an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

Tallinn’s New Life of Spice


If you were to visit Tallinn from another planet, you might assume that Estonia’s national soup is tom kha gai (chicken galangal soup) given the sheer frequency with which it appears on the capital’s lunch-time menus – everywhere from the corner Reval Café to neighborhood watering holes. And that’s not even counting its different supermarket varieties …. Indeed, the funniest point in the recent Estonian film Keti Lõpp (End of the Chain, 2017) happens when one of the characters expresses her amazement when the burger joint where the main action takes place doesn’t serve Tallinn’s most ubiquitous soup. Given the popularity of this particular Thai soup – as well as its sister tom yum goong (sweet and sour shrimp soup), I’m somewhat amazed at the time and effort that it still takes to gather together all the ingredients you’ll need to make a full Thai meal in as there is no such thing as one-stop-shopping.

On the plus side, you wouldn’t have even been able to cook proper Thai food if you had had to rely on locally available ingredients as little as ten years ago. To get everything that you needed, you would’ve had to take the ferry to Helsinki. There, not too far from the Hakaniemeni Market Hall, you could (and still can) find pretty much all the Thai ingredients that you might need – including fresh ones flown in on Finnair’s daily Bangkok to Helsinki flight – in the various Asian markets on the single city block outlined by the streets Hämeentie, Näkinkuja, Sörnäisten rantatie, and Hakaniemen torikatu. Whenever I wanted to make Thai food, I would have to make the journey across the water to get all the fresh, freshly frozen, as well as wet or dry ingredients that I needed.

Thanks to Tallinn’s new addiction to Thai soup (tom), you no longer need to head north to Finland to do your shopping. The basic Thai culinary building blocks – including lemon grass (fresh, freshly frozen, and dried), galangal (freshly frozen and dried), as well kefir lime leaves (freshly frozen and dried) – will often show up in the city’s top grocery stores. And yet, putting together a proper Thai meal can still be a challenge as you’re unlikely to find everything that you need at once. Fortunately, Tallinn now has at least two specialized spice stores which can speed up your quest to gather everything you need.

Whenever I plan to cook a real Thai meal for my friends, I start my hunter-gathering expedition at Piprapood (The Pepper Store) at Liivalaia 43. I go there because I love to see how the store has evolved over the last dozen or so years. When I first started going Piprapood, their selection was severely limited – although they always had at least some unusual ingredients. But depending on what I was planning to cook, my visits were usually only a limited success. These days, however, the new and improved Piprapood can meet just about all of your Asian cooking needs. Piprapood has the best spice selection in town – as well as some of the friendliest owners. As a result, I find that every visit to Piprapood turns out to be a pleasant experience. I even find myself wishing that I was cooking Asian food more often so that I could become an even more regular visitor. While Piprapood’s selection is impressive – and I usually manage to buy quite a bit each time I visit, they don’t always have absolutely everything that I need or the particular brands that I want. But that’s OK with me – as I know where to go hunter-gathering next.

Not far from my Kalamaja home – in one of those little wooden houses half-hidden in BJT’s outdoor I-Beam forest at Kopli 1, you will find Umami – Tartu’s spicy transplants to the big city.  While Umami’s BJT outpost is much smaller than their main store down in Tartu (located not far from that city’s train station), they do manage to pack a lot of choices into a very small space. If you should go searching for them online, just make sure that you don’t confuse them with Umami Restaurant out in Mustamäe – the younger sister to my favorite Leib – as they represent two entirely different culinary operations in the quest of that same savory taste. As I live not too far from BJT, I probably visit this spice store about once a week – even if only to pick up some Thai spiced peanuts or some other small thing that I might need. In any case, if you’re looking for something at Piprapood and still can’t find it after you’ve asked about it, then be sure to give Umami a try. As I usually buy whatever vegetables or meat I plan to cook at BJT, I’m glad that Umami is where it is in case there are any last-minute flavor bursts that I may have forgotten. And if for some reason BJT doesn’t have whatever vegetable it is I’m looking for – or it just doesn’t look fresh or ripe enough, then I extend my hunger-gatherer search to include Tallinn’s top supermarkets – each one , incidentally, also offers its own set of different Asian ingredients these days.

While Piprapood and Umami should fulfill almost all of your spice needs, Tallinn is home to several other ethnic food stores which could help you fill out your larder depending on what it is that you need. If you plan to cook Indian food, you could always give the India Pood (My Indian Store) a try. It is particularly popular with Tallinn’s Asian residents who are interested in buying staples like basmati or jasmine rice in bulk. The store also happens to have a good selection of Thai ingredients. For the last 20 or so years, Tallinn’s been fortunate enough to have at least one such Indian grocery store in town. The current one is on Uus 7 – although I remember shopping at another one which used to be on Nunne. If you plan to cook Japanese food, you could always try Momo at Kunderi 29. While the original store which gave birth to the Tokumaru restaurant family is tiny, they do have some specialized Japanese  – and even Korean – food items that you won’t find anywhere else in Tallinn. If you can’t find what you want at Momo, you could always hop on the no. 31 bus and head out to Nori at Punane 16B located within the Idakeskus (Eastern Center) mall. Nori has one wall aimed at Lasnamäe’s many sushi lovers while the other is for everything else Japanese, Korean, or Thai. And then inside BJT on Kopli 1, you’ll find a small Georgian grocery stall called Mimino. While their main focus is wine, they also have a nice selection of Georgian spices as well as a limited array of other traditional ingredients. Sadly, BJT’s African stall – which used to be a good place to find some truly exotic things – didn’t survive the year. The most recent addition to Tallinn’s ethnic grocery scene seems to be Nur at Kreutzwaldi 3 which offers a variety of Turkish foods and other items for sale.

As you can see, Tallinn has definitely come a long way since 1991 when the only spices you could find would be salt, black pepper, and dried laurel leaves while the only fresh herb was dill – annoying and ever-present. For the record, it is still tough to see fresh coriander (cilantro) in winter as it is so hard to grow even in greenhouses.  Over these last few decades, Estonian taste buds have also evolved: I remember when my friends would complain when I put a little too much black pepper in my Italian tomato sauce as that was just “too spicy” for them. Fortunately, the opportunity to travel the world has helped to expand people’s culinary horizons. So, while older Estonians may still be hesitant about trying spicy food, Estonia’s younger generation seems to have embraced the chili pepper – which is one of the reasons why Thai soup has now become Tallinn’s favorite soup.


Image: Talented leather worker Elina Randla makes these lovely chilies as well as stylish bags and other wonderful things which you can find at the Leather Studio in St. Katherine’s Guild on Katarina Käik (St. Katherine’s Walk).

PS If you feel like eating Thai food but don’t want to take the time to cook it for yourself, you could always try the New Thai Restaurant at Lastekodu 9. While not all of their dishes work, it is probably the best out of Tallinn’s current batch of Thai restaurants. As if to confirm its leading status, each time I’ve been there I’ve seen a couple of local Thai masseuses enjoying a meal.

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