Karelian pies effortlessly straddle the roles of gourmet delicacy and everyday sustenance in Finland.
IF you step foot into any java joint across Finland, or ogle at the bakery displays at grocery stores and pastry parlours, you will come across magnificently flaky rye pastries that beg to be devoured. The crowning jewel of traditional Finnish cuisine, these savoury baked treats, called Karelian pies, hold a special place in the country's culinary landscape. These traditional pasties are deeply rooted in the Karelian region of Finland, particularly in North Karelia, where they are hailed as a cultural icon.
Whether nabbed from the hypermarket freezer aisle for a home bake session, snapped up at local church and school bazaars, or discovered in nearly every Finnish household, these bite-sized delights effortlessly straddle the path of gourmet delicacy and everyday sustenance.
Alternatively known as Karjalanpiirakka in Finnish and karel'skiy pirog in Russian, this pie features a chewy filling of rice, encased in a wafer-crisp rye crust. After baking, the pie is generously brushed with butter, sometimes mixed with egg yolk, and occasionally garnished with a diced hard-boiled egg.
Over time, the recipe has evolved to incorporate wheat flour for enhanced pliability; the creamy fillings now feature ingredients like potatoes or a decadent blend of milk and short-grain rice, such as arborio, making a luscious, pudding-like centre. A dollop of sour cream or creme fraiche, a sprinkle of dill, pickled herring or a sliver of cold-smoked salmon can be served up for an extra touch of gastronomic bliss. Or else, they can be savoured in their pure, unadulterated glory, as they were meant to be.
Conflicting Origin Stories
There are conflicting opinions surrounding the exact origins of Karelian pies. Finnish food writer and chef Jaakko Kolmonen categorises both Karelian pies and the traditional Karelian stew, known as Karjalanpaisti, as "countryside foods" associated with Karelia and Finnish North Karelia. In his book published in 1987, titled Parish foods of Karelia and Petsamo, Kolmonen suggests Karelian pies were historically crafted in parishes along the northern shores of Russia’s Lake Ladoga and the areas around the lake.
Other theories suggest that the roots of the pie lie in Eastern Karelia, which refers to the present-day Republic of Karelia.
In reality, various types of rye crust pies with different fillings, such as mashed potato, rice porridge, mashed carrot, barley porridge, and jam, were produced throughout Karelia before World War II. In fact, there are discernable similarities in food cultures between Finnish and Russian Karelia. Only after the border change resulting from WWII and the displacement of Finnish Karelians throughout Finland, along with their food culture, did the Karelian pie become a symbol of Finnish cuisine.
The World War II Rejig
In the aftermath of World War II, Karelian pies underwent a glorious transformation, transcending their status as mere representatives of Karelian cuisine to become an emblem of Finnish gastronomy as a whole. This gastronomic revolution came about thanks to the migration of Finnish Karelian evacuees, who bid farewell to their beloved ceded Karelia in 1940 and dispersed throughout different corners of Finland.
Before this journey, Karelian pies were confined to Karelia, straddling the Finnish-Russian border that sliced through the region after 1917, with minimal recognition beyond those borders. However, the colossal impact of WWII and the resettlement of over 400,000 Finnish Karelian evacuees, which equated to a staggering 10 percent of Finland's population, undeniably left an indelible mark on Finnish culinary customs.
The Finnish Karelians, carrying their cherished culinary heritage with them, disseminated their delectable traditions across the entire nation. Slow-baked oven dishes, pillowy-soft bread, Karelian casseroles, and, of course, the iconic Karelian pie came to define the culinary offerings of Finland.
This dish, particularly its Finnish version, has scored a fancy honour from the European Union of being a Traditional Speciality Guaranteed. This means that to be called a genuine Finnish Karjalanpiirakka, the pie must undergo some time-honoured rituals. These include a swift and fiery bake, turning up the heat to create a crunchy outer crust. Further, a true piirakka proudly flaunts its open structure, giving everyone a peek at its mouthwatering interior.
Nowadays, the name Karelia links them to a place that is more of an idea than a tangible geographic entity—an embodiment of Finland's cultural heartland, periphery, and lost territory. In fact, the distinction between authentic Karelian pies lies not in a specific geographic region, but rather in whether they are lovingly handmade or mass-produced. Homemade, freshly baked pies are considered superior and more traditional, carrying within them the cherished memories of generations within Finnish families.