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Culinary diversity in Finland

Ritva takes me to Hakaniemi for lunch at Silvoplee, and shopping for Chinese groceries at Vii Voan.
When I visit at someone’s home for more than a day, I inevitability offer to cook at least a few meals. Since my family had a restaurant in Gravenhurst — I think that my grandfather and father sold the Queen’s Cafe circa 1966 — I’ve always cooked. When I was a student at Northwestern University in the early 1980s, I started cooking for myself pretty well every day. It was there that I hosted my first ten-course meal with my foster relatives. Even after getting married, I still do more than the average share of cooking, because I’m faster than Diana, and it’s more constructive for me to cook than criticize. Cooking while travelling has turned out to be more than a habit; it’s now a reputation. When I go to Finland, I’ve had a habit of packing more than a few distinct Chinese ingredients in my suitcase, because (a) I can only find brands that I prefer less in the K Citymarket or Prisma hypermarkets at the Iso Omena mall at much higher prices, or (b) I can’t find them all in Finland.

In addition, when I travel, people discover that I’m generally not into fine-dining establishments, with lavish service as would be expected in a hotel. I much prefer local food, or barring that, Asian cuisine over European cuisine. When in Finland, it’s so convenient to pick up a litre of blueberry soup in the dairy section (as I skip past the milk and yogurt packages!), and the local bread is great. While the local Chinese restaurants around Helsinki and Espoo are fine,I’m sure that I can prepare meals just as well.

After my lectures at Stadia, Ritva and I have a traditional of going out for lunch. If Ritva has tight schedule between classes, there’s enough variety near the Bulevardi area that we may go for Nepalese food or a nice cafeteria. This time, Ritva suggested that me might take walk to main subway station at Kamppi — it’s a minor thrill for me to use my mobile phone to buy a transit ticket! — to go over to Hakaniemi. This was definitely fun for me, because the area is outside of the usual tourist spots in Helsinki, and not a place that out-of-towners would be likely to go!

First, we went to Silvoplee, which is a well-known vegetarian restaurant owned and operated by two former Finnish actresses. There was a wonderful buffet there, with a touch of Indian and East Asian flavours, and fresh salad greens. It’s a casual cafe atmosphere, and, if I weren’t doing my own cooking, I could see it becoming a hangout for meals for me.

Walking down the street, after viewing a number of South Asian and African grocery stores, we happened into Vii Voan. This is a tidy, well-stocked Vietnamese grocery store. I was able to find not only Chinese soy sauce, but also more obscure items that I would purchase at home, e.g. Korean buckwheat noodles — at reasonable prices on a scale in line with Toronto. Unfortunately, the selection of greens was rather narrow, but I was able to get some Shanghai bok choy. I loaded up my knapsack with supplies to take back on the subway and bus.

Ritva also took me around the local market at Hakaniemi, near the subway station. This is a local version of the market hall that tourists see on the Helsinki harbour near the waterfront. Ritva pointed out that table at the upstairs cafe where the Finnish president, Tarja Halonen, has a reserved space. North American television watchers would be most familiar with Tarja Halonen as the elected candidate who Conan O’Brien endorsed as a look-alike twin.

I’m now confident that I can make trips to the Helsinki area without having to pack so many Chinese groceries with me. Although my folding bike has probably lost most of the smell from a broken soy sauce bottle on a trip to Finland in 2004, I think that the suitcase in which it was packed still has a distinct aroma ….

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