Food writer Zuza Zak’s latest book, Amber & Rye: A Baltic Food Journey: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania (Allen & Unwin, 2021) is a remarkable exploration of one of Europe’s better-kept secrets: the food and culture of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, known collectively as the three “Baltic States.” But as “Amber & Rye” proves so ably, each of these countries has its own unique and distinct culinary roots and culture, and each country is currently experiencing a lively culinary renaissance, which makes “Amber & Rye” an especially timely and welcome addition to this season’s new cookbooks.
Zak’s initial inspiration was her Lithuanian grandmother’s tales of her youth in Vilnius, and these memories launched Zak on a quest to discover the heart of the region through an examination of its food. The cuisines of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are very much a reflection of their terrain and are shaped by the bracing climate of the Baltic sea. Fish — be it fresh, salted, or smoked— is a major player in each country’s cuisine, as are meat, grains, root vegetables, mushrooms, berries, and the region’s incomparable dairy products. With some influences from their near neighbors: Russia, Germany, Poland, and Scandinavia, the Baltic States’ cuisines remain magnificently their own — as Zak emphasizes throughout “Amber & Rye.”
“Amber & Rye’s” adroit structure offers recipes from all three countries in chapters that cover breakfast, appetizers, soups, main courses, salads, desserts, and beverages and a delightful section on the region’s famous pickles, ferments, and preserves. In the approachable style and easy-to-follow recipes that made Zak’s first book, “Polska” such a success, the recipes of “Amber & Rye” showcase the building blocks of Baltic cuisine such as kama, hemp butter, and herring in fresh and engaging recipes, which are easy to replicate in an ordinary home kitchen.
The recipes are sandwiched between insightful travel essays about the cities Zak visited on her Baltic odyssey, which offer keen insight into the individual history and culture of each place. The region’s rich history includes membership in the commercial powerhouse of the Middle Ages, the Hanseatic League, the era dominated by the crusading Teutonic Knights, and the strategic alliance between Lithuania and Poland, which made the region a major power broker in the sixteenth century. Zak also charts the more recent struggle of the three Baltic countries to preserve their unique heritage and traditions alive during the seventy years of Soviet rule, and the key role played by music, art, culture, and of course food in the ultimate success of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia reclaiming their heritage and enjoying the freedom to celebrate it today.
The title, “Amber & Rye” is an apt choice. Rye is omnipresent in the Baltic countries — a tenacious, life-giving grain that is found in almost every meal. Amber, the ancient substance formed from the sap of conifer trees, is a potent symbol in each of the three counties: of energy, power, and the preservation of memory. In “Amber & Rye” Zuzu Zak has captured both the life force and the power of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia and made them available to readers through her delightful and compelling exploration of the cuisines, culture, and history of these three Baltic countries.
Zuza Zak is a food writer based in London, where she is a Ph.D. student at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies. Zak’s debut cookbook, “Polska: New Polish Cooking,” was selected as one of the best cookbooks of 2016 on BBC Radio 4’s The Food Program. “Amber & Rye” is published in America by Interlink Publishing.
Jennifer Eremeeva is an American expatriate writer who writes about travel, culture, cuisine and culinary history, Russian history, and Royal History, with bylines in Reuters, Fodor's, USTOA, LitHub, The Moscow Times, and Russian Life.