Kihnu and Manija islands are home to the unique indigenous culture of Kihnu, which has resided here on the coastal islands of Pärnu County for more than 600 years. Kihnu culture, which was included on the UNESCO intangible heritage list in 2003, is intriguing for any visitor interested in cultural heritage, distinctive natural environment and friendly people. Part of cultural heritage is food culture.
Kihnu food culture has been relatively austere just as the older peasant culture in Estonia generally was.
The main foodstuff for the Kihnu islanders was foods made of barley and rye flour and fish and seal meat. Pork, beef and lamb were eaten rarely, usually only during feasts and celebrations. At other times there simply wasn’t much meat. Barley was the favoured crop, and yielded flour, soup, porridge, bread and beer.
Kihnu people had a shortage of land and would trade herring for grain, primarily for rye for bread, and also wheat, oats and peas. In the mid-19th century, relatively little potatoes were grown. After World War I, when the island still had a high population – about 1,000 – and Kihnu stone ships were destroyed, there was much hunger. The Kihnu islanders were thought to have bone-weakness due to poor nutrition.
Life revolved around cooking and obtaining food. Hence the saying “…as long as the bread doesn’t run out…” – a fear that the old women still remember today. Kihnu has faced very difficult living conditions, and bread pieces would be dipped into herring brine. And that was the mainstay. Hence another saying: “Better a mouthful of salt than a bellyful of sugar.”
In the summer, Kihnu islanders would prepare food in open-air kitchens set up in the sauna antechamber or in a separate structure. In older houses, the kitchen was in a tipi-like conical structure. It was called the väljäküek or õuõküek in the local language. Seal meat was also prepared there, as it tended to be strong-smelling.
The whole family often ate from the same bowl, and everyone ate the food that was directly in front of them, you were not allowed to take another person’s share. In the early 20th century, guests were given a knife, fork and plate. In around the 1930s, the use of plates came into fashion and they began to be used daily, but at celebrations people would eat from the same bowl for lack of sufficient plates, and upon departing, guests would take their utensils with them. Men used their personal daggers when eating while women had a folding knife in their pocket under their skirt. At today’s weddings, knives are usually not used in memory of the old times. Napkins were not used, mouths were wiped with hands, some women used their apron. Handkerchiefs are a later fashion.
Shops were opened in the 1880s, which meant that the table also became more well-rounded.
After World War II, the standard of living on Kihnu rose markedly and the agricultural collectivization era generated wealth. But up to the late 1950s, young women were still concerned that they looked too thin. The situation reversed in the period that followed, and the opposite was the problem. In the old days, strength of body and leg was esteemed in women; then it was certain that a woman could do work.
Today people eat more or less according to the same patterns seen from the mid-20th century on.
- Monday – potato and salt herring, meat cooked on a pan, pickles
- Tuesday – soup day, milk-based potato soup (kjõllusupp), bull soup (dumpling soup), pea soup
- Wednesday – porridge day, mashed potato with bits of bacon and a pool of butter, groats
- Thursday – potato, gravy (flour-based), potato and fish, potato and meat
- Friday – soup day
- Saturday mashed potato, meat, baked rutabagas, carrots and bread, baked apples
- Sunday – sauerkraut soup; in summer cabbage soup
Meat and potatoes are the stuff of weddings and celebrations on Kihnu. But I believe that the island’s national dish could be considered to be boiled herring with potatoes and pan-fried salt meat.
The drink for weddings has always been home-brewed beer and vodka. For women, sugar was burned into the vodka, to create a sweet libation they could swig at wedding parties. This custom remains today, but today small caramel candies are dissolved in the vodka instead. The bottle is then passed around (clockwise) and whoever gets more candies from the bottle wins.
Kihnu islanders began to stock up for the winter before summer was half through and today the pantries and cellars of the islanders are full of all sorts of good preserves, from floor to ceiling. As always, barrels of salt herring, sauerkraut and seal meat stood in the storehouse. Kihnu didn’t use to have much forest at all and thus there were few mushrooms. Mushrooms weren’t eaten, but considered a kind of mould from the forest. Mushrooms became more popular in the 1950s, and milk mushrooms were salted and mushroom gravy would be eaten with potatoes.
In the spring, when the semi-domesticated mergansers start to look for a place to nest, Kihnu islanders put barrels up in the trees. The merganser eggs with their dark yellow yolk are considered tasty eating by Kihnu islanders and cakes that contain them are extremely good. Other wild bird eggs are also eaten.
There is also a certain traditional food that was only prepared by the men folk. Around midsummer (June 24 or so), in the beginning of eel season, they would gather to cook eelsoup. One of the men would be appointed cook and would prepare a cauldron of rich soup, containing onions and a great deal of eel. Today there is no more eel in the local waters and the tradition is not followed so religiously, but eel from other places is brought in and the soup can still be found.