Challenging ham with herring

Challenging ham with herring: Antti Ahokas, the chef at Juuri in downtown Helsinki, has his own approach to Christmas cuisine (includes two recipes).

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How does a chef known for his “small is better” approach tackle Finnish Christmas dinner – a meal often marked by thick slices of ham, mounds of creamy casserole and plum pastries made from butter-infused dough?

Antti Ahokas is executive chef at Finnish tapas restaurant Juuri in Helsinki. Actually they call it a sapas restaurant, so that the first letter matches with Suomi, the Finnish word for “Finland”.

“Finnish fish is unbelievable, and I appreciate the traditional use of mushrooms and root vegetables, but our Christmas food tends to include excessively heavy stuff,” says Ahokas, sitting at a table in Juuri’s compact dining room in between kitchen shifts. “We may want to consider whether we need to have five different casseroles, or top the dinner off with a giant heap of pastries that no one has room for.”

Rather than serving up the traditional ham for Christmas dinner, he draws his inspiration from the sea. He simply focuses on what many Finns think of as the appetisers of a holiday meal.

Add some variety

Juuri executive chef Antti Ahokas (left) and cofounder Jarkko Myllymäki serve sapas and other Finnish specialities in a welcoming milieu.

Juuri executive chef Antti Ahokas (left) and cofounder Jarkko Myllymäki serve sapas and other Finnish specialities in a welcoming milieu.© Juuri

Plenty of Finns start off their Christmas dinners with gravlax (cured salmon), pickled herring or whitefish roe, but to Ahokas, the fish is the star of the meal. His favourite year-round food since childhood has been a clear fish soup prepared according to his grandmother’s recipe. She hailed from the Vironlahti Archipelago, part of present-day Russia.

Meanwhile, his mother’s Baltic herring pickled in mustard sauce is a staple at his family’s Christmas table to this day. Ham isn’t usually featured at the Ahokas family Christmas table, but as a result of Juuri’s collaboration with wild boar farmers in the Northern Karelia region of Finland, some of this non-traditional meat has found its way onto his menu at home.

“To add some variety to their Christmas dinners, people could try serving more dishes in smaller portions; an appetiser-size soup that incorporates seasonal flavours would be a good idea, for example,” he says.

“Don’t be afraid to use wild herbs or other traditional Finnish flavours like nettle; mix it into fish tartar or serve fish with a sour cream and nettle sauce,” he advises.

Two Ahokas originals

Mother’s Baltic herring in mustard sauce

  • 1 kg Baltic herring fillets from Hakaniemi Market Hall
  • strong vinegar (2 dl vinegar, 1 litre water, 1 tsp salt)
  • 1 large bundle of dill
  • 0.5 dl water
  • 2 dl olive oil
  • 1 tsp vinegar
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1.5 tsp salt plenty of crushed white pepper
  • 1 dl high-quality mustard

Remove the skin from the fish fillets. Place the skinless fillets in the vinegar mix and leave in the refrigerator. After five hours, pour the vinegar mix out of the dish; don’t rinse the fillets! Arrange the fillets and large pieces of dill in alternate layers in a glass jar. Prepare a sauce by whisking all the ingredients well until the mix is even. Pour the sauce over the fish, lifting pieces gently with the tip of a knife to make sure that the sauce reaches the bottom of the jar. Cover and refrigerate for two days. Once pickled, the fish will last for about a week.

Pike Perch with lemon

  • 2 skinless pieces of pike perch
  • rose salt
  • crushed black pepper
  • juice from one large lemon
  • 1 tsp rice vinegar
  • 2 tbsp domestic virgin rapeseed oil
  • 2 tbsp regular rapeseed oil
  • 1 dl finely chopped flat leaf parsley
  • 2 drops of Tabasco

Remove the middle bone from the fillets and cut them length-wise into pieces of about two centimetres thick. Season them with rose salt and black pepper. Place them in a wide container, leaving room between each piece. Mix a sauce from the remaining ingredients, using a blender or a hand mixer, and pour it over the fillets. Let it sit in the refrigerator for at least six hours.

By Laura Palotie