Finland’s first Chinese restaurant opened inside the spy-infested Hotel Torni in Helsinki in 1953. With characteristic Nordic bluntness, the restaurant was called simply “China.” There, claims food historian Ritva Kylli, visitors “eagerly tasted Chinese flavours and practised how to use chopsticks.” By the end of the 1950s, some Chinese influences had crept into Finnish cooking, including restaurants with wax tablecloths, and the usual utensils of Finnish eating – plates and forks and what-have-you, haunted by the presence of a bottle of soy sauce and a jar of chili oil.
“Dishes from the Torni,” she writes, “became familiar in the Finnish home kitchen, most often chop suey, which was known to have been developed in San Francisco, and become known all around the world as a classic dish of Chinese cuisine – everywhere except China.”
Chinese food is but a sidebar in Kylli’s exhaustive Food History of Finland: From Salted Meat to Sushi [Suomen Ruokahistoria: Suolalihasta sushiin], recently published in Finnish. In it, she charts the development of a national cuisine that has been famously pilloried by other nations – most famously, according to one well-known French politician, the second-worst in the world, after British food. She takes the Finnish palate from its early, bland fumblings with rye bread and dairy products (“Our Finnish cheeses are much praised,” claimed Daniel Juslenius in the 1700s, without a shred of proof), through the introduction of Russian foodways and French bistros, the impact of Prohibition in the 1920s, wartime austerity and the turnabouts of the modern world.
As her title implies, she finishes with another oriental foodstuff, at least nominally. Finns were certainly aware of Japanese food early on – she includes a letter from a baffled diner in Hakodate in north Japan, trying to come to terms with chopsticks and drinking soup from the bowl in the 1920s. But it’s not until 1978 that Kylli uncovers an advert in a Helsinki newspaper for a place calling itself the Yokohama restaurant. Although Tylli tracks a strong upward curve in Japanese food in Finland over the next few decades, it is not really until the 2010s that sushi has become a nationwide phenomenon outside Helsinki, and not because of the Japanese, but the Chinese and the Thais.
Most of the “Japanese” restaurants in Finland are run by Chinese and Thais, ever-ready to exploit the likelihood that Finnish men are sure to stock up on rice and stodge, but Finnish women will jump at the opportunity for a sort of salad that’s also a sort of lunch. For some reason, accountants and the Finnish tax office seem to smile upon “cold” lunches as a tax-deductible expense, further incentivising a bit of fish that hasn’t actually been cooked.
Kylli’s 500-page epic history of food is meticulously referenced and wonderfully detailed, and understandably shies away from the prospect that some Finns might be their own worst enemies when it comes to gastronomy. Once in a Helsinki restaurant that would probably prefer to be unidentified, my recurring inability to remember the word in Finnish for “bowl” led me to switch into Mandarin, and for the manager to suddenly snatch away my plate.
“Oh no!” he said, “Let me make you the good stuff. The buffet’s just the crap we serve the Finns!”
Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. A Food History of Finland: From Salted Meat to Sushi is published in Finnish by Gaudeamus.