Fermentation Tradition from Finland


In my regular regimen of reading food news, today I ended up discovering a Finnish food called mämmi. It started with reading about a study that showed adolescents’ intake of vitamin K could effect their long-term bone health. Vitamin K1 is present in leafy greens, and Vitamin K2 is present in fermented dairy and soy products, particularly cheese and natto. I couldn’t quite remember what natto was, so I looked it up on Wikipedia, and that page referred to it as an acquired taste like lutefisk in Sweden or mämmi in Finland. “Mämmi?” I asked myself. “What could this be? Perhaps a fermented food that I have not yet discovered?”

The Wikipedia page did not have the most enlightening recipe; I found a much easier-to-follow one here. Reading the recipe, I can’t see how anyone would dislike it unless they were allergic to rye or had some textural aversion to porridge. Rye flour, malt and orange rind served with milk and cream — how could you go wrong? But apparently not even all Finns like it, and so a Tunisian-born resident of Finland is trying to cultivate respect for the culinary tradition.

If you let the porridge sit long enough, some of the sugars in the malt start converting to alcohol — this is a desired effect, and shows that my original fermentation hunch was correct.

The porridge is traditionally shaped and stored in birch bark baskets. This is the only factor that I can imagine leading to a taste perceived as objectionable — birch bark is full of an oil that is identical to that found in wintergreen, and perhaps that seeps in and permeates the porridge a little too strongly.

I’d really like to try making this stuff. I’ve even got access to birch trees around here. Unfortunately, even the fairly straightforward recipe I found makes cultural references that I do not understand — for example, telling me to stir the porridge until it is the consistency of “velli.” A Wikipedia search of the term only gets me an album by a Punjabi musician, and a Google search gets me a bunch of South Asian Web sites. “Velli finnish” is a little more on target, but still insufficiently enlightening.

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