From Lagom #5

A Taste for Tradition

Helsinki restaurant Juuri is leading the way in modern Finnish cuisine with its fresh and honest ‘sapas’ dishes. We spoke to co-founder Jarkko Myllymäki about their popularity.

Words Samantha Stocks

Photographs Aino Huovio

Sapas was a type of dish I’d never heard of before, let alone tried. But the description of this relatively new cuisine on the Scandi scene had me eager to visit Juuri, a small and unassuming restaurant on Korkeavuorenkatu Street, just a stone’s throw away from Helsinki’s bustling shopping centre.

Juuri — the birthplace of the sapas dish — is so called to hint at the notion of the restaurant itself: the Finnish word juuri means ‘root’. A nod to the root vegetables that are a staple on the menu, the name also honours Finnish heritage, celebrating traditional cultural food while bringing it into the 21st century. “In essence, the name means that we have our roots in Finnish ground,” restaurant co-founder Jarkko Myllymäki tells me, and he means that both as an analogy and literally speaking.

The food served here is organic and locally sourced, and Jarkko — along with co-founder Ilja Björs, who invented the sapas dish for which Juuri is famous — know most of their suppliers personally, and some of them have since become their friends. “We have our very own gardener who grows vegetables for the restaurant,” Jarkko tells me.

As we talk, it quickly becomes apparent that preserving Finnish food culture and tradition is very important to Jarkko and Ilja, and their restaurant embodies this desire. “For me it has been a dream since I was a teenager,” Jarkko explains. “We’ve both always used a lot of pure and fresh Finnish ingredients in our work and at home, so Finnish culinary traditions have always been close to us. Finland is a very clean country, with a lot of nature and wild places, and we wanted our dishes to portray this in their taste.”

The freshness of the food is one of the things that struck me the most about Juuri. While many restaurants boast about having fresh food or fresh flavours, the dishes at Juuri deliver flavours and textures that make you feel energised before you’ve even swallowed a mouthful. With dishes lightly flavoured with few ingredients, the natural taste of the produce takes the lead role, even above their beautiful, organic presentation on the plate.

You can think of sapas as the Finnish version of Spanish tapas, or mezze plates. But there are no Mediterranean ingredients here, just fresh, Nordic flavours from organic food sourced locally from small producers. Although the name sapas might sound strikingly similar to tapas, its similarity is coincidental, with the name originating from the Finnish words for ‘small Finnish starters’: suomalaiset alkupalaset.

Sitting down for a sapas meal, you might enjoy willow grouse with birch, freshly caught Arctic char, whitefish with elderflower, or milk (from the local farm Saloniemi) with fennel. The menu is determined by seasonal availability, so it’s worth coming back at different times of the year to sample the full range of sapas dishes. And if a selection of small dishes isn’t your idea of a meal, there’s also a choice of larger, main dishes to choose from.

Given the popularity of this new modern take on old Finnish classics, perhaps it won’t be long before we start to see sapas in London and New York. But although its popularity may be helped in part due to its novelty, this Finnish dish will hopefully be here to stay.

“Juuri was one of the first restaurants to focus on new Finnish cuisine,” Jarkko proudly tells me. While Ilja developed the concept of sapas for Juuri, its popularity has taken off and Jarkko tells me that it has become popular across Finland, especially in Helsinki, and it’s attracting international customers, too. “Juuri is popular among locals, but people are now coming from further afield more often. Tourists and people visiting on business trips make up a lot of our customers these days.”

With business going well, Jarkko and Ilja recently opened a wine bar called Latva, and also plan to open a microbrewery and restaurant next to Juuri along with some of their friends.

There’s an honesty about Juuri and its dishes. It is, just as the name suggests, very down to earth. Come wearing jeans and trainers, or dressed in a shirt and tie — this is the place to simply sit down for an unpretentious meal that celebrates Finland’s freshest flavours at their nest, in a way that’s accessible to everyone.

Lagom #5 cover

Read this story in the print edition of Lagom #5 along with features on a cocktail bar at the back of a Mac repair shop in London, Riga’s role as a new destination for foodies, Prague’s blossoming specialty coffee scene, and more.

Buy Lagom #5