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Lithuanian cuisine

Lithuanian cuisine features the products suited to its cool and moist northern climate: barley, potatoes, rye, beets, greens, berries, and mushrooms are locally grown, and dairy products are one of its specialities. Since it shares its climate and agricultural practices with Eastern Europe, Lithuanian cuisine has much in common with other Eastern European and Ashkenazi cuisines. Nevertheless, it has its own distinguishing features, which were formed by a variety of influences during the country's long and difficult history.

Because of their common heritage, Lithuanians, Poles, and Ashkenazi Jews share many dishes and beverages. Thus there are similar Polish, Lithuanian, and Litvak versions of dumplings (koldūnai, kreplach or pierogi, ), doughnuts spurgos or (pączki ), and blynai crepes, (bliny, , or blintzes). German traditions also influenced Lithuanian cuisine, introducing pork and potato dishes, such as potato pudding (kugelis or kugel) and potato sausages (vėdarai), as well as the baroque tree cake known as Šakotis. The most exotic of all the influences is Eastern (Karaite) cuisine, and the dishes kibinai and čeburekai are popular in Lithuania. "Torte Napoleon" was introduced during Napoleon's passage through Lithuania in the 19th century.

The Soviet occupation badly damaged Lithuanian cuisine. As elsewhere in the Soviet Union, however, its people were allowed to maintain their own small garden plots; these were, and are, lovingly tended. After the restoration of independence in 1990, traditional cuisine became one of the ways to celebrate Lithuanian identity.

Despite the apparent richness of the cuisine, Lithuanians are among the thinnest people in the developed countries of the world.

Staples

Bread

Traditionally, the centerpiece of Lithuanian cuisine is dark rye bread (duona) which is used substantially more often than light wheat breads. The dough is usually based on a sourdough starter, and includes some wheat flour to lighten the finished product. Rye bread is often eaten buttered or spread with cheese. It is sometimes flavored with caraway, or with some onion. Émigrés from Lithuania will often mention their native rye bread as the food that they miss the most.

A popular brand of bread is Palangos duona ("Palanga Bread"), a mixed rye-wheat bread of grayish color. Some varieties of Lithuanian bread contain whole seeds of rye and wheat; this type of bread is referred to as grūdėtoji, i.e. "seeded" bread.

Vegetables and spices

The most commonly used vegetable in Lithuanian recipes is the potato; in its simplest forms, it is boiled, baked, or sauteed, often garnished with dill, but a tremendous variety of potato recipes exist. Potatoes were introduced into Lithuania in the late 18th century, were found to prosper in its climate, and soon became indispensable.

Cucumbers, dill pickles, radishes and greens are quite popular. Beets (burokai) are grown more widely than in other areas of the world, and are often used for making borscht and side dishes. Cabbage is another popular vegetable, used as a basis for soups, or wrapped around fillings (balandėliai). Tomatoes are now available year-round in stores, but those home-grown in family greenhouses are still considered superior.

Lithuanian herbs and seasonings include dill (krapai), caraway seed (kmynai), garlic, bay, juniper berries, and fruit essences. Vanilla and pepper were scarce during the Soviet era, but were welcomed back after independence. The cuisine is relatively mild.

Berries and mushrooms

One of the prides of Lithuanian cuisine is its wide use of wild berries and mushrooms.

Mushrooming is a popular pastime from mid-summer to autumn. As a staple, mushrooms are usually harvested in the forest; occasionally they are purchased at roadside markets, especially on the road in the Dzūkija region from Druskininkai to Vilnius; the purchasing of mushrooms in shops is rare. Despite its status as a delicacy, mushrooms are thought of by many Lithuanians as hard to digest. A number of mushroom species are harvested from the wild, including:

Baravykas is the most valued and sought-after species; the primary usages are drying and marinating. Dried baravykas has a strong pleasant scent and is used as seasoning in soups and sauces. Voveraitė is often used fresh as a seasoning in soups or sauteed. An example of a voveraitė dish is voveraitė sauteed with chopped bulb onions and potatoes. Gudukas, arguably the most locally abundant of edible mushrooms due to its lower popularity, is usually marinated. Other edible mushrooms, such as lepšė (Leccinum scabrum), raudonviršis, raudonikis (literally, "red-top") (Leccinum aurantiacum), makavykas (Xerocomus badius), are more rare, but are also gathered and may be used in the same ways as baravykas.

Wild berries are also gathered or, even more frequently than mushrooms, purchased at roadside markets or shops. Bilberries (mėlynės) and red bilberries (bruknės) are the two most abundant species of wild berries. Cranberries (spanguolės) are valued, but their cultivation is limited to certain boggy areas, such as those adjacent to Čepkeliai Marsh. Sour cranberry or red bilberry jam and sweet bilberry jam are all considered excellent sauces for pancakes (blynai). Red bilberry jam is occasionally used as a dressing for fried chicken or turkey. Fresh bilberries may be put into a cold milk soup. Wild strawberries (žemuogės) are relatively scarce and are usually gathered for immediate consumption.

Fruit

Apples, plums, and pears, which grow well in Lithuania, are the most commonly used fruit. Because they cannot tolerate frost, tropical fruit such as citrus, bananas, and pineapples must be imported, and hence were used less often; an orange in a Lithuanian Christmas stocking was an annual treat. During the autumn harvest, fruit are often simmered and spiced to create fruit stews (compotes). Gooseberries (agrastai) and currants (serbentai) are widely cultivated; they are sweetened, made into jams and baked goods, and provide a piquant touch to desserts.

Meat

The most frequently used meat is pork, followed by beef; for immediate consumption it is often grilled, or dusted with breadcrumbs and sauteed, in a dish similar to schnitzel. The need for meat preservation no longer presents the urgency that it did during the Soviet occupation or previous times of trouble, but many favorite techniques survive, include brining, salting and drying, and smoking. There are many varieties of smoked pork products, including ham and a soft sausage with a large-grained filling; these are served as a main course or thinly sliced as sandwich fillings. Sausage-making is an art form; men will retreat with their friends and relatives to smokehouses for entire weekends, partying and arguing about the best possible procedures.

Fish

Fish caught in the area, such as pike or perch, are often baked whole or stuffed, or made into gefilte fish. Herring is marinated, baked, fried, or served in aspic.

Smoked fish such as eel or bream are popular entrees and appetizers in areas near the Baltic Sea, especially in Neringa.

Dairy products

Dairy products play an important role in Lithuanian cuisine; cottage cheese may be sweet, sour, seasoned with caraway, fresh, or cured until semi-soft. Lithuanian butters and cream are unusually rich. Lithuanian curd snacks called sūreliai are popular in Lithuania.

Soups

Soups are extremely popular, and are widely regarded as the key to good health.

  • Barščiai - hot borscht (beet soup); it is served uncreamed or blended with sour cream or buttermilk; sometimes chopped Boletus mushrooms are added.
  • Bulvinių kukulių sriuba - minced potatoes formed into small balls, and boiled in milk. These are usually made from the same potato mixture used in cepelinai.
  • Cabbage soup flavored with carrots, ham, onions, or all of these.
  • Cucumber soup - broth is pureed with cucumbers and sweet or sour cream, often garnished with dill.
  • Juka - blood soup from the southern region of Lithuania.
  • Lapienė - greens such as sorrel or spinach are braised and added to a creamy broth.
  • Sauerkraut soup - often seasoned with pork, carrots, onions, and bay leaves.
  • Šaltibarščiai - cold borscht is a summer soup based on beets and soured milk, colored a shocking pink. It is made with cooked or pickled shredded beets and various other chopped vegetables, such as cucumber, dill, or green onions. Hot boiled potatoes, cold sour cream, and diced hard-boiled eggs are often served alongside to add color, texture, and thermal contrast. Lithuanian-Americans call this soup "Lithuanian Gatorade", since it combines liquid, sugars, potassium, and salt, along with protein and vitamins, and it revives athletes, hikers, and farm workers.
  • Vištos sultinys - chicken soup is always popular, especially for the elderly and ill.

Appetizers

  • Įdaryti kiaušiniai - Hard-boiled eggs are split, stuffed and garnished; similar to deviled eggs.
  • Įdaryti pomidorai - Tomatoes are cut in half and filled with a savory stuffing.
  • Piršteliai prie alaus - These "little fingers" are thin, rolled-up puff pastries served with beer.
  • Lašiniai - (non-rendered pork underskin fat with little or no meat, known in Russian and Ukrainian as salo) is a popular appetizer in villages where it is produced locally, and is usually consumed in the form of a sandwich with unbuttered bread and bulb onions or other vegetables.

Main courses

  • Aspics (šaltiena or košeliena) - many savory foodstuffs are presented in gelatin molds, especially herring; horseradish is often served as a condiment.
  • Balandėliai ("little doves") - cabbage leaves stuffed with meat and braised.
  • Bigos - a long-simmered hunter's stew, featuring the catch of the day, sausages, and vegetables.
  • Blynai - although blynai is often translated as pancakes, they are usually more similar to crepes. They are either wafer-thin, as crepes are, or made from a yeast-risen batter, often mixed with grated apple or potato.

*Žemaičių blynai - potato pancakes, similar to latkes.
*Kėdainių blynai - similar to Žemaičių blynai, only larger and filled with chopped cooked meat
*Lietiniai or Nalesnikai - large, usually square blintzes made from thin crepes filled with minced meat, cheese with cinnamon, or minced sauteed mushrooms.
*Buckwheat pancakes - traditional dish in Dzūkija

  • Dešra - sausages are made in many different ways: they may be smoked or fresh, and include pork, beef, potatoes, or barley; in rural areas, blood may be added.
  • Didžkukuliai or Cepelinai (zeppelins) - potato dumplings stuffed with meat, mushrooms, or cheese, often garnished with spirgai, fried minced onion and/or sour cream.
  • Kastinys - sour cream "butter"; sour cream is kneaded and washed until it forms a soft spread.
  • Kibinai - pastry with mutton and onions, a Karaite dish.
  • Koldūnai, Virtiniai, Auselės - these are various kinds of dumplings, filled with minced meat, sausage, cottage cheese, or mushrooms, usually garnished with crumbled fried bacon. They are similar to Polish pierogi or kołduny, but are usually smaller.
  • Kotletai - soft minced meat patties, often served with potatoes and a sauce.
  • Kugelis (also bulvių plokštainis, the lexically correct non-foreign name, literally "flat potato dish" or banda - this usage predominates in the Dzūkija region) - potato pudding made with grated potatoes and eggs. It is usually served with sour cream and/or spirgai.
  • Pizza - now popular throughout Lithuania; cooks feel free to exercise creativity in their choice of toppings.
  • Šaltnosiukai ("cold little noses") - dumplings filled with lingonberries, not found anywhere outside Lithuania.
  • Šašlykai - cubes of pork are marinated, skewered, and grilled, preferably over birch wood; native to the Middle Eastern cuisine, a kind of Kebab.
  • Skilandis or Kindziukas - pig stomach stuffed with meat and garlic and cold-smoked.
  • Suktiniai - ("beef birds") - beef or pork is pounded until very thin, filled and rolled up, and braised.
  • Švilpikai - an oven-baked potato roll.
  • Troškinti rauginti kopūstai - a stew made with sauerkraut and the cook's choice of meats and vegetables.
  • Vėdarai - a sausage, made of a potato stuffed large intestine of a domestic pig.

Desserts

Lithuanian-style cakes (pyragas) are often baked in a rectangular pan and sometimes have apple, plum or other fruit baked in; they are less frequently iced than is customary in the United States. These cakes are cut into squares for serving. Poppy seed is sometimes used as a swirl filling in dessert bread and as a flavoring in other pastries.

For special occasions, tortes may be prepared; they often consist of 10 to 20 layers, filled with jam and vanilla, chocolate, mocha, or rum buttercreams; they are lavishly decorated. Lithuanian coffeehouses (kavinė) serve a variety of tortes and pastries to attract evening strollers.

Desserts include:

  • Kūčiukai or šližikai - very small rolls are baked and served with poppyseed milk; this is a traditional Kūčios' (Christmas Eve) dish.
  • Ledai - ice cream is served everywhere in the summer.
  • Spurgos - a Lithuanian variant of doughnuts, often filled with preserves.
  • Šakotis (also called raguotis) - a Lithuanian variant of German baumkuchen, with a very distinctive branching form; it is essentially a poundcake grilled layer by layer.
  • Žagarėliai (also known as krustai or chrustai) - Twisted, thin deep-fried pastries dusted with powdered sugar; similar to Polish faworkis or Mexican buñuelos.

Beverages

  • Alus (beer) is extremely popular throughout the country, especially since independence in 1990. Several Lithuanian beers have won international awards. Local breweries are enjoying a renaissance.
  • Arbata (tea) - chamomile, rosehip, and other herbal teas are popular as well as black tea. Many herbal infusions are used for medicinal purposes.
  • Gira is a non alcoholic beverage made by the natural fermentation of wheat, rye, or barley bread, sometimes flavoured with fruit, berries, raisins or birch sap; it is similar to Russian or Ukrainian kvass. Those brewed from rye bread and from caraway seed are popular and distributed in glass bottles. There is also a carbonated soft drink known as gira, which is distributed in plastic bottles, but it shares neither taste nor production technology with the original beverage.
  • Degtinė ("the burn") is the Lithuanian version of vodka, made from rye, wheat or potatoes. Produced domestically, its quality ranges from basic to triple-distilled.
  • Kava (coffee) is brewed in espresso makers at home, or with espresso machines in cafes. It is quite strong, and usually sweetened. Coffehouses (kavinė) can be found not only on every street corner in towns but at highway rest stops and at every point of interest.
  • Midus is said to be the most ancient Lithuanian alcoholic beverage; it is a variety of mead made from honey. It is no longer very popular in Lithuania, and its production is limited.
  • Starka, an aged vodka, as well as Krupnik, a honey liqueur, are traditional drinks dating from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 16th - 18th centuries. Today, genuine Starka is only produced in Poland, and Lithuanian Starka is rather a form of trauktinė.
  • Trauktinė is a strong herbal vodka; there are many varieties. It is also used as a traditional medicine. Trejos devynerios ("999"), steeped with 27 different herbs, is one of the best known.

Holiday and special occasion meals

  • Easter - The intricately painted Easter eggs that were prepared earlier in the week are eaten for breakfast. The diners touch their eggs together as a sort of toast (among the children, this custom sometimes devolves into a smashing contest). Dinner may be roast goose or ham and accompaniments. Dessert is often a cake made to resemble a birch log, or cookies shaped and decorated as mushrooms.
  • Birthdays - The family's favorite cake is served. Traditionally in Lithuania the day of the saint after whom one was named was celebrated by the family rather than one's own birth date; for instance, a John would celebrate his birthday on St. John's Day (Joninės), June 23.
  • Christmas Eve (Kūčios) - Twelve vegetarian dishes are presented on a table spread with hay and lit by candles; this custom is widespread in Catholic Eastern Europe.
  • Weddings - The widest possible variety of courses are served. A special bread is sometimes baked and adorned with flowers and bird-shaped decorations, or a šakotis is decorated. The ideal Lithuanian wedding lasts at least two days, so a great deal of cooking and baking goes on.
  • Funerals - The bereaved family usually hosts a dinner for all the mourners.
  • Informal gatherings and cocktail parties - The hosts often serve small open-face sandwiches, similar to those at a Scandinavian smorgasbord, topped with smoked fish, sausage, cucumbers, and so forth. Flavored vodkas, which may have been concocted with fruits and herbs according to the host's or hostess's own family recipe, may be served.

Footnotes

External links

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