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Food writer Zuza Zak on traditional and emerging Baltic cuisine

Zuza Zak’s second book, Amber & Rye, takes readers on a journey through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, where traditional recipes and time-honoured techniques collide with an emerging new-wave food culture.

Published 6 Jul 2021, 08:00 BST, Updated 6 Jul 2021, 14:13 BST
Creamy fish soup with parsley dumplings from Zuza Zak's new book, Amber & Rye.

Creamy fish soup with parsley dumplings from Zuza Zak's new book, Amber & Rye.

Photograph by Ola O Smit

What inspired you to focus on the food of the Baltic states for your new book, Amber & Rye?

I spent the first eight years of my life in Poland, but my grandma, Halinka, came from Vilnius, Lithuania, and she talked about it so much that even as a child it was somewhere I wanted to explore. After the success of my first book, Polska: New Polish Cooking, it felt like the time had come for Eastern European food to have its moment. I started reading up on the Baltic States, and the cuisine seemed a natural progression from Polish cooking. I saw that, just as in Poland, there was a food renaissance going on in the region. I find it so life-affirming that, after all the hardships of communism and the wilderness of the following years, we now have this blossoming of culture and cuisine.

How did you research the book?

I took a trip through the Baltic states with my partner, Yasin, who did the travel photography, and our three-year-old daughter. We spent a month driving across the region — something I’d recommend as a way to properly see each place. We had a relaxed itinerary, so there was space for spontaneity, and it was one of those trips where we met the right people at the right time.

What flavour profiles and cooking techniques best sum up the region?

Each country has its own unique culinary traditions, yet the flavours and ingredients overlap. Take rye, for example; in Estonia, you find it used in bread soup — a dessert with a darkly intense flavour, which I’ve turned into a rye bread and chocolate mousse in the book. In Latvia, on the other hand, you find rye crumbs toasted with spices and used in a trifle with berries and cream. The Balts love sour food, too. Sauerkraut is enjoyed throughout the region, often with home-cured meats. In Estonia, I was introduced to fermented wild garlic; in Latvia to fermented gooseberries. In Lithuania, I found the local cuisine has a lot of overlap with Poland, such as potato latkes (pancakes), cold beetroot soup and dill potatoes with kefir. This isn’t surprising, since they were the same country for some 200 years. Favourite ingredients in all three Baltic countries include barley, roasted buckwheat, fish such as herring and sprat, gherkins, sea buckthorn, rhubarb, curd cheese, kefir and all kinds of berries and wild mushrooms. Dill is used with abandon. Something new I discovered on my travels was birch syrup: it’s the Estonian answer to maple syrup and has the power to turn any sweet dish into something spectacular.

Read more: Five recipes from Zuza Zak's new book, Amber & Rye

Zuza Zak's book, Amber & Rye: A Baltic Food Journey, is published by Murdoch Books, RRP £25.

Photograph by Yasin Salazar

Why do you think Baltic cuisine is relatively undiscovered in the UK?

The Baltic states have only found their individual, unique styles relatively recently. Post-communism, the food culture took a while to recover, but the foodie renaissance is now in full flow and word’s getting out  — although it takes a little while to shake off that outdated image of a meat-heavy, communist-style cuisine. There’s something incredibly refreshing and fun about the way Baltic food culture is developing — it’s based on tradition, but not bound by it. While there are some interesting ingredients and flavour profiles, Baltic food is also simple and unfussy, so it’s easy to recreate.

Which recipes in the book mean the most to you?

Syrniki (cheese pancakes) with berries and popped chocolate buckwheat — they’ll forever be associated with that magical trip. Also, fried herrings with quick-pickled red onion and gherkin sauce, because it’s the taste of the Baltic sea, with its endless beaches. It’s a shared flavour profile of the three countries and Poland.

How did you research the historical and cultural narrative included alongside the recipes?

What interests me the most is exploring history and culture through the language of food. I always start off in the library: the British Library and the library at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies are wonderful places for research. Then I just talk to people about food — that’s why it’s important to spend as much time as possible in the place you’re writing about. I continued my research in the UK by seeking out Balts living here, too. 

Zuza Zak's book, Amber & Rye: A Baltic Food Journey, is published by Murdoch Books, RRP £25.

Published in Issue 12 (summer 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food

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