It's fair to say that 2021 is an exciting time to dine in Helsinki. Part of what makes the local dining scene so vibrant is how international chefs and restaurateurs showcase their culinary background in their new home. Whether it be replacing ingredients like fresh citrus with local rhubarb, going out to forage for wild herbs and mushrooms, or simply taking inspiration from Finnish gastronomy, some of the most unique and exciting food is being served by those who are new to Helsinki.
I was fortunate enough to speak with a few chefs and restaurateurs from different backgrounds about what they appreciate and find inspiring about the local dining scene. We discussed how they adapt Finnish ingredients to their style of cooking, seasonality and introducing new forms of dining to the people of Helsinki.
Sake Bar & Izakaya celebrates Finnish ingredients and Japanese izakaya culture
The first of these chefs is Minori Yoshida from Sake Bar & Izakaya, a Helsinki-based pop-up restaurant serving Japanese izakaya-style food. She explains that an izakaya, which she compares to a Spanish tapas bar, is a casual restaurant that serves dishes that pair well with alcohol.
After moving to Finland seven years ago to work in the tourism industry, Minori shifted her career and began to work in different restaurants around Helsinki. In 2019 she started Sake Bar & Izakaya with her husband, Benjamin Öberg in order to introduce izakaya culture to diners in Helsinki.
When I asked her about what Finnish ingredients inspire her, she said, "Do you know umeboshi [a Japanese pickled fruit in the apricot family]? We can't find fresh ume in Finland, so we use karviaiset, gooseberries. In the spring, we love to use edible plants like young maitohorsma, rosebay willowherb, and vuohenputki, ground elder".
While they are still searching for a space for their permanent restaurant in Helsinki, Sake Bar & Izakaya connect with their customers via their social media channels. Doing their pop-up izakaya at other restaurants in Helsinki and selling takeaway food all across the city.
Paisano serves a seasonally-focused menu filled with Filipino flavors
Paisano, which opened in 2019, is a modern Filipino bistro located in the centre of Helsinki. "We wanted to showcase Filipino flavours and translate them into a language that is understandable in Helsinki," says Justine Caoibes, co-owner of Paisano. Justine arrived in Helsinki over ten years ago after being recruited from the Philippines to work in the culinary industry. After working in various restaurants and hotels around Helsinki, Justine and his business partners opened the first Filipino restaurant in Finland, Pobre, in Kamppi. One year later, they opened Paisano.
Embracing the harsh winters, celebrating the bountiful summers, and adapting to the seasonal nature of cooking in Finland is what inspires head chef Dwight Dumale. He says, "We have to follow the rules of nature here, and that's a good thing. That's something you don't normally think about when you are in a tropical country, like the Philippines, where you have all of these ingredients all year round. So we change with the seasons".
One dish at Paisano that showcases both Filipino flavors and celebrates Finnish produce and gastronomy is their twice-cooked ox tongue, served with kohlrabi. The bright and crunchy kohlrabi offers a refreshing textural contrast to the melt-in-your-mouth texture of the rich ox tongue. Dwight explains that kohlrabi was an ingredient he first discovered after moving to Helsinki four years ago, adding a distinctly Northern European vegetable to a dish filled with Filipino flavors.
Taqueria Lopez y Lopez is home to good food and good vibes
Opened in 2019, Taqueria Lopez y Lopez is one of Helsinki's most popular taquerias, with four unique locations in Kamppi, Punavuori, Teurastamo, and Kallio.
As veteran restaurateur Manu Torchio describes it, "Taqueria Lopez y Lopez is a casual restaurant that is easy to approach and that also brings the idea of sharing culture. As a concept, we try to give our customers the full package; we have a bar, play great music, and create a nice welcoming vibe". When asked about what sharing culture means, Manu responded by saying, "Just give a little bit of where we are from. We have a variety of people, languages, and cultures working here."
Taqueria Lopez y Lopez utilizes local Finnish products, including Finnish pork, beef, and chicken. In addition, they exclusively use Finnish tomatoes year-round. When available, they feature Finnish strawberries in their slushy margaritas, "When it is strawberry season, we use Finnish strawberries. They are the best and have the most flavor".
Hills Dumplings is a casual New World Asia restaurant serving handmade dumplings and craft cocktails
Three years ago Filippo Phoumsavanh and his business partner Edward Szechi opened their Punavuori restaurant Hills Dumplings, which has recently relocated to Kamppi. Hills serves around 600,000 handmade dumplings annually, to which Filippo credits his dedicated and hardworking team.
The name "Hills" is a tribute to Melbourne's diverse Box Hill neighbourhood where Filippo was born and his mother ran a neighbourhood restaurant. They serve what Filippo calls New World Asia cuisine, borrowing the phrase new world from viticulture. "My parents and other immigrants like them brought food from their home countries to Australia and cultivated something different there. So now I've brought it somewhere else", he adds.
When asked about what ingredient he was drawn to in Finland, Filippo told me that one of the first dumplings Hills served was called the Helsinki dumpling, filled with a beetroot puree and served with plenty of dill. Filippo explains, "In Laos, we use loads of dill, but in many other countries around us like Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia, they don't use it and even refer to it as Laotian coriander."
This is just an introduction to the incredible food and stories told by international restaurateurs and chefs in Helsinki. Numerous restaurants around Helsinki transform local ingredients, like bilberries or Baltic herring, into something uniquely rooted in their cuisine. Take a moment to enjoy and explore Helsinki's local dining scene that features cuisines, flavors, and experiences from around the world.
Article was written in collaboration with the Ruskeat Tytöt Media.