Restaurant Day adds spice to Finnish food culture

On a Helsinki street corner, a Finnish family savours Indian deep-fried lentil patties with yoghurt and chutney, devouring the rich, exotic morsels for much-needed warmth in the November chill.

Jaakko Latikka, Krista Kujala and their two young sons are grabbing a bite to eat on Restaurant Day, when ordinary people open "pop-up" eateries for a day and serve food out of their own kitchens or on street corners.

The family enjoys an Indian dish called Dahi Bhalla, cooked by Mumbai expats Nikhil Salian and Krupesh Kothari and served on plastic plates from a knee-high table on the street.

The boys, Antti and Lauri, complain of the cold, but at the first taste of the patties they forget the subzero temperatures.

"It's good!" they declare in unison.

Restaurant Day started in Finland earlier this year, "a one-day carnival in favor of free-spirited restaurant and food culture", according to the Facebook page created by its organisers.

"Why? Because you're worth it, because we love food, and because every city needs more no-strings fun," it adds.

After successful runs with 40 "restaurants" opened for a day in May and 180 in August, a third instalment was held on Saturday, November 19.

"We had over 300 restaurants in 40 cities across Finland, and one in Germany," said co-organiser Kirsti Tuominen, describing the latest event as a huge success.

Organisers estimate that tens of thousands of people had attended, including some in the German city of Toenisvorst.

With a variety of menus to choose from, Restaurant Day encourages normally cuisine-conservative Finns, traditionally accustomed to heavy, bland peasant-style dishes, to be more adventurous.

Opening their homes and kitchens to strangers has also struck a popular chord with many Finns, known as generally reserved and taciturn.

"People are excited about the joy of sharing food; it's a way to build more community, more bonding with others," said Olli Siren, a co-founder of the Restaurant Day movement.

The creativity shown on Restaurant Day serves as a strong counter to the much-maligned comments of Italian ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi, who in 2005 quipped that Finland should be ineligible to host the EU's food authority because its citizens knew nothing about cuisine.

Salian and Kothari have been in Finland for five months of a one-year contract with an Indian IT consulting services company, and could not resist the opportunity to share their food culture and reach out to the Finnish community.

"Most of our customers were Finnish. We were not expecting such a huge response, so it's been a good day," exclaims Salian.

In a cosy flower shop, florist Heli Simola supervises as friends Veronica, Tuuli and Milla serve customers squeezed around two small trestle tables in the front of the stoor.

Surrounded by flowers in vivid hues, passersby catch a whiff of cinnamon wafting from spicy pancakes covered in chocolate and lemon sauce -- an eclectic yet tasty combination.

Simola's diverse menu also combines Finnish staples like meatballs and lingonberry jelly, Italian sandwiches, French-style Napoleon cake and Turkish yoghurt.

The florist says she didn't expect to make a profit from the event.

"For me this is an easy way to advertise. People will see the shop and hopefully they will come back after this," she explains.

On the other side of the city, the makeshift Angry Birds Cafe is based in the small, charming apartment of chef-for-a-day Mia Aspegren and her son Topi Ylitalo.

The flat offers respite from the biting cold outside and is a popular choice for families with children. Aspegren has placed a small piggy bank on a kitchen table for clients to pay what they thought the food was worth.

Parents stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the small space, eating and chatting, while their children play the popular Angry Birds game on their mobile phones in a bedroom.

Aspegren's menu is inspired by the Finnish computer game's egg-stealing theme, so guests can choose from stuffed eggs, quesadillas, pancakes or omelettes as the smell of freshly-brewed coffee lures more guests in from the courtyard.

"All these people are people that I don't know, so I'm really happy that we now have this openness where they feel they can come and visit my home," Aspegren says, expertly folding a quesadilla.

The next Restaurant Day is being planned for February.

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