A friend recently gave me a packet of extra spicy instant noodles. “They’re extremely hot,” he warned. I took his statement at face value; he’s not given to exaggeration.
He also showed me a huge bag of dried birds eye chillis. We were enthusing about Helsinki’s Chinese supermarkets; the largest of which I’m aware cluster in Hakaniemi, near the “hip” Kallio district and punky Sornainen. Many ingredients, spices, sauces, accoutrements and sundries can be found here which can’t really be found elsewhere: I was particularly pleased to find a variety of Thai vegetables (a Tom Yam soup and any of those incredible coconut milk-based curries aren’t really the same without them), huge quantities of frozen pre-made dumplings (including Japanese gyoza and Korean dim sum) and every known variant of Flying Goose-brand srichacha sauce (including Extra Garlic, which my partner swears by – she is not wrong).
After we announced our decision to move to Finland last year, more than a few friends and acquaintances warned us that Finns don’t really eat spicy food, and that we’d struggle to find a lot of cuisines and ingredients we like. There’s probably truth to this historically, and in some areas of the country, but in the centre of Helsinki at least it feels like nonsense. Take, for example, sushi, which has boomed in popularity in Helsinki in the past ten years, complete with fat dollops of sinus-clearing wasabi (most likely horseradish, but hush). Nepalese restaurants are a common sight, and although the typical level of heat is low for, say, British tastes, the standard range of dishes always includes something pleasantly spicy. There are a few small Thai restaurants, and one of them – Bangkok9, in the City Centre mall – is reliably packed throughout peak times. Your burger vendor of choice (Helsinki has many) probably offers pickled Jalapenos, habanero mayo or chipotle sauce with the pattie or on the side. There’s a small ramen chain called Momotoko that’s a lunchtime favourite, and their broths are always beautifully spiced with a good amount of chilli heat.
Weirdly enough, the only foodstuff we’ve really struggled to locate is cheap anchovies in oil – the kind you want to dissolve into a putanesca, or slow-roasted lamb. Well, that and Bisto.
The instant noodles my friend gave me were delicious. Chewy, fat rehydrated noodles in what I think is a Jjolmyeon style (I’m fairly ignorant about Korean food), stir fried in a viscous hot sauce and with roasted sesame seeds and laver (a kind of edible seaweed or algae). They were hot, and while I may regret eating them once the meal has moved through my digestive system they weren’t that hot. If you’re the kind of person who’s ever attended a chilli festival and spent a day trying samples of mind-blowingly hot chilli sauces, drinking beer to take the edge off and occasionally weeping because you misjudged a sauce, you’ll probably know what I mean. And even if this post isn’t the lulzy “man eats food that’s too hot for him” junk food I originally planned, it’s at least given me a chance to write a little about two things I love: hot food, and my adopted home city.