For Polish cookbook author and Baltic culinary expert Zuza Zak, food is rooted in memory. Born in Poland during the country’s communist regime, Zak remembers her grandmother’s stories about Lithuania — her country of origin. Zak also remembers her grandmother’s mahogany cupboard, where she kept silk scarves, leather gloves and amber necklaces. She had something else in her cupboard, too.
“Underneath that, she had the plum butters all stacked up,” Zak says. “And there it was — those memories that spurred me on to explore the Baltics.”
In “Amber & Rye: A Baltic Food Journey,” Zak takes readers on a mouthwatering culinary journey (plum butter included) through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Breaking down the invisible barriers that often stifle mass knowledge about Baltic cuisine, Zak invites readers into her world — one filled with familial history, ancestral discoveries and enticing recipes.
“Really, my whole mission is to make Eastern European food — whether it’s from Poland or the Baltic states — just a part of the conversation of something that people cook on a daily basis,” she says.
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Zak’s other grandmother — who was of Polish descent and also a cook — was constantly in the kitchen. Zak was, too. As she cooked alongside her grandmother, Zak not only learned about her identity but also a region filled with centuries-old culinary traditions.
A region steeped in history, Zak is no stranger to the complex meaning of Baltic identity. While the food in Lithuania and Poland is similar, according to Zak, the food in Latvia and Estonia is a bit different. However, the region is still typified by various ingredients, such as barley, buckwheat, curd cheese, fermented foods, and of course, rye.
Zak, who has spent much of her career diving into the region’s culinary history and secrets, is committed to bringing Baltic cuisine outside of Eastern European borders.
“I was researching the Baltics, and I was discovering that there was this sort of food Renaissance going on there, which got me very excited,” Zak says. “That’s exactly what makes me excited about Polish food at the moment — this kind of new, fresh energy that’s making the local traditions come alive.”
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Writing the book was a truly personal process for Zak. In addition to discovering more about her heritage, she traveled throughout the region with her daughter and partner, who is responsible for the book’s photography. “Amber & Rye” brings this Baltic journey to life for readers, who are taken on edible and visual trips across some of Eastern Europe’s most storied capitals, cultures and cuisines.
Recipes like drop scones with prunes and sour cream, home-cured ham, old-style chestnut patties and a half-and-half apple cheesecake invite readers to engage with a cuisine that’s diverse in spices, flavor and culinary history. Breaking beyond the limiting narrative that often ascribes Baltic food as simply meat and potatoes, Zak reminds us that we’ve barely scratched the surface of the dynamic nature of Eastern European food. Even she found herself surprised during some of her research.
“A big surprise for me was that in Estonia, they have a tradition of opening houses up as house cafés, which was so wonderful for me because there’s the restaurant world and then there’s the home cooking world,” Zak says. “And in Eastern Europe, there can be a big gap between them.”
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“Going across Estonia, and in various places, being able to go inside people’s homes or farms, whichever local produce, and to just sample their favorite dishes and their home cooking, it was the biggest surprise — and something I would hope that other people get to experience if they ever visit Estonia,” she adds.
For Zak, the cookbook writing process was a learning process, but also an opportunity to amplify an underrepresented cuisine and culture that she loves and forever is a part of her.
“I’d really like people to take away from [“Amber & Rye“] that these countries are worth visiting, and the food is worth trying and the region should be given a chance to shine,” Zak says.
“Fruit soups are a real kind of Eastern European thing,” Zak says. “In Poland, it’s more strawberry soup, whereas, in Estonia, blueberry soup is very popular. It’s so simple and easy to make. It’s a sweet soup with vanilla, and you eat it, often cold. It’s very refreshing with some cream on top.”
Recipe: Summer Blueberry Soup
- 2 1/3 cups (400g) blueberries
- 1 vanilla bean, split lengthways
- 4 tablespoons sugar
- Generous 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- Whipped cream, torn mint leaves, and edible flowers, such as cornflowers, to serve
Reserve a few of the berries to serve on top of the finished soup, then put the rest into a large pot with vanilla bean, sugar, and 4 1/4 cups (1 liter) of water. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes or until the berries are soft.
In a small bowl, mix the cornstarch with a scant 1/2 cup (100 ml) of water until smooth. Add this to the pot and stir constantly until the soup thickens. Remove from the heat and allow the soup to cool to room temperature, then chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes or up to 24 hours.
Ladle the soup into bowls and top with whipped cream, the reserved berries and a whimsical scattering of mint leaves and edible flowers.
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