One of the first things I discovered in Helsinki was the dominance of filtered coffee over barista type of coffee. This was also the case in the Hakaniemen market hall (Hakaniemen kauppahalli) where I had my breakfast filtered coffee with a Karjalanpiiratat (Karelian pasty) and a cabbage puff pastry. A good entry into the Finnish cuisine.
It was my first time to be in the Nordics and I was looking forward to get to now the local cuisine. My expectations were partly set by the Helsinki edition of the Fare magazine which covers cities from a culinary perspective. It certainly was different to the hype around Copenhagen. Nordic means also some kind of cool and calm to me. I found this cliché kind of true for Helsinki but without the hipster stuff. And this means focus on good, old filtered coffee.
The Hakaniemen market hall
The Hakaniemen or Hakaniemi market hall was my entry point to the Helsinki cuisine. The red brick building dates from 1914. The two floors had just been renovated and everything was white and clean. Very white and clean, a contrast to its brick shell outside. The whiteness promoted a minimalist, concentrated ambiance which helped to bring more light into the hall and let the produce shine.
The ground floor had all the produce and streetfood, whereas the top floor all sorts of hardware and souvenirs in stock.
Discovering the unfamiliar in a market is what gets my attention. That meant that I had to calibrate my eyes to the merchandise. At first sight I saw only seemingly familiar meat, fish, vegetables, flowers and delicacies. Then I dug deeper and discovered the unfamiliar.
It started with the small breakfast where the bakery was not overloaded with croissants and sweet baked goods, but served a lot of rustic ones filled with meat, cabbage, egg and similar. I had never seen Karelian pasty before, so I took one. It is a rye based oval shaped pasty of roughly 12 cm open at the top and often filled with some sort of rice pudding. A classic topping is a mixture of butter and hard boiled egg called “munavoi“. I liked it, even though I would not call it a breath taking experience. The filtered coffee was filtered coffee.
Walking through the aisles it seemed that the market hall was mainly about meat and fish, not surprisingly when you consider that Helsinki is close to the sea, has thousands of lakes and quite a lot of surface for so little people in a rather colder climate. How did I get this wrong impression? Probably because I saw only one vegetable and fruit vendor amongst the 25 or so food stalls. At second sight I found also a few bakeries, spices, delicacies from Italy etc.
In contrast to the market halls I know in Germany, I did not see traders with a Turkish, Arabic, Persian etc. family history, something I surely missed. But it is hard to tell just looking at people. Having traders with such cultural heritage creates a different layer of ambiance, style of displays and conversations, meaning more variety in the market, something I appreciate.
What caught my attention?
I like bread. A lot. I love baking bread as well. And I love open-faced sandwiches. Helsinki is a feast for those, especially in the Hakaniemen market hall. I am used to little variety in Germany: mozarella with tomato, gouda cheese, Gouda with ham or salami or similar. Sometimes there are a few more “Italian” looking ones. Here the variety was large variety based on Finnish (?) ingredients. Different spreads, fish, seafood, meat and more garnished with dill or other herbs. Not so much cheese.All very nicely placed on a slice of rye or wheat bread or half a roll. Different style and different tastes to what I am used to. I liked it.
Did I mention that I love bread?
I was aware that rye is often used in Finnish breads, but I was surprised that it did not really dominate. And I did not find a lot of sourdough based rye bread. I learned from a waitress that quick breads are more common. I looked at three bakeries in the market hall, but was not really observant enough to dig deeper into the existing variety. I bought a flat rye bread wheel wrapped in plastic which was more satisfying and with a longer shelf life than I expected. It was even appreciated at home. So i had to correct a little bit my assumptions.
In sourdough oriented bakeries outside the market hall, I also could not find the dense type of rye breads I am used to in Germany.
Bear & reindeer!
I had never seen it before. And I had never tasted it before. And it was easy to buy both in the Hakaniemen market hall. Not only at one stall. It was mostly cured or smoked and not cheap. I shared a small piece of smoked reindeer with my Croatian friend at home. We both liked it. It had a smooth, almost elegant game taste, was salty in a pleasant way and lean. Good for visitors: it is vacuumed packed.
I had tried bear on 10€ slice of bread a couple days earlier in the Vanha Kauppahalli (Old Market Hall), but was not overwhelmed. The very lean meat had the taste of a slightly gamy beef tartar. I did not see the need to bring it back home. Probably a mistake not giving it a second chance.
When a city faces the sea and has plenty of lakes in the “backyard”, fish should be common place. It was. And in a nice variety. A lot of it was smoked, cured or graved. I could not resist to sample a little and eat it in the hotel to get first hand experience. The choice was overwhelming and my stomach finite. I still have good memories of what I bought.
Of course herring, a common fish in the Baltic region was abundant in the market hall, but also salmon in a large variety of preparations. A small sweet water fish maybe twice as big as anchovies seemed to be a staple food which I also saw at the Kauppatori streetfood market. As I am not a fish expert and reading Finnish labels proved difficult to me – too lazy for a digital translator, I could not identify all of them, but I was impressed.
Other stalls had also a very nice display of their goods, the owners put a lot of effort in pleasing the eyes of customers by displaying what I would call an orderly abundance. Abundance because the stalls were full of produce, no empty spaces, every square centimeter used, always the signal: there is plenty. Orderly because nothing got in the way on providing focus on the goods. No scale, other equipment or empty boxes were visible.
In Hakaniemen market hall meat, fish and bread were in focus meaning represented by more than one stall. Other produce categories were represented by single stalls only, thus clearly showing the focus here. Fruit, Mediterranean specialties, pasta, cheese, coffee, tea, flowers etc. ensured that pantries could be sufficiently filled.
All in all
I went a few days in a row to experience the Hakaniemen market hall. The hall is new and has a touch of class but somehow grounded, offering tourists a nice spot to enjoy Finnish food culture without being a souvenir place. With its produce it has a distinct character, I would not find something similar in Germany or France. I did not see extravagant offerings, but an own good quality which may represent the country pretty well. I had more fun with this market hall than with the more tourist oriented Vanha Kauppahalli (Old Market Hall).
When in Helsinki, it is definitely worth making a detour and visiting it.
A little link list
- Hakaniemi market hall on Wikipedia
- The official website and on Instagram
- A blog post from travel and lifestyle diaries
- An old post from eat-drink-man-woman-blog