Helsinki – People Make the City

As many of you know, I have been working on a side project for the past year with local photographer Laura Iisalo.


Photo: Viola Vertimo

Our book, Helsinki – People Make the City – was launched early May and is available in stores around the city.

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It’s an insiders’ guide to the city and contains interviews with local creative people, sharing insights into Helsinki and the local way of life.

Helsinki People Make the City_Kirsikka Simberg_photo by Laura Iisalo_LOW RES

Kirsikka Simberg at the Winter Gardens – Photo: Laura Iisalo

I wrote the text and Laura took all the photos. She also did a fantastic job with the concept, creating six sections we are very happy to share with you.


Photo: Viola Vertimo

My Helsinki

We interviewed six creative people about their neighbourhoods and they’ve each shared a ‘Day in the Life’ so that you too can explore each area like a local. Neighbourhoods covered are Punavuori, Kruununhaka, Töölö, Kallio, Vallila and Suomenlinna.


Dorit in Suomenlinna – Photo: Viola Vertimo


Alba and Thomas in Kallio & Vallila – Photo: Viola Vertimo


Kirsikka in Töölö – Photo: Viola Vertimo


Three lovely women have given tips on creative projects you can try at home. These include making your own wildflower bouquet, how to turn a traditional Finnish heirloom into a magnetic keep-safe and harvesting pine sap from the forest to create natural incense.


Justine harvesting pine sap – Photo: Viola Vertimo


Hennamari foraging for wild flowers – Photo: Viola Vertimo


Some of our favourite local shopkeepers share their love of what they do and what’s special about the neighbourhoods they work in.


Kaisa at Pelago Bicycles – Photo: Viola Vertimo


Linda at Ansa – Photo: Viola Vertimo

Taste Helsinki

We ate a lot of cinnamon buns to bring you the best! And some of our favourite local eateries were kind enough to share their recipes so you can replicate their contemporary takes on traditional Finnish fare. This include how to make porridge, rye bread, cinnamon buns, blini, salmon soup, meatballs with lingonberry sauce and a cocktail made with a Nordic twist.

Helsinki People Make the City_Meatballs at KuuKuu_photo by Laura Iisalo_LOW RES

Meatballs at Ravintola KuuKuu – Photo: Laura Iisalo


Photo: Viola Vertimo

Winter Cosiness

Laura and I worked hard to do all our shoots and interviews during summer while the light was good and then realised we also wanted to showcase the best parts of life in Finland during winter. The Swedes have a word for it and so do the Danes (hygge), so we chose the Finnish word kaamos as our description of winter cosiness and give tips on how to create your own warm winter nest.


Photo: Viola Vertimo

Romany and Juha from Aan Tafel created some beautiful Nordic dishes for this and their recipes are included in the book.

Black Book

Finally, we put together a list of our favourite places in the city including sauna, coffee, design and urban nature.


Photo: Viola Vertimo

The book is currently available in Helsinki in Nide Kirjakauppa, Suomalainen Kirjakauppa, Akateeminen, Moko Market and Adlibris.

Weighing 700 grams, it’s a beautiful hardcover book, but shipping overseas can be expensive and it is not yet available to those living outside Finland. If you would consider paying for postage please do let them know at Cozy Publishing, as we’d love to be able to share the beauty of Helsinki beyond Finnish shores.

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Photo: Viola Vertimo

Helsinki – People Make the City

Concept & Photos: Laura Iisalo

Words: Melanie Dower

Layout: Viola Vertimo



Let them eat porridge

Growing up in NZ, porridge seemed a very Scottish breakfast to me, thanks especially to a young boy on TV telling us we were making it all wrong.

So I was surprised to hear how popular porridge is in Finland and that it is considered a traditional dish.

Made with oats or barley it’s not unusual for people to visit cafes daily to get their porridge fix, often served with a spoonful of jam.

Apparently you can also buy it at some gas stations and of course, from the porridge truck.


Elovena seems to be an iconic brand, with a range of flavours available at stores.


At Christmas it’s traditional to eat rice porridge, cooked with milk for a long time over a low heat. Similar to the coin in the British Christmas pudding, the person who finds the single almond in their porridge is considered the lucky winner.


Today we visited Seurasaari to walk the Christmas path and knew from last year to take along a bowl to be served some Christmas porridge. My friend’s mother told me that as rice is imported it was considered very exotic years ago and so this dish was traditionally eaten only by the rich.


Although popular in NZ, I’m not sure we quite match the Finns in our love of porridge – although this bizarre news story suggests some of us may know of the place it holds in their hearts.

New Zealander feeds Finnish hostages porridge


How to make the best korvapuustit (three treats with one dough)

I had a baking lesson on Sunday with my Finnish sister-in-law Ilona. She baked while I took notes before having a little sample at the end.


This dough can be used to make various sweets. To make enough for korvapuustit, a few munkit (doughnuts) and rahkapiirakat (quark pies), follow these easy steps:

Heat 5 dcl (500ml) of milk until it is slightly warmer than body temperature. You can use water if you are lactose-free. Crumble in one packet of tuorehiiva (fresh yeast) and stir to dissolve.


Add 1 dcl white sugar, 2 teaspoons cardamom, 2 eggs and mix. Stir in 9 dcl of plain flour (unsifted) and a pinch of salt. Once the mixture becomes thick and sticky use your hands to mix. You want a balance between the dough being thick enough to roll and loose enough so it has enough air in it to rise.


Add 100g of melted butter and lightly mix with hands. Don’t knead too much as the dough needs to stretch.  Now it needs to double in size so cover with a tea towel and put aside. A 1950s tea towel printed with Australian birds is always best.


Heat the oven to 200°c. Once the dough has doubled in size scrape it out onto a floured surface. When making korvapuustit you can be quite rough with the dough, it’s okay to push a bit of the air out of it. Divide the dough and put aside the amounts you would like for doughnuts and rahkapiirakat.


Roll the dough into a 1cm thick rectangle and brush with 25g of melted butter. Sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar and then roll lengthways.


Cut the dough into triangles with the edge of a spatula. You can freeze uncooked dough at this stage to bake later.


Place the triangles on a tray lined with baking paper. Put them on the bottom edge of the triangle and push down (like you are squashing a pyramid).


Leave a bit of space between them as they will grow. Brush with egg and sprinkle with pearl sugar. Bake in oven for about 15 minutes or until golden.


For rahkapiiraka: These are easier to make if the dough has come from the freezer. Shape dough into little dish shapes with a slight well in the middle. If the dough is fresh poke a couple of little holes in the bottom with a fork. Brush with egg and then mix one tub of rahka (quark) with the leftover raw egg and 1 teaspoon of white sugar.


Spoon the mixture into the wells and press in raisins if you like and bake in oven for about 15 minutes.


For the doughnuts: Shape dough into small rounds with the side of your hands. Don’t be too rough as you want air in this dough so they will rise.


Take a round of dough and punch a hole in it with your finger. Then stretch a bit by spinning the ring on your fingers. This makes a sturdier doughnut shape than if you were to make a sausage and join two ends. You can freeze the raw dough circles at this stage for later use, or fry in oil and coat with sugar when cooled.


Yum! All three of these sweet snacks are best served warm with coffee on the couch while you watch the Men’s 50km cross-country skiing final.


Apologies to Ilona for not getting more photos that included her lovely face. I would have also included more photos of us eating these delicious snacks but some of us were still in our pyjamas… 


Meet me at Old Market Hall

A short walk from Market Square is Helsinki’s old dame of market halls – Vanhakauppahalli.


Built in 1888,Vanhakauppahalli (Old Market Hall) was recently closed for renovations and reopened in June 2014. The building is a cultural heritage site and protected by the National Board of Antiquities.



On a cold winter’s day, with the wind coming in off the Baltic Sea, it’s a relief to get inside those heavy front doors. Inside, a walkway circles the hall, shouldered on either side by cafes, bakeries and fishmongers.




There are also greengrocers selling seasonal produce from Finland and overseas. It’s a great place to go for specialty mushrooms and berries, as well as big suolakurkku (gherkins) you scoop out of an open bucket.




For lunch I usually head straight for Soppakeittiö (Soup Kitchen) where the menu always consists of one meat soup, one vegetarian and their delicious seafood boullabaisse, served with lemon-infused sour cream.



On my most recent visit however I stopped at Story, where the food counter is sure to whet your appetite. I had a cappuccino (equivalent of a NZ flat white) and lohileipa (smoked salmon on bread).






After lunch I walked the circuit, marvelling at the number of things you can do with salmon. In my mind I always hear the southern drawl of Bubba from the movie Forrest Gump (salmon bbq, salmon cocktail, salmon pie…..).


There are other forms of protein on offer for the more adventurous too, like Russian King Crab and Spanish jamon.





 As well as traditional Finnish offerings there is also a vegetarian cafe and a stall selling Vietnamese filled-rolls, spring rolls and salads.


And there’s an Alko, the only store in Finland selling wine and spirits. This one is touted as being ‘the world’s smallest Alko’ (which is a little bit like American teams winning the ‘World Series’ in a competition only open to American teams).


There are other Market Halls in Helsinki but this is one of my favourites. If you get a table by the window you can watch the ferry to Suomenlinna making it’s way past the huge cruise ships churning up the frozen sea.



Go with a friend or go on your own – just make sure you go. I’ll be the one making my way from coffee, to soup to dessert and back as I make my way around Old Market Hall.


Vanhakauppahalli – Eteläranta, Helsinki

Ravintola Story

Note: I was approached by Meetings Booker to write about my favourite meeting place in Helsinki. This is not a sponsored post and all thoughts are my own (as was that open salmon sandwich, which I cannot stop thinking about).

Two Women Practising Everyman’s Right

Nature's supermarket

Nature’s supermarket

I’ve met two talented herbalists in Helsinki lately and their commitment to sourcing herbs that grow wild in Finland is supported by the concept of Everyman’s Right – which is not, as it sounds, some dating manifesto from the Victorian era.



The first herbalist was Justine Cederberg who, among other things, makes a Love Elixir using herbs that grow in the wild. You can read my interview with her here and how she uses the sauna to make her tinctures.


I also had a consultation with Henriette Kress, a herbalist who has created one of the world’s largest online herbal archives. In her consulting room is a large cupboard, full of glass jars. Each jar holds dried herbs she has collected from the wild and from which she made me a tea to take home.


My herbal tea – wild rose, sage root, nettle and (perhaps imported) mandarin peel

To both herbalists it’s important that people are taking herbs that grow around them and Everyman’s Right allows them to do this. It also ensures that Finns can continue to eat according to the seasons as they have traditionally done so.



Basically, Everyman’s Right means that without going into someone’s yard, you can walk, fish, swim, camp and forage on other people’s land in Finland without permission, as long as you don’t disturb protected species.

For those who don't want to get their hands dirty

For those who don’t want to get their hands dirty

It would be really unusual I think for anyone in Australia or New Zealand to be okay with finding someone else on their land, picking their fruit without permission. Being recently colonised countries, land rights and fishing rights can be contentious issues back home.

Although we do have a wonderful culture in NZ of fishing and gathering shellfish, picking wild berries and foraging, I think the main difference here is not needing permission to go onto someone else’s land to do so.



We had a great day out searching for mushrooms and blueberries in the forest during our first trip to Finland four years ago. Although we ate everything we picked, any income people make from selling picked berries or mushrooms is tax-free.


Blueberry bushes (foreground)

Perhaps not this one

Natures way of saying: Do not go there

We used to pick blackberries in New Zealand when I was younger and although I’m sure we had the landowner’s permission, what I remember most is being chased by a big ol’ hairy goat that obviously hadn’t read the memo about our rights at all!


Freedom to Roam

Everyman’s Right – the Finnish Ministry of the Environment

Henriette Kress

A slap in the ear? That will be €2

Finns love their coffee and with it they seem to love nothing more than a good korvapuusti. Known elsewhere as cinnamon rolls, the Finnish version is fairly unique in its look, ingredients and name. They are also reported to be the biggest, which for some people would make them the best.


Made with butter and cinnamon and topped with pearl sugar, these buns smell delicious as they come out of the oven and you will find them at any self-respecting cafe or supermarket.

Sometimes cardamom is added which lends an exotic spiciness to the mix. As someone (me) commented earlier this week, ‘Mmm, they taste like Christmas.’


Cafe Regatta do a wonderful korvapuusti and I’ve heard they can also be made with suklaa (chocolate). I’d like to have a lesson in making them as I’ve heard it’s not too difficult and I think they’d be a hit in New Zealand.

Korvapussti in English means a slap in the ear and there are a few theories as to how these buns got this name although no one seems too sure.

As a New Zealander though it’s fairly clear to me – a few too many slaps to the the ear and they will look like a doughy bun – a fact to which any All Black front rower can attest.

Keven Mealamu – All Black Hooker, cauliflower ears


Fafa’s for falafel

I had a job in Sydney that covered Bankstown and Fairfield Local Government Areas. 55% people in Bankstown and 70% people in Fairfield speak a language other than English at home, with Arabic and Assyrian / Aramaic among the top three languages. So as far as Middle Eastern food goes, we have been pretty spoilt.


Our first foray into Middle Eastern food in Helsinki was unfortunately disappointing. Three dry falafels served on rice with lettuce, tomato and a very plain hummus left us in despair. To make things worse, it was served with a drizzle of tomato pasta sauce which left Jonathan feeling like he’d had meatballs for dinner (not great for a vegetarian).


Enter Fafa’s – a small chain of eat-in or takeaway food stores in Helsinki, serving delicious stuffed pita. We were so happy when we saw the menu, which includes a great range of vegetarian options and extra chilli sauce.

IMG_1147I’ve yet to find my favourite Fafa’s pita, but have so far enjoyed the goats cheese pita and the fried eggplant too. The hot chips are cut in a handy scoop shape and Miko often enjoys a hummus plate with a boiled egg.


The food is fresh, the chilli sauce is good but I do think the other sauces could do with a bit more bite. The best sauce I’ve had in Finland so far was baba ganoush made fresh by a Kurdish woman at Hietalahdenkauppahalli. With winter coming there’s no need to be shy with that lemon and garlic!



So we’re very happy to have found Fafa’s – although I’m still looking for that meal that serves garlicky jajik, lemony hummus and smoky baba ganoush alongside dolmades, with baklava for dessert. If you know of a good place for fresh, flavoursome Middle Eastern food in Helsinki (and I don’t mean a kebab with fries) – please, let me know!

IMG_0159Fafa’s – Kamppi, Kallio and Iso Roobertinkatu

Tar lollies and patriotic gum

Cut in half? Relax! The Finns have a panacea that is said to cure “even those cut in twain through their midriff”. Wood tar has been used in traditional Finnish medicine for years because of its ability to fight viruses and bacteria and is also used to flavour alcohol and sweets (Terve Leijona).

Tar lollies

Tar lollies

And how does it taste? Kind of like the road in New Zealand smells on a hot summer’s day. Or like the old Throaties we used to get from the chemist. But it’s not offensive, we actually have a wood tar fragrance we use in our sauna. Apparently the Finns say, “if sauna, vodka and tar won’t help, the disease is fatal.” 


Chewing xylitol gum seems to be a patriotic act in Finland. Discovered by French and German scientists, it was the Finns who discovered its health benefits. A sweetener that can be tapped from birch trees, xylitol is safe for diabetics and proven to be beneficial for dental health. The flavour range of Jenkki gum includes spearmint, sweetmint, peppermint and polka mint, orange-cranberry, lemon sorbet, smooth salmiac and smooth lemongrass.


Special wheat flour & whole wheat flour

Turns out ‘plain’ flour is a very subjective term. In NZ it refers to white wheat flour, the main alternative being brown wheat flour. Here in Finland there are so many kinds of flour, what we call ‘plain’ is hidden within a huge range of alternatives and called vehna (wheat) to differentiate it from grains such as rye, or graham.


Rye flour & Fine wholegrain rye flour

Hartwall Jaffa is an iconic drink in Finland and can be found in most supermarkets and corner stores. Apparently it is ‘Finland’s most loved drink’ and is the third-most bought soft drink in the land. And just to confuse us, appelsiini is the Finnish word for orange, not apple.


Finns seem to love their porridge for breakfast and it is sometimes made with oats as we are used to. There’s also a large range of Manna at our supermarket –  a milk-based mannapuuro (semolina-milk porridge).


 And if you prefer toast for breakfast but don’t want the crust? No problem, this brand of bread seems to have taken care of that problem for you. Is that why most Finns have straight hair?





Salty Flowers and Sea Berries

Sea Buckthorn: I’d only ever seen it in hand cream before moving to Finland. Popular here, the berries are like corn kernels that pop in your mouth with a sour surprise. High in Vitamin C, the juice is popular and with omega 3, 6, 9, and 7 they are good for treating burns. And, it turns out, they do not grow in the sea as I thought.


Lingonberries are also common here and particularly popular over in Sweden. We knew of these from Ikea in Sydney where they sell lingonberry jam. High in Vitamins A, B and C the berries are also an essential part of the diet for bears and foxes.


Lucky for us, Finns love their condiments and stock more flavours of HP sauce than I’ve ever seen. Sinappi is mustard and is often sold in tubes. The flavours below (in Swedish) are mild, fiery (eldig) and strong (stark).


Karelian pies (karjalan piirakka) come, obviously, from the region of Karelia, and are sold everywhere. You can buy them in the frozen section of the supermarket and in most bakeries. I thought they were covered in cheese and garlic but unfortunately they are actually really plain and more of a vehicle for other toppings. Made from a thin rye base and a filling of rice, it is common to eat them with boiled egg mixed with butter or a slice of cheese and gherkin.


Karelian pies (left)

There’s a huge sweets section at our supermarket. Läkerol is a Swedish brand of pastilles, founded in 1909. The name “Läkerol” comes from the Swedish word läka, which means heal. They come in many flavours, depending where they are sold, such as smoked liquorice, peach tea and chicken tikka masala.


Salvi apparently comes from salmiak (salty liquorice) and violets. So basically, salty flowers. It is an acquired taste and one I won’t be reaching for, but it’s good to know that if we are missing home they also come in Kiwi Passion.


Sea Buckthorn


Karelian pies


A Bear in our Supermarket

I’m often asked about Finnish food and what we are enjoying the most. It feels a bit unpatriotic to say but we are really enjoying the dairy products here. There’s a huge selection of milk, cheeses, yoghurts and butter including lactose-free for the estimated 17% of Finns who are lactose-intolerant.


The milk we buy

Valio is the main dairy producer here and one cheese they make is Oltermanni. It’s a yellow semi-soft cheese, a bit like Havarti. According to a book we have all about cheese (we do love it) they produce the cleanest milk in the EU thanks to the ‘crystal clear water and freedom from industrial pollution.’


There’s also a strong emphasis on eating seasonal produce. It’s Chanterelle season at the moment and these small golden mushrooms  are very high in Vitamin D,  important for well-being during the Nordic winter. If you’re not out picking your own, the best place to buy them is at the market stalls around the city, especially down at Market Square.


Chanterelle, portobello & field mushroom medley

The bread section in our local supermarket is split into two areas: Vaaleaa Leipää (light bread) and Tummaa Leipää (dark bread). I’m a new convert to rye bread and my favourite lunch is smoked salmon sandwiches with boiled egg on rye, from the deli.


Most mornings I have a poached egg on rye toast with a gherkin on the side. It’s not as crazy as it sounds as the pickles we buy aren’t such an assault on the tastebuds as some that are sold in a jar. They have no colour added and are more like a dill pickle from the States.  We buy them from a big barrel at the supermarket where you can choose from plain or garlic.


Something that I hadn’t seen before was soap nuts. Part of the lychee family, the fruit pulp is used to make soap and the shells can be used in the washing machine in place of detergent. They are meant to be great for people with allergies or very sensitive skin. They’re not actually a Finnish thing and have been used in India for years.

Soap nuts in the laundry section

Soap nuts in the laundry section

We’ve been fascinated by the bear meat sold in a can. Apparently bears that have a diet higher in berries than fish provide a sweeter tasting meat. Bears are protected animals and hunting quotas are set, although these are adjusted to remove bears from reindeer-herding areas.


Which is kind of ironic because some reindeer end up in a can too! I’ll just have a side of cheese with my pickles thanks.


Chanterelle mushrooms

Soap nuts