MANILA, Philippines – There’s more to Finland than Nokia cell phones and Santa Claus.
Diners at Heat, the popular restaurant of Edsa Shangri-La Manila, get a rare taste of Finnish cuisine in a one-day-only culinary event on Monday, June 4, with Finnish-American Sara La Fountain, the star of the new TV show “New Scandinavian Cuisine.”
La Fountain, who also published several food books, including the Gourmand World Cookbook Award-winner “A la Sara,” presented five of her signature dishes, which included traditional Finnish fare, as part of Heat’s extensive buffet.
Her Manila visit was to promote her two shows, “Perfect Day” and “New Scandinavian Cooking,” which will start airing on the Asian Food Channel (SkyCable Channel 22) in early July.
This is actually La Fountain’s second time to come to Manila. On her first visit, she said she shot for a Scandinavian TV program and got to try Filipino food, including balut and kwek-kwek.
“Your food is fun,” she said.
La Fountain, who is also a model, showed up in a fashionable get-up for a special media lunch at the hotel, pairing the traditional chef’s jacket with patterned leggings based on the Stars and Stripes and, instead of a toque, she wore a black bowler hat.
This penchant for style also showed in her food, which was exquisitely plated, suggesting the simple and clean flavors of Finnish cuisine.
But there’s more to her food than mere fashion. In fact, she said most of the items she selected for the special Manila promotion are Finnish classics, such as the Vorschmack, which was introduced to Finland by the country’s war hero C.G.E. Mannerheim. According to La Fountain, the Vorschmack, which has strong Russian influences, has become a national dish served in weddings and special occasions.
“It might be a bit weird for your palate,” she warned.
The Vorschmack is akin to a pate in terms of texture – scoops of minced beef, lamb and herring and slow-cooked in an oven for a long time. It was served with thinly sliced marinated beets and garnished with pickles and sour cream. Indeed, it is unlike anything I’ve tasted before and wondered if it might be better served on toast or crackers.
Another traditional Finnish dish on the menu was the Karelia stew, which La Fountain said came from her grandmother’s recipe. Finland has a tradition for big pot meals, she said, and this stew features chunks of lamb and beef with carrots and Brussels sprouts, cooked for a long time, and served with sour cream. It’s a rustic dish – save some of the bread for this – and the meat was amazingly tender.
La Fountain actually started the meal with a simple salmon soup. The refreshing look of the dish, with the orange meat of the salmon and the deep green of the dill, against the white broth, exemplifies the simplicity of Scandinavian cooking, as seen on her show, “Perfect Day.”
This was a perfect starter – the light cream and butter flavor of the broth providing the perfect background to the fish plus the pops-in-your-mouth sensation of the salmon roe – and one can really imagine the pristine surrounds of the Finnish landscape.
But La Fountain, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America, also showed her personal cooking style with the summer crayfish salad.
“It’s a dish I usually do,” she said of the “fusion” dish, which highlights the crayfish, which is very popular in Finland. “I usually put a spin on Finnish food.”
The result was a salad that’s surprisingly hearty. Increased to a larger portion, it can easily qualify as a main entrée. The crayfish meat was placed on top of a toast with cilantro-lime mayonnaise and then garnished with boiled quail eggs, avocado wedges, sliced radish and asparagus spears with a light Asian-style dressing of ginger, garlic, flecks of chili, lime juice, cilantro and oil.
Finally for dessert, La Fountain highlighted the rhubarb, which she said is so common in Finland that most homes have a bush or two in their backyard.
The rhubarb upside-down cake has a heavy consistency more like a pudding, with the rhubard spread on the top and served with crème Anglais.
“Finnish food is really simple and it’s all about seasonal ingredients,” she said.
As to the Santa Claus connection, La Fountain admitted that reindeer meat is popular in Finland, where it is used in stews or enjoyed as steaks. Unfortunately, she said she wasn’t able to bring some reindeer meat for her tour.
Maybe next time.