Lithuanian food

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I was talking with a friend recently about her vacation in Lithuania, the country of her ancestry. She and her wife rode bicycles through the countryside, stopping for meals along the way. She lamented that the terrain was too flat to truly work off the rich food, and that she gained five pounds on what was otherwise an enjoyable holiday.

To which I responded, “What the heck do Lithuanians eat?”

She went on to describe a native dish that seemed to involve cooked potatoes, reconstituted, stuffed – then fried and served with sour cream for good measure. Naturally, I had to find out for myself.

The first object of my research was to determine exactly what Lithuania was. Yes, I realize it is a country, in Europe, and populated by Lithuanians. But that was the extent of my memory. You have to understand, my knowledge of geography was formed about 50 years ago when I would read the Rand McNally World Atlas with a flashlight under the bedcovers before dropping off to sleep, memorizing world capitals and other facts. A lot has changed since then, and my brain hasn’t always kept up with the times.

For those like me, here’s a refresher course.

Lithuania is one of the Baltic states, with Estonia and Latvia, in northeastern Europe. It is bordered by Latvia to the north, Belarus to the east, Poland to the south, and – bizarrely – Russia to the west. This is where I learned that there is a small “exclave” of Russia, not connected to the main country, nestled between Lithuania and Poland, a short boatride to Sweden. I couldn’t stop staring at the map, showing something called “Russia” in northeastern Europe, slightly larger than Connecticut.

Russia plays prominently in Lithuania’s history. After World War I, Lithuania declared its independence from Russia. The former Soviet Union reoccupied it in World War II, and Lithuania was not able to reassert its independence until the breakup of the Soviet bloc in 1990.

Today Lithuania enjoys peace and a strong economy. Their 2.8 million inhabitants subsist on the typical staples of the region, including fish, dairy, grains, and of course, potatoes. It is said that “Cepelinai” are the national dish. Made of grated and riced potatoes, these dumplings are stuffed with meat, dry curd cheese, or mushrooms, then topped with sour cream and bacon. They are so named because the shape is reminiscent of a Zeppelin airship. 

Like any ethnic recipe, there are multiple variations. The key seems to be the technique of ricing the potatoes, and the ratio of raw to cooked potato for the dough. It is time consuming and often made only for special occasions, which is why I am not going to reprint the long instructions here. Instead I will refer you to a version from Lithuanian cookbook author June Molloy Vladicka (https://tinyurl.com/jf9aqjy).

In case you don’t have a world atlas handy for your bedtime reading, the capital of Lithuania is Vilnius, where the Snekutis pub serves some of the best Cepelinai around, chased with some cold Lithuanian beer. Afterwards, you’ll be ready for a bike ride through the pastoral Lithuanian countryside, followed by a long nap. Don’t forget to read an updated world atlas before bedtime!

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Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht & Roumel PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil rights litigation. He has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and wrote a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. Follow him at Twitter @nickroumel or Instagram @nroumel, or see fortyyearsacrossamerica.blogspot.com.