At the crossroads of Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, the Baltic state of Latvia has an intriguing culinary scene that's influenced by neighboring countries but also shaped by longtime traditions and native ingredients. Expect menus in Riga to feature hearty dumplings and smoked herring served alongside bowls of borscht. In addition to the traditional foods, you'll also find a growing number of contemporary restaurants.
Riga is home to Europe's biggest food market, housed in five former Zeppelin hangars. Latvian cuisine is one of the top reasons to visit this city, so you won't want to leave without trying the local specialties.
Pickles and Sauerkraut
At Riga's epic Central Market, you'll find the whole airship hangar lined with stalls selling fruit and vegetables and a vast selection of pickles. The stallholders let you help yourself to mounds of crunchy sauerkraut and you'll find all sorts of pickled items like carrots, tomatoes, garlic, mushrooms, green beans, cauliflower, and cucumbers flavored with different herbs and spices. Sauerkraut is a Latvian staple and features in side dishes, dumplings, and soups.
Rye Bread Pudding
A popular way to finish a meal in Latvia is by tucking into a pot of maizes zupa (rye bread pudding), a soupy dessert made from sweetened rye bread, apples, cinnamon, raisins, plums, cranberries, and whipped cream. The dark rye bread is dried out in the oven before being boiled which gives the pudding a thick, comforting texture.
This healthy and hearty national dish is typically served at Christmas as Latvians believe that eating peas brings luck and money, but you'll see them on menus throughout the year as well. They're served as a side dish or a bar snack and made from dried peas (similar to chickpeas) cooked with fried onions and fatty smoked bacon. Dig into a bowl at one of the city's Lido restaurants, a traditional Latvian chain known for cheap and wholesome, family-friendly dining.
Dark Rye Bread
It's said that the average Latvian consumes around 50 kilograms of rye bread per year. Tradition dictates that if the bread is accidentally dropped, it must be picked up immediately and kissed. Rupjmaize (dark rye bread) is a dense loaf that's served as an accompaniment to most meals alongside herb-flavored butter. Fried sticks of rye bread are often served as bar snacks to be enjoyed with a garlicky dip, too.
It's not a dish, per se, but you can't leave Riga without knocking back a shot of Latvia's national spirit. Said to aid digestion, Black Balsam is a vodka-based liqueur made with a range of herbs including pepper, ginger, linden flower, raspberry, and bilberry. This legendary spirit was reputedly first brewed to cure Catherine the Great of a stomach illness when she spent time in Riga. Latvians still enjoy its health-giving properties today. It's both bitter and sweet and something of an acquired taste. For a more palatable introduction to this gutsy spirit, try it mixed in a cocktail.
This rich potato salad is made of several layers of meat or fish (typically herring), hard-boiled eggs, and vegetables, all held together with mayonnaise and sour cream. It's similar to a traditional 19th-century Russian Olivier salad but you'll find different variations served up across town. You might see ingredients like chopped apple, beetroot, spring onion, and dill make an appearance, too.
Although they might not have originated in Latvia, pelmeni are eaten throughout Riga and are definitely worth trying. A cross between Polish pierogi and Italian tortellini, these small dumplings are made with unleavened dough and filled with minced meat, vegetables, or cheese. They can be served in a broth or fried and always come with a dollop of sour cream. Head to Pelmenu Sturitis, a small family-run stall at the Central Market for a bowl of made-to-order dumplings for around €3. The Pelmeni XL restaurant chain serves pelmeni until 4 a.m. every Friday and Saturday for late-night snacking.
Pork features heavily on Latvian menus and karbonade is one of the country's most popular dishes. Much like a schnitzel, the pork is pounded flat and then fried in breadcrumbs. It's typically served with a heap of creamy mushrooms on top and with some dill-seasoned potatoes on the side.