an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

Tallinn’s On-Again/Off-Again Dumpling Affair


Pelmen is the latest café to take on Tallinn’s long-term up-and-down relationship with pelmeni – the Russian answer to dumplings. Located out at the city’s newest supermall known as T1, Pelmen uses the rare singular version of the word to make clear its connection to the Finno-Ugric root of pel’n’an (“ear-shaped bread”) as a way to reach out to Estonians on the other side of the same language tree. While you can find all kinds of dumplings in Tallinn these days from Japanese gyoza to Georgian khinkali and from Korean mandu to Italian tortellini, the pelmeen has always been Estonia’s default dumpling. Just look at the frozen food section of any Tallinn supermarket and you will find that it is filled with dozens of different kinds of pelmeenid. My favorite regional variation on the dumpling, however, has always been the Ukrainian varenyky for their dough-to-filling ratio, their mouthfeel, and the great variety of their fillings (both savory and sweet). Only the closely related Polish pierogi – the term used most often to refer to these types of dumplings in the United States – appear to be missing from Tallinn’s food scene.

Back to Pelmen, the new café gets full points for making their pelmeenid the right way. The dough for each dumpling is rolled, cut, and them filled by hand in that time-honored fashion which has even earned its own verb (lepit’) to describe the process. Pelmen serves up pelmeenid with the traditional ground beef-and-pork filing – along with other savory alternatives both usual (lamb or fish) as well as unusual (chicken-shrimp or vegan). Each portion is boiled to order and arrives steaming hot with a bit of melted butter and some chopped green onions – thank goodness there’s no dill to be seen. You can then add some salt and pepper if you wish – or even a splash of vinegar or a dab of mustard. You’ll need to buy any other sauces including sour cream, ajika (a Georgian chili-spice dip), or the “usual” pink one (often a mixture of sour cream and ketchup). You can also grab an updated version of a traditional side-salad packed in a mason jar as well as something to drink. As for me, I was glad to see the return of the tried-and-true mors (a pasteurized berry drink) – although you can also go modern and get a trendy sea-buckthorn juice. Pelmen’s main selling point is that their pelmeenid are fresh and are kasitöö (handmade). Here’s hoping that they’ll succeed and beat the odds!

While other cities across what was once known as the Soviet Union were often granted one pelmennaya (pelmeni café) or more depending on their size, Tallinn never had its own. However, it did have the legendary Kümme minutit (Ten Minutes) which served pelmeenid as well as other Soviet culinary fast food staples including pankoogid. Back then, you would also come across pelmeenid elsewhere as they were served in sööklad (dining halls) all across the country. The Restoration of Independence and the return of the free-market economy generated a boom in the frozen variety and that’s how pelmeenid went on to become Estonia’s answer to instant ramen – cheap, easy, convenient – and a favorite food of kids, students, and anyone living alone as all you needed to do was boil them and then eat them. If you wanted real hand-made pelmeenid, however, you had to wait a while longer until Kalamaja’s Russian-inspired Café Moon started making their own very tasty version following in the footsteps of Tallinn’s high-end Russian restaurant known as Tchaikovsky.

Over the last two decades, several cafés have tried to tap into Tallinn’s continued love for pelmeenid with menus focused almost entirely on everyone’s favorite dumpling. There was the Estonian café known as EAT on Sauna Street – serving up cheap bowls of mainly fried pelmeenid which appealed mainly to students, back-packers, and anyone else on a tight budget. Then there was that other place called Mellonde which served pelmeenid plus more located across from the Estonian Music Academy. Finally, there was the Latvian Pelmeni XL – while still a hit in Riga, it never did stick up here in Tallinn. The much larger Latvian Lido, however, seems to be doing well and you can always find pelmeenid among their myriad of other offerings. In fact, you can still see pelmeenid on café menus all over Tallinn today – or even get them from the bright yellow van known as The Dumpling Truck which makes its lunch-time rounds from BJT to various corporate HQs serving up their dumpling take on Russian-Asian fusion. Sadly, far too many of these cafés serve up the frozen variety as it seems to be too much trouble to make (lepit’) one’s own pelmeenid these days. As for me, I’ll go for Ukrainian varenyky whenever I get the chance – especially the wonderful and varied types that you can sometimes get at Tallinn’s Ukrainian Cultural Center – where you can even book a class to learn how to make (lepit’) them by hand.  Believe me, it doesn’t get much better than that.


Image: My mold of making Chinese jiaozi when I’m too lazy to close the dumplings by hand.

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