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Wednesday, 13 November 2013 20:07

Lithuanian gourmet cuisine: a rare experience Featured

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If you have ever tried Lithuanian food, you most probably think I am insane to even mention a word “gourmet”. While gourmet food is of the highest quality and flavor, prepared well and presented in an artful manner, coming out in small portions, Lithuanian food is usually associated with big portions of fat, greasy food most often made from potatoes, pork and sour cream.

I have travelled around the world, tried many different gourmet cuisines, but never ever Lithuanian. To be honest with you, not even a thought crossed my mind that Lithuanian food could be transformed into gourmet. And I definitely have not imagined ever trying it.

But it happened! Thanks to Lithuanian Honorary Consul in Philadelphia Krista Bard, the Lithuanian embassy in Washington D.C. and talented Lithuanian-American chef Michael Laiškonis, Lithuanian gourmet food proved its existence.

Encouraged by Lithuanian Honorary Consul Krista Bard, Kevin Sbraga, the owner of the restaurant “Sbraga” in Philadelphia, was hosting popular NYC chef Michael Laiškonis on Wednesday, November 6 for a guest chef dinner at his restaurant on South Broad Street, Philadelphia. The 6-course dinner featured Lithuanian cuisine, which is Laiškonis' heritage.

Michael Laiškonis rose to fame at Le Bernardin as a pastry chef and has since moved on to become the creative director at the Institute for Culinary Education in New York. He’s also won accolades from Guide Michelin, the James Beard Foundation, Bon Appetit and the New York Times among others. M. Laiškonis is proud of his Lithuanian heritage and he was showing off the traditions and flavors of Lithuania in his creative menu that night. He incorporated Lithuanian traditions and flavors into totally modern new recipes.

It’s about time to reveal what was on the menu that night at Sbraga:

  • Šaltibarščiai: Textures of Borscht;
  • Silkė: Herring, Marble Potato, Charred Onion, Pickled Parsnip and Carrot;
  • Cepelinai: Pork and Potato Dumplings;
  • Antiena: Duck Breast, Sprouts, Chanterelle, Fried Black Bread, Butternut Squash;
  • Spurgos: Beignet, Poppy Seed Cream, Cranberry, Crème Fraiche Sorbet;
  • Obuolys: Apple Confit, Hazelnut Sponge, "Alus" (Beer) Ice Cream.

 

Once I saw the menu, I thought: OMG, can I choose just a few dishes of the menu?! Who could eat all that – šaltibarščiai, cepelinai, silkė, antiena and two different desserts? You most probably understand me: if we were in the Lithuanian food restaurant that would be the feast for at least two or three people!

And, oh boy, I was REALLY surprised when the first dish came out. That was like a boom in the sky. Instead of a big bowl of soup I got a tiny plate of Šaltibarščiai. And the texture was different from what I expected – a soup was actually a beet mousse. But all the flavors worked together perfectly and a real taste of Šaltibarščiai was recreated!

Herring was prepared in a very traditional Lithuanian way, with pickled parsnip being the only unusual ingredient, but served as a piece of art. No need to say it was very delicious!

And then cepelinai came! It was the exact mini version of cepelinai (potato dumpling) we are all used to. It was the tiniest cepelinas I have ever seen in my life. I need to check, but I think it could be included into the Guinness World Records as the smallest cepelinas in the world!

Duck is a traditional Lithuanian dish for Christmas. Fried black bread is a traditional Lithuanian beer snack. Chef Laiškonis connected both ingredients with the butternut squash, leaving us amazed with how well they go together. Although the duck breast was a little bit chewy, the dish was rich in flavors and was well received.

Have I already mentioned that Michael Laiškonis is a pastry Chef? Then, there is no need to say we were all eager to see and taste his Lithuanian inspired desserts. Doughnuts (Spurgos in Lithuanian) came first. And this course immediately became the most favorite around the table. Doughnuts were one bite size and they quickly melted in the mouth, just like Catholic Communion. Both make you feel closer to heaven. Nowadays, when you hear “doughnuts”, you immediately think about them as of the American only dish, maybe even imagining American policemen eating big, fat, round doughnuts as seen in the movies. In fact, doughnuts were and still are also a part of the Lithuanian food. Lithuanians make them in a bit different way and shape – like a ball of dough with no hole in the middle.

After going through the ingredients of the last course, I was wondering only how the beer ice-cream would taste. But it was another thing which surprised me, once I tried the dessert: I tasted an apple cheese, which was exactly the same my grand grandmother used to make when I was a little girl. Beer ice-cream was very rich and smooth and had a light beer flavor. This dessert was full of flavors of the traditional Lithuanian food: beer, apple and hazelnut, and reminded me of the fall season in Lithuania.

In this 6-course dinner I could recognize all the traditional flavors and ingredients of the Lithuanian cuisine, but they had an unordinary texture and completely new additions. Traditional Lithuanian dishes were truly transformed into modern gourmet cuisine. Another unusual thing about the menu was that each dish was paired with a glass of different kind of wine. I say unusual because Lithuanians are not known as wine drinkers – traditionally beer and strong spirits are way more popular among Lithuanians.


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The Lithuanian Embassy in the United States and Lithuanian Honorary Consul in Pennsylvania Krista Bard organized the Lithuanian Festival in Philadelphia, celebrating the Lithuanian presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second half of 2013.  In partnership with numerous Philadelphia organizations, seventeen events gave an unprecedented insight into Lithuania’s contemporary culture through its international award winners in art, design, jazz, photography, film, and cuisine; as well as world renowned scholars in politics, economics and history. It was the first Lithuanian Festival of this magnitude in Philadelphia, and was a keystone celebration of Lithuania’s EU presidency in the U.S.

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