Eating Rudolph? A Look at the Finnish Dish Poronkäristys



It’s that time of year again. Snowflakes are falling, stockings are making their way over the mantel, and kitchens around the world are heating up for the festivities ahead. Just across the ocean in Helsinki, Finland, my relatives’ stovetops are sizzling to prepare a dish that was, until recently, completely unknown to me—Poronkäristys. Centered around sautéed reindeer, Poronkäristys is a traditional Finnish dish that’s well-loved both by Finns and other Northern fellows alike. But, for those living a little farther from St. Nicholas’s hometown, this reindeer dish tends to garner some genuine surprise. 

Photo: Mikko Uosukainen

As an American with Finnish heritage, I’ve been enjoying taking advantage of the holiday downtime in recent years to learn more about my Finnish roots, especially when it comes to food. Having never traveled to Finland myself, I can still only experience its cuisine through the stories and recipes of my family. Luckily for me, my closest connection to Finland lives only a couple of hours’ drive away.

My grandmother, who shares my love of cooking, is my source for all things Finnish. Each December, as we sit cross-legged in the familiar space of her living room, we inevitably strike up a conversation about Finnish fare. In between commercial breaks of the season’s latest sugary Hallmark movie, she usually tells me of goodies like oven-fresh rye bread, fluffy egg dishes, or some unique pastry variation. This year, however, I was a little taken aback to learn about Poronkäristys.

“Poronkäristys,” she tells me, giving a small language lesson, “directly translates to sautéed reindeer.” In fact, “poron” means reindeer in Finnish, and “käristys” is a verb meaning to fry or sauté.

Though it seemed odd to me at first, Poronkäristys is a familiar dish in Finland, akin to our “Sunday roast” dishes in the West. While the sautéed reindeer is the headliner, it lies on a bed of creamy potatoes with crushed or raw lingonberries on top. It’s a simple yet robust dish—a medley of rich, savory flavors with a complementary smack of sweet tanginess from the lingonberries. It’s described as a comforting meal when the mood strikes, at least a couple of times each year. 

Certainly, if you find yourself in Finland, you may hear this dish mentioned with an air of cheeriness in households, supermarkets, traditional restaurants, and even some schools or universities across Finnish regions. Most frequently, though, you’ll hear the word Poronkäristys in the region of Lapland. 

Lapland, the northernmost region of Finland, sits in the Arctic Circle, where reindeer herding has gone on for thousands of years. The domestication and consumption of reindeer are deeply ingrained in the Finnish—and furthermore, Lappish—cultures, starting and continuing on with the indigenous Sami people. Because reindeer husbandry is most common to Lapland, Poronkäristys is primarily considered a Lappish dish to Finns but is enjoyed throughout the country nonetheless. As a note, I’ve had more than a couple of Finns suggest to me that if you’re going to try Poronkäristys, it’s ideal to try it fresh in Lapland. 

Frozen reindeer meat, though, is readily available throughout Finland. Take a couple of steps down the freezer aisle at any Finnish supermarket, and you’ll find reindeer meat in two forms: large cuts or a block of very thin slices, ready-made for Poronkäristys. However, in most Finnish households away from Lapland, Poronkäristys is primarily only prepared at home for special occasions due to its higher price tag. 

Once you’ve stocked reindeer in your freezer, the dish is reportedly not too tricky to prepare but can be rather time-consuming. The original custom of making Poronkäristys followed a process of cutting extremely thin slices out of a block of fresh, though still recently frozen, reindeer (perhaps originally thanks to Lapland’s icy climate), with a Lappish-style hunting knife called a leuku. Now, most prefer to buy their reindeer meat pre-sliced—understandably.

Photo: Mikko Uosukainen

As mentioned above, “käristys” directly translates to fry or sauté; however, it actually more specifically denotes a Lappish method of cooking reindeer, sometimes used with other game meats as well. This method involves braising, the two-step cooking technique in which meat is first sautéed over a dry, high heat and then simmered slowly in a liquid base. 

As confirmed by the Nordic Recipe Archive, Poronkäristys is traditionally cooked by sautéing the reindeer meat with a small slab of reindeer or pork fat over high heat until the fat evaporates, and then simmering the meat in butter and water until tender. Though reindeer meat is not too gamy to begin with, taking the time to braise it in fat ensures an elegantly succulent result. Finally—if you want to be really authentic—only a spattering of salt is added to the meat. Of course, these days, the cooking process is much more individualized.

As is the typical course with many (perhaps all) traditional dishes, Poronkäristys has evolved in a variety of ways over the years, depending on the cook and the context. For instance, some might purée the potatoes while others will mash them; some might use raw lingonberries while others will use sweeter jam or preserves; and some might braise in beer or toss in onions or mushrooms. You get the idea; it’s the individual art of cooking. 

It’s also fairly common to substitute beef or meatballs in households around Finland, depending on what’s available. So, even though Poronkäristys traditionally refers to the specific sautéed reindeer dish from Lapland, you will find it in several different, less traditional forms as well. 

When I asked some friends here in the United States what they thought of the dish, their initial reaction wasn’t dissimilar from my own: “It’s like eating Rudolph!” one of my friends joked, eyes a little wide. And sure, eating reindeer might sound strange to those in parts of the world where reindeer isn’t regionally available, but Poronkäristys isn’t at all unlike the common game dishes prepared in other cultures.

In fact, when I initially appeared surprised to my grandmother, she quickly reminded me of dishes like turkey and cranberry sauce or lamb and mint jelly, combinations commonly paired with potatoes here in the United States. And besides, it’s not like venison is unheard of in the West.

A little eyebrow-raising isn’t uncommon when hearing about unfamiliar dishes from other cultures. Snail, rabbit, gator, or reindeer—eating a dish featuring one of these might sound odd to you, but it might be a weekend favorite just a flight away. Traditional dishes everywhere have formed, grandmother to grandchild, based on what’s regionally available. Poronkäristys is no different; it’s a dish that’s brought Finns round the table for generations. 

If you’d like to try Poronkäristys for yourself, follow along with this recipe from Finnish photographer, Mikko Uosukainen.

Photo: Mikko Uosukainen

Ingredients:

  • 200 g bacon of other fatty, cured meat
  • 1.5 kg frozen sliced reindeer meat (e.g. sirloin or blade)
  • 2 yellow onions
  • 3 tsp salt
  • Ground black pepper
  • 2 bottles of pale lager (330ml each)
  • 2 dl water
  • Butter and/or oil, if needed for sautéing the onions

Preparation:

  1. Dice the onions and slice the bacon.
  2. Brown the bacon in a Dutch oven.
  3. Add diced onions and sauté them.
  4. Add the frozen reindeer meat gradually (add the next portion only after the previous portion is no longer frozen).
  5. Allow all the liquid to evaporate and the meat to brown.
  6. Add the first bottle of lager and wait until the stew starts to boil.
  7. Add the second bottle of lager and the water and wait until the stew boils again.
  8. Season with salt and pepper.
  9. Place the lid on the Dutch oven and let the stew cook slowly in the oven (170-degrees (Celcius) for 1-2 hours) or on the stove (light boil for 1-2 hours)
  10. Add water if needed.
  11. The stew is ready when the meat is tender and the cooking liquid has almost boiled down.
  12. Add salt and pepper if needed.
  13. Serve the stew with buttery mashed potatoes and fresh lingonberries

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