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Finland is probably the last place in the world you’d think of when finding good vegan food. A traditional hunting culture, some of the best fishing lakes in the world, and a long-time love of meat means that veganism hasn’t caught on in the country the way it has in the rest of Europe. In recent years, however, there has been a veganism boom in Finland, with an estimated six percent of people in Finland no longer eating meat, a number which is gradually rising.
The reason that Finland was a nation of hunters and fishers for so long is because up until a hundred or so years ago, it was the only way that people could eat, especially during the long, harsh winters. As food distribution and storage became easier, hunting and fishing turned into sports rather than survival essentials. It also meant there was a wider range of international cuisine available in Finland, which hadn’t been found in the country before, including those from vegetarian and vegan cultures.
It used to be difficult for vegans to find appropriate food in Finnish restaurants and supermarkets, but now there is a much wider range available. Even small supermarkets in remote towns tend to have at least a small vegan section and vegan magazines are being published in Finnish. Some Finnish schools are now serving exclusively meat-free meals for one day a week, with vegetarian options during the remainder of the week.
While many Finns are switching to veganism just because it’s trendy, an increasing number are doing so for health reasons. Doctors found that the typical Finnish diet of rich meats, dairy, and pastries was causing a public health crisis. At one point, men in the North Karelia region had the highest rate of heart attacks in the world. Introducing more vegetables to the diet and cutting down on excessive amounts of dairy were presented as solutions to the epidemic, which is much easier with a vegan diet.
There has been some criticism that while the vegan diet does reduce cholesterol levels, the lack of protein sometimes isn’t enough to make it through the Finnish winter, when energy levels drop dramatically and cause winter depression. Finnish food producers found a solution by introducing new vegan alternatives full of protein and iron. Pulled oats are made from Nordic oats and beans while härkis is a popular vegan alternative made from fava beans, now commonly found on restaurant menus.
The sprawling forests and unpolluted soil of Finland make it a great place to gather or grow wild plants and herbs. Berry and mushroom picking is a popular summer activity throughout much of the Nordics, as there is a lot to find and they taste lovely when cooked on a traditional wood-burning stove. Open access laws mean that you are free to search for them anywhere.
Many traditional Finnish recipes such as Karelian pastries, potato casserole, or cabbage rolls are already vegan, or can easily be switched out with soy alternatives. Almost all Finnish varieties of bread are vegan and can be bought in specialist bakeries. Rye bread is especially popular in the country and with vegan toppings it makes a cheap and tasty lunch.
More vegan restaurants are also opening, especially in the larger cities such as Helsinki and Turku which have a lot of immigrants and students. Silvoplee in Helsinki’s Kallio district has a fully vegan buffet, while Kippo in the Forum shopping centre sells vegan fast food, ideal when you are on-the-go. McDonalds recently tested its McVegan burger exclusively at the Tampere branch, although it is still yet to be seen if it will be rolled out throughout the rest of the chain.
The Vegekauppa speciality store now operates in Helsinki, Tampere, and Turku and most towns have at least one Asian supermarket which tend to stock more vegan foods. Vegan friendly food can usually be recognised by the use of the word ‘vege’ on the packaging. Restaurant menus don’t always label vegan foods, but don’t be afraid to ask the servers about making your food vegan.