• The World Digested

Estonia, a Country of Mean


There are 28 countries, soon to be 27, in the European Union: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Republic of Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the UK. Each country is associated with a certain image—foul, fashionable, formidable, friendly or fearsome. For good or bad, for glory or infamy, each has taken turns on the headlines and has chapters written for them in school textbooks. Many of these European countries grace the cover of travel magazines, and we dream of visiting the grand castles and taste the grander cuisines.

As eyes move down the list of countries alphabetically, some of the latter alphabets appear a little misty, shrouded in the mystery of Transylvania and shadowed by the majesty of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Yet, none is as obscure as the lonesome “E,” which does not stand for England, but Estonia—hidden on the other side of the European continent, next door to Russia and across the gulf from Finland. Not quite arctic and no longer quite Russian, Estonia, the Obscure, has remained outside of the limelight of world politics, economy, gastronomy and technology for much of its short and interrupted life. Its land is old, but its history as a stand-alone nation is short because Estonia had been a part of this and part of that—Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Russia—for a stultifying thousand years. Estonia finally gained independence in 1918, for a brief stint, for it was once again swallowed up by its giant nemesis, the Soviet Union.

Estonia restarted its obscure life in 1991, with a blank slate and an empty coffer, along with other ex-Soviet comrades. Life was hard before for sure, but life became harder still. With liberty came reality, and the collapse and chaos despaired the Baltic States so much so that many, after shots of vodka, shot themselves into a quick exit[1]. Nevertheless, Estonia did not wallow in sorrow for long and embarked stoically and steadily on a road to recovery; then surging into the 21st century with the invention of Skype. Skype forever changed the international communication, yet it did not connect Estonia to the rest of the world because backpackers and packaged tours still stayed off the cobbled streets of Old Tallinn. Ultimately, it had to take a cyber attack to shock the world into recognition. Once again, Estonia recovered and, with a firm determination, went on to become the leading digital and decentralized nation. Today Estonia’s “E” stands for “E-residency,” and the rest is history.

Technology and politics aside, little is known still about Estonia, the Obscure. There is no catchy pop group, no glamorous movie star, no troubled painter, and no little mermaid. Neither are there soaring cathedrals, romantic castles or massive colosseum. No wonder Estonia remains off the tourist radar: after all, Europe is laden with world heritage sites. Furthermore, Estonia is cold but without mountains, coastal but without crystal water—so that there is no skiing, no surfing, no snorkeling and simply no sun for half of the year.

How about food, then? After all, a way to man’s heart is through his stomach: a nation lacking in visual endowments, may still win some patronage through its culinary skill. Being situated in the far north is a disadvantage for the fresh produce, but it does not rule out the possibility of gustatory wonders as scarcity is the spring of human ingenuity. As a proof, Estonia’s neighbors certainly have some iconic offerings that spring to mind instantly: smoked salmon, beluga caviar, meatballs with lingonberries and cinnamon rolls. Hence, Estonia must be hiding some tasty morsels up the sleeves, waiting to be discovered by the insatiable food industry to replace yuzu and wasabi—which have become too commonplace to be glamorous these days.

“Estonian food? There is no such a thing as Estonia food,” one Estonianshook his head in uncomfortable confusion, while another mumbled apologetically, “Oh…what is Estonian food, you ask…hum…I don’t know…really.” As a matter of fact, even theEstonia Food Academy (Toiduakadeemia) admits, “Estonians are often asked about their national dish, but unfortunately the answer is never quite straightforward.” (“Estonian Cuisine: Traditional and modern recipes,” 2017). How can Estonia not have anything representative when even the world’s premier bland food nation—England—has a national dish or two[2]?

After all, people have lived in this northern tip of the continent since 8,500 B.C. and they must have subsisted on something to have persisted this far—and eating not just any raw food, but cooked food as cooking is the ultimate expression of human culture. Cooking is a means of preserving the precious source of energy and to make certain foods edible for human survival. That is the “science” part of cooking: latest technology is employed to transform nature into nutrition. Salting, smoking, drying and fermenting[3]—food preservation is human’s greatest invention because without which humans could not have progressed. Ability to store food had freed our hands from constant hunting and gathering; and it had thus liberated our minds so that we can think beyond where and how to get the next meal[4]. Preservation of food is about human perseverance: we are what we eat.

Cooking has long ceased to be a mere “chore” so that we no longer grill meat only to disinfect it or to eat tapioca only because cassava in its original state is toxic. We enjoy cooked food because we rejoice in living. Therefore, by understanding their cuisine, we can begin to understand their culture.

Or we can extrapolate the unknown Estonian cuisine through an examination of their behavior. A key to unlock the mystery is offered by, none other than, Aristotle—in the virtue of the mean. “Mean,” as used here, does not mean a character flaw, but “intermediate,” and the virtue of the mean is a self-discipline in avoidance of the extremes. In fact, not only Aristotle, but Confucius had also toted the doctrine of the mean. Not too much, not too little, not too angry and not too timid: the lack of extremes keeps a level head. It had been a valuable skill which Estonia had mastered well, being trained by a series of dominant and domineering kings and emperors. The national character is represented by the Estonian government, in having diligently steered the country to the path of digitalization and decentralization. Furthermore,it has ensured that Estonia, as a nation, will survive through dynamic diversification on the blockchain. Estonia, in short, has not only recreated itself digitally but also reproduced a virtually immortal copy of itself on the most indestructible and inimitable form of existence currently available. Preservation of data for the perseverance of nation for data is the DNA of the country.

Having had ample opportunity for practice over the centuries, Estonians have mastered the virtue of the mean, so much so that it has seeped into their way of cooking: nothing too spicy, too salty, too sweet or too sour. Their perseverance, on the other hand, has become their most important culinary philosophy, and preservation—the key of survival—is the national method of cooking. Hence, although there are no still no distinct shapes that define Estonian cuisine, vague black and brown shadows begin to emerge around the idea of the mean and the national endurance—in the form of black bread, kama and kvass.

Rye bread is loved by many, but the Estonian version is slightly sweet with molasses. The crumbly black bread exudes an earthy aroma, simple and yet complex like the cold and rich soil. The creamy herbed butter smeared on the bread tastes of clean milk, and the herb—which is almost synonymous with dill—is refreshing and delicate, reminiscent of the pine along trees along the coast of Tallinn.

Bread is sacred in Estonia, and throwing away bread is a sacrilege. The northern altitude, coupled with natural fermentation and the addition of sugar, keeps the bread fresh for a long time[5] so the bread never really has a chance of becoming stale and inedible. However, in case such an inconceivable dereliction of duty of consuming one’s share of black bread should ever occur, one can still save its soul in breadcrumbs and bread puddings. Even when all else has failed, do not throw away the leftover loaf—a borderline treason—but make kvass. Kvass is a dark and foamy drink, made from fermented bread and water. If you can imagine a sweetish stout, you have almost tasted kvass, and just like stout, it is filling and nourishing and satisfactory, with a mellow and lingering sweetness of raisins and dates.

Speaking of drinks, Russians did not leave behind only their beloved vodka but also kombucha—another fermented drink made from black tea. When Russians were not imbibing a large quantity of hard liquor to forget the snow and sorrow, they were ingesting a large pot of tea from the steaming samovar to warm their frozen limbs and, before long, the tea mushroom also became a staple in the Russian cupboard. Today, bottles of bubbly, kombucha have become quite popular beyond Russia and Estonia in California for its, no doubt, cancer-fighting, age-defying properties.

Both kvass and kombucha use the age-old wisdom and technology, which not only preserves precious resources but also manages to transform humble ingredients to healthy and tasty supplements. While the capitalist consumers were drinking saccharine sodas, the socialist citizens were stocking up on these simpler and superior home brews.

Even when Estonians do not have time to make bread, they have an instant solution—kama. Kama is a powder mixture of peas and grains, usually rye, barley and wheat. It can be stirred into buttermilk, kefir or yogurt to make a thick and filling shake, or it can be whipped into cream for a light and delightful pudding.

Aside from grains,what have the Estonian been eating, though?

Despite having 400 islands and a long coastline, Estonians eat rather little fish—and mostly only as pickled fish. Sprats and herrings are pickled in vinegar or preserved in oil with herbs and spices.The briny, salty and slimy fish immediately evoke the dull, grey waves and the moist sea breeze, as if the glass bottle contains a fragment of the Estonian ocean and preserved it along with the fish.

However, it is meat, not fish, which has the love of Estonia. Grilled, roasted or stewed, they like them all very well, but they do specialize in smoked meat. After all, the Estonian smoked sauna has made into the UNESCO list. Each family has (or used to have) a farm and they put up their own sauna on the farm. Then they fire up the stove and invite friends over, so they can whip each other with tree branches and smoke and sweat together in convivial, steamy camaraderie, both to ward off the cold and to while away the long dead winter. The long tradition of smoked sauna naturally gave rise to smoked meats—smoking humans for perseverance and smoking beef and pork for food preservation. Sufficiently brined, spiced then fumigated for three days, the animals slaughtered in the spring will not perish in the short summer and provide valuable energy for the farmers busy in the fall.

Never wasting anything, Estonians salt and smoke them all—from ears and snouts to shoulders and shins—with varying degree of smokiness and moisture. Estonian smoked meat is excellent by itself—the loin is juicy and tender, while the shoulder is meaty and fleshy. Smoking is an art, and it is an art that Estonians mastered well: regardless of duck or chicken, breast or rump, each piece is well seasoned yet not salty, smoky yet never overpowering. It, in fact, tastes of the golden doctrine of Estonia—the virtue of the mean.

Indeed, eating in Estonia is nothing but eating Estonia—one tastes the land, the air, the trees and the sun. Guided by the principle of moderation, season is the only seasoning Estonian food seems to require. Nevertheless, preservation is only one of the many steps of cooking, and it is confined usually to the use of single ingredient. In order to be a cuisine, the food needs to go beyond: it must infuse the native flora and fauna with history and culture then imbues the flavor with a shot of the unexpected. Most importantly, a truly national cuisine must be able to impart, not only to the locals but also to the world, an atmosphere of the nation. Hence, by tasting the dishes, one can begin to comprehend the complexity of its culture and to partake the heritage of its people. A cuisine is a national phenomenon.

Looking through an Estonian menu in present-day Tallinn is akin to watch an abridged version of its history: among the traditional sausages, sauerkraut, smoked salmon, borsht and pavlova are the later arrivals of burger, pizza and ramen. However, except for the complimentary basket of black bread, if one is to order an Estonian dish, which one would it be?

Being on the other side of the ruling class, Estonia did not have the leisure nor the luxury to develop a grand cuisine, although it has been exposed to many countries over the years: Danish, German, Swedish, Tsarist-Russia, Nazi Germany and the good old USSR. It takes time to meld the nature and nation: one must be able to taste the land and smell the people—the character, the culture and the history—to call it a cuisine. A cuisine is not just made in the kitchen and most certainly not overnight: it germinates from necessity and is cultivated by social order; then it must be seasoned by foreign trade and cured by political pressure. Little by little, the essence of cuisine is distilled and refined; and drop by drop, the skill and knowledge pass through hands and generations. One day, the stream of human efforts flows into the pot of one chef, who has the genius of uniting them all and even spicing it up with his own invention. Then and only then, a national cuisine is born.

Even after its hard birth, this creature called cuisine has a precarious existence. It is a set of data—no different from genomes or bites—and it must also subscribe and succumb to the laws of physics and biology like the rest of beings on Earth. The dinosaurs, the Mayans and countless species have disappeared and are disappearing; and so are oral languages oral and written literature. Even when stored on computer, the data is not safe as it is constantly hacked and lost, so that even the words you are reading this minute may become mere flecks of dust in history and lost in the big database also known as the universe. An additional peculiar feature of this data set called “life” which differs from numerical 0s and 1s is that life must be regenerated and repeated and reproduced in order to exist. A dish has countless lives, but each life is evanescent and it decays as soon as it comes into being. No matter how many fine flavors and fond memories it creates, it is subject to the same cruel fate of attrition. We can write down cookbooks and publish recipes online, but they will not record the magic of the steam and smoke, or the sensation of surprise. However, the very evanescence makes food all the more precious, as it does the rest of us.

There is no distinct Estonian cuisine in 2018. There are individual good notes, but they have not been coalesced to sing one national anthem. But Estonia has just come into being—a very young country indeed, ready to grow. New restaurants are sprouting up in the walled medieval city of Tallinn even this minute. Who knows—one day, sooner rather than later—an artist may emerge and paints a rustic, simple and yet elegant portrait of Estonia, as Michel Sittow[6] has done many years ago.

[1] Lithuania, joined occasionally by Latvia, has the highest suicidal rate in the European countries. http://suicidology.ee/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Suicides-in-Eastern-Europe-RR-13-001-web.pdf.

[2] Having said that, the present-day British dining experience is anything but bland, with all the intriguing and intricate world flavors flying around the British Isle.

[3 ]Refrigerating and freezing are also methods of preservation, but they do not involve as much “cooking” as others to make them interesting.

[4] If any doubt, look at the hummingbirds.

[5] Even in the height of summer, easily two weeks.

[6]Amaster of portraits, who worked in many courts over Europe and painted with a sharp insight into the human soul.

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