About four years ago I traveled to Lithuania on business. Being my first trip to Eastern Europe, I didn’t know what to expect. This former Soviet republic has a varied and rich history dating back to the middle ages. Situated as it was between Prussia and Russia; it has seen invasion, annexation and general turmoil over the centuries, with brief periods of independence and relative calm. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Lithuania is once again an independent nation with a republican form of government.
It is the largest of the three Baltic countries, the others being Latvia, its immediate neighbor to the north and Estonia, farther north. It is bordered on the east and south by Belarus, on the south by Poland and on the west by Kaliningrad (Russia) and the Baltic Sea.
Vilnius (known as Vilna, when it was occupied by Poland), with a population of around 550,000 is the capital. The next largest city is Kaunas, with a population of about 350,000. After changing planes in Helsinki, I flew into Vilnius where my friend Col picked me up. We drove through the city, farmland and forests for about 90 minutes to Kaunas where our office is located and where I spent the next week.
The first thing that struck me about Kaunas was the architecture, which ranges from what I would call Medieval-Teutonic to Baroque to Late-Soviet Concrete, with a touch of Byzantine thrown in, in the form of St. Michael the Archangel Basilica. These diverse architectural styles reflect Kaunas’ long and varied history.
A fascinating aspect of the city is its main avenue, Laisvès, which is a pedestrian mall that connects Old Town with New Town. It is lined with shops and restaurants, many of which offer outdoor seating for the great sport of people watching.
The food in Lithuania is both foreign and familiar, given its long historical relationship with Poland, Russia and Germany I recognized many of the dishes, with quite a few unique ones mixed in, such as Cepelinas, so-called because the resemble zeppelins, although these bombs are anything but lighter than air! Made with grated potatoes and meat, and served with sour cream, you won’t need to eat again for 24 hours.
The Lithuanian dish that I enjoyed the most was a cold borscht soup known as Saltibarsciai (sal-ta-bar-shy). Arriving in Kaunas midday, Col, Patrick, Serge and I went to lunch at their favorite restaurant across the street from the office. We sat in the sunny courtyard and I ordered something off the menu which seemed familiar to me, but whatever it was, it was forgettable. However, the cognoscenti: Col & Pat, both Americans living in Kaunas for the past year, and Serge, a Lithuanian national, ordered the Saltibarsciai.
I was struck by its beautiful purple hue, which in the bright sunlight of a Kaunas afternoon took on the color of a field of lavender. The next day, already feeling like a native, I too ordered the Saltibarsciai, and had it for lunch or as a first course for dinner, practically the entire week. Returning home I emailed Serge for his recipe and here it is, Saltibarsciai a la Serge.
As one of our readers wrote, he loves beets, because they taste like dirt. Although that is not an analogy I would use, I am sure that this Saltibarsciai will appeal to his taste buds. I hope that you try it and enjoy it as much as I.