Latvia: Countryside Eating at the Airport
Rīga, the capital city of Latvia, is a growing northern European tourist destination. It is notable for its many song and dance festivals and as a world heritage center for its blocks of Art Nouveau architecture.
Natives of Rīga, in 1944 my family and I fled the Soviet invasion and emigrated to the United States. In 1991, after decades of Soviet occupation, Latvia was once again a free, democratic country. Nostalgic, I returned to Rīga in 2000 to meet my extended family and to teach at the University of Latvia. A five-month Fulbright Scholarship in 2011 was followed by another several years later, and I now spend a few months teaching each year in Rīga.
RIX, Rīga’s airport, might be an unlikely location for some of Latvia’s best countryside cooking and comfort food, but whenever I fly I stop at RIX’s second-floor Lido restaurant for potato pancakes (kartupeļu pankūkas).
Lido is an upscale cafeteria chain serving hearty Latvian food in a Latvian design motif. Servers often wear traditional festive clothing: long full skirts for the women, and vests and patterned belts for the men. The airport Lido features a bar-in-the-round with a chef who prepares fresh food in front of the patrons. I have had some of Latvia’s best kartupeļu pankūkas there.
Most recently, I got to see one of Lido’s chefs, Elvijs Krēgers, at work. While the pankūkas fried, he prepared Lido’s trademark side dish: diced salmon salad with dill, red onion, a hard-boiled egg, a little salt, and mayonnaise.
Latvian smoked salmon differs from the kind served in New York City on a bagel with cream cheese. It’s less chewy and has more of a melt-in-your-mouth texture. Latvian salmon also appears on many menus as a baked or grilled specialty, often creatively presented. I’ve enjoyed it as a tartare on toast points topped by a raw quail egg and as an aromatic, highly satisfying, krēmzupa (cream soup). Indeed, if you are in Latvia, do try the salmon and its many variations. They are a garšīgs (tasty) alternative to the familiar fare of pork and chicken, oven baked potatoes and caramelized sauerkraut.
While relatively more expensive than other dishes, Riga’s excellent salmon – the fish sourced from the cold Baltic sea and shores and rivers of Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Sweden – can be had for twenty to forty percent less than in the United States.
Done cooking, Elvij slides the pankūkas – crisp, golden brown, and hot – onto a waiting plate with a mound of smoked salmon and salad greens. With a beer – like Užavas from the coastal city of Ventspils – the pankūkas never fail to bid me a warm welcome or a fond farewell.
Mairis, my favorite chef at the Lido for several years, would squeeze by hand the shredded potatoes and collect the liquid. I note that current practice appears to skip the squeeze step. That there’s now more liquid in the pan makes a textural difference in the result, at least for me.
As with most comfort foods one has to find the “best mix” to suit personal tastes. For an easy evening meal that is satisfying and tasty, and quick to prepare, my wife and I serve up kartupeļu pankūkas with spoonfuls of black caviar and sour cream. Ar labu apetīti! (Bon appétit!)