At the crossroads between Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, the Baltic state of Latvia has an intriguing food scene that is influenced by neighboring countries but shaped by strong traditions and native ingredients. Expect hearty dumplings and smoked herring to sit alongside bowls of borscht on menus throughout Riga but you'll also find a growing number of contemporary restaurants dishing out exciting meals from top chefs. And the city is home to Europe's biggest food market, housed in five former Zeppelin hangars. Since Latvian cuisine is one of the top reasons to visit the city in general—here are the top dishes you can't leave Riga without digging into.
Pickles and Sauerkraut
At Riga's epic Central Market you'll find a whole Zeppelin hangar lined with stalls selling fruit and vegetables and a huge selection of pickles. The stallholders let you help yourself to mounds of crunchy sauerkraut and you'll find all sorts of pickles including carrots, tomatoes, garlic, mushrooms, green beans, cauliflower and of course cucumbers flavored with a variety of 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 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 Grey Peas on menus throughout Riga. It's served as a side dish or a bar snack and is 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 50kg of rye bread per year and 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.
While this isn't a dish, 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 and Latvians still enjoy its health-giving properties today. It's both bitter and sweet and something of an acquired taste and the exact recipe remains a closely guarded secret. For a more palatable introduction to this gutsy spirit, try it mixed in a cocktail at Balzam Bars.
This rich potato salad is made up of several layers of meat and/or fish (typically herring), hard-boiled eggs and vegetables, all held together with mayonnaise and sour cream. It's very similar to a traditional Russian Olivier salad (created in the mid-1800s by the chef at the famous restaurant Hermitage in Moscow) 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 euro. The Pelmeni XL restaurant chain serves pelmeni until 4 am 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.