Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

Finnish Food and Culture


Six hundred years of Swedish rule and a hundred years of Russian domination have left their stamp on the language and food customs of Finland but the character of the people remains unique.

The difficulty in understanding Finns becomes apparent when descriptions vary from “honest yet stubborn” to “slow and very quiet.” Of course there are regional and individual differences, but certain general characteristics are evident. Finns are noted for their strength and athletic prowess, and Finn names will be found in the lists of pioneers clearing sites and building towns and highways in the United States. In Canada the Finns are famed for their work on the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Welland Canal. Their apparent slowness may be attributed to their meditative and philosophical natures, and their noted long periods of silence readily explained by saying, “There is nothing to talk about.” Most of all, Finns possess a quality that can best be described by their own word: sisu, which is courage, stamina, and stubbornness rolled into one package. Others call it more simply “guts.”

It must have been sisu that gave 420,000 Karelian Finns the endurance to move from their homes en masse during the Russian invasion of their beloved province of Karelia during World War II. It must have been sisu that caused the rest of the Finn population to open their homes to these refugees, to feed and clothe them and donate their own money and precious possessions to help the Karelians eventually build new homes. And surely it is sisu that provides the Finn with the kind of moral and spiritual sustenance to live in a rugged country visited by summer only two months of the year.

The Finns call their country Suomi, literally “marshland.” Laced with more than 60,000 lakes, less than 8 percent of the land is fertile. This small arable portion consists mainly of the coastal regions. The rest of the land is largely stony or covered with forests. Crops are therefore limited. Principle ones are those that form staple foods: potatoes and a fine variety of grains including rye, oats, barley, and wheat. Flax is also an important crop and rural women are famed for their hand looms that produce rugs, cloths, mats, curtains, and clothing from the linen threads.

The exact ethnic origin of the Finns is obscure but they are believed to be of Mongolian descent. Their height and fair skin, however, makes them appear to be closer to the Teutons.

Although 98 percent of Finns now speak Finnish, it was the publication of Finland’s epic Kalevala in 1836 that led to the establishment of Finnish as the official language. Finns learn Swedish and Finnish at school and many also learn German, English, or Russian. Estonians and the Hungarian Magyars are the only other peoples who speak languages from the Finno-Ugric root, but only the Finns were part of the free world while the others were under Communist domination. Perhaps this too has something to do with sisu.

It is said that there are three things for which the Finn will be most homesick: the sour rye bread, the sauna, and the luminous summer nights when the sun forgets to set. Ruisleip – the sour rye bread baked flat and crisply hard with a hole in the center (western Finland) or thick, round, and crusty (eastern Finland) – is the staple of every meal.

The sauna is the eagerly anticipated Saturday night relaxation of Finn families and is much enjoyed by many others who have come to appreciate the pleasure of this warm steamy ritual.

Both ruisleipa and the sauna may be duplicated wherever Finns live, but the strangely mystical light of summer nights, when the sun does not set below the horizon, can only be appreciated in Finland and cherished in the memories of those who have witnessed it.

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