To see one’s culture through the eyes and experiences of someone outside that culture is fascinating. In her travel and cookbook, Taste of Latvia, author Siri Lise Doub takes us with her on a meandering exploration of the four corners of Latvia. She stops along the way to visit common tourist sites, and also invites us into the homes of families she visits. Photographs accompany the stories and show us the sites. The narratives are intertwined with translations of poetry and folk songs, mythology, traditions and even superstitions. Vignettes of Latvia’s history are included to round out the picture.
But Taste of Latvia is not only a collection of experiences of the author as a tourist. It is a cookbook as well.
A friend once asked me, “What is the basis of Latvian cuisine?” I answered: “Pork, onions and potatoes in infinite combinations with other things.” The recipes in this book seem to bear out my observation. Breads, fish, soups and dairy products round out the menu. Included are more than 100 recipes that are simple and useful for every day. The food is hearty and filling. A few of the recipes are for foods defined as holiday specialties.
I am glad that some of what might be considered “odd” about Latvian cuisine is explored and discussed. I refer to the sections on milk soups, on salads that contain no lettuce, homemade cheese and drinks that are boiled juices. We who have grown up with these foods understand how good they are, but sometimes find it hard to explain to folks trying them for the first time.
For someone looking for an introduction to a new culture, this guide would provide easy reading. However, for those of Latvian descent, there are a few jarring problems.
Some translations from Latvian to English really miss the mark. I had never heard the word “Dievs” (God) translated as “Bright Sky” or “Bright Sun.” In the wedding customs, “mice” is described as the ancient word for marriage, in translation “taking off the crown,” when in actuality, “mice” is from the German “muetze” meaning cap or hat.
Grammar in the Latvian texts is inconsistent, at times including diacritical marks, in other places ignoring them. Explanations of traditional holidays, costumes and superstitions are colorful and plentiful but some contain small factual errors. These might be due to variations in local customs or just relying on personal opinion instead of research.
Home-brewed beer was rarely mentioned, although beer is the traditional drink on various holidays. Some Latvian beers are now being exported, for those who want to try them.
A short note about the recipes: Not enough dill! Many salad, potato and fish recipes list chopped parsley, when more commonly dill would be used. Feel free to make this substitution. Add caraway to any cabbage or sauerkraut dish, or any rye bread.
Overall, Taste of Latvia takes the reader on a charming “armchair tour” of Latvia, and whets the appetite for travel and for cooking!
(Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on SVEIKS.com.)
A Taste of Latvia
Siri Lise Doub
New York: Hippocrene Books, 2000
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