It's my first foray into the territories of the defunct Soviet Union. And it's been a pleasant surprise. Vilnius, the capital, is a very likeable and attractive city. Its Old Town area is a maze of winding cobblestone laneways opening onto scenic squares dominated by baroque churches. This historic part of the city has clearly undergone major renovation and renewal since the drab days of the USSR.
The local food, however, is in a class of its own. I never thought I'd encounter a cuisine that makes Polish food look light and healthy, but this is it. Lithuanian food is weighty, filling and heavy on the pork and potatoes.
The prize exhibit is the cepelinas, a Lithuanian rendering of zeppelin, and this large football-shaped potato dumpling with a meat filling does indeed resemble a vintage airship. It's served with a choice of sauce, usually something involving butter, sour cream and pork crackling.
Even the local bar snacks are not for the fainthearted. Which would you prefer with your beer: deep-fried sticks of rye bread, or a smoked pig's ear?
Yes, it's comfort food with a vengeance. Which made me reflect on the comfort food items (heavy and filling, but not necessarily nutritious) I've stumbled across in other countries. Here's a quick selection:
- Empanadas (Chile): Especially the deep-fried ones filled with tuna and cheese.
- Placki Ziemniaczane (Poland): Thick, hot potato cakes wrapped around a goulash filling.
- Bacon Sandwich (UK): Very simple, but for some reason no one can make these like the British can.
- Pad Thai (Thailand): Tasty noodle dish that's often served with a fried egg on top.
- Pannekoeken (Dutch, but eaten in Poland): Hefty pancakes cooked with ingedients like bacon or cheese embedded within.
- And finally... my own country weighs in with the Pie Floater (Australia): Peculiar to Adelaide, a meat pie floating in a thick pea soup.