. But these lumps of dried apple are really delicious, and cheap, too! There’s not much else to say about them, though. They’re just a big lump of dried apple, flattened into a pancake, served as a dessert or bought as a healthy snack from the local stores.
While you may not find apple cheese at a Lithuanian restaurant, you will find it at most local stores in Vilnius.
Fresh Cucumbers with Honey
Beehives are also an integral part of Lithuanian culture, and the combination of fresh cucumber with fresh honey is a simple yet traditional Lithuanian food. Many people keep bees in Lithuania and if you share part of your hive with a friend for them to create their own then that person becomes one of your closest friends – akin to a brother or sister.
As we mentioned earlier, black bread is the absolute staple of traditional Lithuanian food. It makes up the very backbone of their society, like rice in Japan or hummus in the Middle East. It’s found in almost every Lithuanian restaurant and it is absolutely delicious. But what is black bread?
Black break is rye bread, traditionally made by farmers’ wives. And this is a very prestigious position held by farmers’ wives, in fact, which demonstrates the sheer strength and power of both their bodies and their position in society. They beat the dough for hours and hours, and eventually the rye bread is fermented, which gives it an incredible longevity and its black colour. Speaking personally for a second, I will eat anything if it’s fermented or pickled. I hate cucumber but if you pickle it into a gherkin I’ll devour it. Black bread is, likewise, easy to demolish. It’s soaked in goodness and absolutely delectable. If there is one traditional Lithuanian food you need to try, it’s black bread.
Make your own garlic bread — the Lithuanian way
Having black bread is only half the meal. There’s even more to this traditional Lithuanian food. In true Lithuanian fashion, where everything is done by hand and requires a little muscle, black bread is usually turned into garlic bread by you, the diner, by taking a small piece of garlic and grinding it against the black bread until it coats it. Like buttering bread, but with your own might rather than a butter knife. It might seem crude, but it’s a lot of fun and a better way to eat garlic bread than anything the French do. Not only is black bread found in any Lithuanian restaurant, so is the garlic to go with it. It’s the most fun you can have with Vilnius food.
Three Nines (Trejos Devynerios)
What is now drank as a liquor was traditionally a medicine from the 16th and 17th centuries, prescribed by doctors for all sorts of ailments from colds and joint pains to more serious conditions. Of course, it is just a liquor but one that’s bursting with nutrients (sort of) since it is infused with 26 different herbs to give it an incredibly complex flavour. But, yes, three nines add up to 27, not 26. The twenty-seventh flavour comes from the liquor’s storage kegs. Clever name, no?
Like black bread and pink soup, rhubarb wine is exactly what it says on the tin (or glass). It’s wine made from fermenting rhubarb instead of grapes. While this might sound strange and discomfiting at first, it’s honestly soothing and tastes like something from your childhood. As a kid I would pretend to be sick so that I could drink just a single spoonful of Calpol, and rhubarb wine has that same warming, taste of childhood. It’s a sweet and lovely wine and one of the more delightfully unusual things about Lithuania. While not found at every Lithuanian restaurant, rhubarb wine is found at a lot of Vilnius bars.
What do you use to wash down black bread, the most traditional Lithuanian food? Why, black bread beer, of course! Kvass is a Lithuanian beverage made from black bread, and it has a surprisingly low alcohol content of around 1%. It’s a staple drink across Lithuania and beyond/ In fact, its reach has extended so far across Siberia that you’ll find it served in bars in Northeastern China! Kvass, like its big brother black bread, is utterly divine, and a refreshing beverage indeed. You’ll find it poured at almost every Lithuanian restaurant.
Note: We experienced this informative food tour with Vilnius Urban Adventures taken by our wonderful guide Viljia, we’d highly recommend taking the tour if you visit the city as we visited places we simply wouldn’t have found otherwise.
We were hosted in Vilnius by Tinggly while staying in their blogger house, their slogan is ‘give experiences not stuff’ and after this wonderful experience, we wholeheartedly agree!