Inspired by Lonely Planet’s hot-off-the-press Ultimate Eatlist, I set about putting together Life in Riga’s own list of what to eat in Riga. It doesn’t require too much of a crazy adventurous spirit to eat your way through it. No Black Balsam shots or Laima chocolate, lots of greasy, hearty goodness instead. May it bring many moments of joy and discovery! You may want to bring some enzyme pills.
What to eat in Riga: belaši and kāpostu pončiki/virtuļi
Back in the day when I didn’t give two hoots about the origins of my daily sustenance, the belasis was a somewhat regular item in my diet regardless of the rumours going round that the minced meat filling was far from your usual pork or beef. Rats, they said, maybe even street cats or pigeons, all caught somewhere in the vicinity of the Central Station and Central Market.
I just thought it tasted good but, fast forward twenty something years and I’d think twice before letting something like that pass my lips, even if it is legit pork or beef. However, I’m still partial to its cousin, the kāpostu pončiks or kāpostu virtulis (sauerkraut donut), which some would say is an even worse faux pas.
Sadly, in the age of smoothies and street food festivals, these deep fried goodies seem to be a dying trend. As a kid, I recall buying my belaši from a grubby stall outside the station but now you find them at certain stands in the Central Market dairy hall and the Central Station tunnels.
What to eat in Riga: ķiploku grauzdiņi
Crunchy chunks of rye bread doused in oil and garlic and baked to perfection. Ķiploku grauzdiņi are a favourite beer snack and party table staple. Best served hot with a sour cream or cheese dip. Found everywhere from dodgy beer bars to contemporary gastropubs.
What to drink in Riga: saldējuma kokteilis
A mere two ingredients mingle in this whopper of a cocktail, served everywhere from office canteens to high end restaurants. Ice cream and juice. Perfect in its simplicity. The most popular flavours are plum and peach.
What to eat in Riga: pelmeņi
Little dough pockets of delight. Dumplings of Russian origin stuffed with meat, cheese or veggies. Served with cream, vinegar, adžika (tomato-based hot sauce), gherkins and, in my family, soy sauce.
At the young and impressionable age of 13 my dad once told me not to look too closely at my pelmeņi lest I identify what constitutes the grey and mushy stuffing. I’ve since forgiven my dad and, besides, a few years down the line I became a vegetarian. So it’s actually been many moons since I had a classic pork or chicken pelmenis. But many a night has ended gobbling the fried cheese variety at the old town’s famed pelmeņi joint. And I love the new veggie-friendly gourmet varieties appearing on the market.
Top spots to try pelmeņi: Kurzemes pelmeņi, Pelmeņi XL, Handmade kitchen (the gourmet kind)
What to eat in Riga: karbonāde
Battered chicken or pork schnitzel. An absolute staple on most menus at roadside diners, office canteens and similarly non-pretentious eateries. There’s an unwritten rule that you should never opt for anything other than karbonāde at local establishments outside major cities and in rural areas. That’s what the cooks know how to cook and they cook it good.
Shout out to fellow bloggers at Karbonade.lv who’ve made it super easy to find your nearest karbonāde joint by building a dedicated map! Proves how much of a food icon this is.
What to eat in Riga: kartupeļu pankūkas
Grated potato pancakes served with a hearty dollop of sour cream. Like the karbonāde for meat eaters, this is a safe bet for vegetarians venturing off the beaten path.
What to eat in Riga: auzu pārslu deserts
Crunchy, lightly caramelised oats in a bed of fluffy whipped cream. For real, this is my favourite dessert ever. I get cravings. They do a killer version at the Lido outpost on Dzirnavu iela.
What to eat in Riga: kafijas krēms
Kind of like a coffee and cream jelly, tends to be served in vanilla sauce or compote. Love the wiggly texture of this dessert. Strict veggies might not want to risk it, it’s clearly heavy on the gelatine.
What to eat in Riga: šašliks
As popular here as it is in Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere. No Latvian barbecue would be complete without these marinated and skewered chunks of chicken or pork. A typical marinade uses mayonnaise.
Top spots to try šašļiks: shashlichka Mangaļi, Shashliki u Alika in Vecmilgrāvis.
What to eat in Riga: rauga pankūkas
Puffy, oily yeast pancakes. At high school, every second Thursday was pancake day and these came served in mountains. Those were among the few occasions I chose to eat at the school canteen. The pancakes came with cream and jam, no fruit or veggies in sight. Great memories of my not-so-nutritious past.
Find them at cafeterias at places like Riga Central Market (and don’t think too much about the oil they’re fried in).
What to eat in Riga: biezpiena plācenīši
You may have noticed that Latvians are pretty big on their dairy. This dish is an ode to cottage cheese. A vegan’s nightmare, the biezpiena plācenis consists of cottage cheese, egg, sugar and a bit of flour, and comes served with jam or – get this – even more dairy in the form of sour cream. It’s a breakfast favourite.
What to eat in Riga: siera salāti
Don’t be fooled into thinking this salad is a healthy choice. Siera salāti is a heavy mix of cheap cheese, mayo, garlic and carrot. If you bring groziņi ar siera salātiem to a Latvian pot luck, you’re guaranteed to be in with the cool crowd. They’re usually just shop-bought pastry shells stuffed with shop-bought cheese salad. So darn moreish.
What to eat in Riga: siļķmaizītes
An open sandwich with a slab of herring and, possibly, a sprig of dill or parsley and a slice of onion on it. A classic snack or something to help you down that daily dose of vodka.
To avoid missing out any longer, find your nearest ēdnīca! Or head to one of the numerous greasy spoon kind of places at Riga Central Market . If you’d prefer a gradual introduction to Latvian food, a good way to start is a food and beer tour with a Riga local to work up your appetite!
Enjoyed this post? You might also like Latvia’s Answer to Poland’s Milk Bar: the Ēdnīca.