Traditional Estonian cuisine has substantially been based on meat and potatoes, and on fish in coastal and lakeside areas, but now bears influence from many other cuisines, including a variety of international foods and dishes, with a number of contributions from the traditions of nearby countries. Scandinavian, German, Russian Latvian, Lithuanian and other influences have played their part. The most typical foods in Estonia have been rye bread, pork, potatoes and dairy products. Estonian eating habits have historically been closely linked to the seasons. In terms of staples, Estonia belongs firmly to the beer, vodka, rye bread and pork "belt" of Europe.
The first course in traditional Estonian cuisine is based on cold dishes—a selection of meats and sausages served with potato salad or rosolje, an Estonian signature dish, almost identical to Swedish sillsallad, based on beetroot, potatoes and herring. Small pastries called pirukad ("pirukas" in the singular)—a relative of the pirozhki—filled with meat, cabbage, carrots, rice and other fillings or mixtures are also popular, and are often served with bouillion. Herring is common among other fish as a part of the Estonian cold table. Smoked or marinated eel, crayfish dishes, and imported crabs and shrimps are considered delicacies. One of Estonia's national dishes is räim (Baltic dwarf herring), along with sprats. Flounder, perch and pike-perch are also popular.
Soups may be eaten before the main course, but traditionally form the main meal and most often are made of meat or chicken stock mixed with a variety of vegetables. Soups are also blended with sour cream, milk and yogurt. A unique form of Estonian soup is leivasupp, which is a type of sweet soup that is made of black bread and apples, normally served with sour cream or whipped cream, often seasoned with cinnamon and sugar.
Black rye bread accompanies almost every savory food in Estonia. Instead of wishing "bon appetit", Estonians are prone to say jätku leiba ("may your bread last"). Estonians continue to value their varieties of black rye-based bread. Estonia has not been a land of plenty. If a piece of bread was dropped on the floor, it was good form to pick it up, kiss it to show respect, and eat it.
Specific desserts include kissel, curd snack and kama. Other common Estonian desserts are mannavaht (a cream made of semoline and juice or fruit), kohupiimakreem (creamy curd) or kompott. Rabarbari pies are also a favorite. Another popular dessert is kringle (Estonian: kringel), a sweet yeast bread often flavored with cardamom.
A traditionally popular drink called kali—similar to Russian kvass—is becoming more popular again. Mead or mõdu, the drink that was most popular in ancient times, has almost completely disappeared. Nowadays, locally brewed beer is the number one choice to accompany food; different juices or simply water being the main non-alcoholic choice. Wine is widely drunk, and although it is still not as popular as beer, it is becoming all the more common. There are also Estonian fruit wines made of apples or different berries. Milk is also widely drunk by children as well as adults. Estonians are also proud of their vodka and other spirits, such as the herbal liquer Vana Tallinn. Two of Estonia's oldest breweries are A. Le Coq, founded in 1807, and Saku Brewery, founded in 1820.
Other dairy products besides milk (Estonian: piim) include keefir and also hapupiim and pett, which are variations on the theme of buttermilk.
Traditionally in summer and spring, Estonians like to eat everything fresh—berries, herbs, vegetables and everything else that comes straight from the garden. Hunting and fishing were common in the history. Nowadays, they have remained as popular pastimes. It is popular to barbecue in the summer.
During the winter months, jam, preserves and pickles are brought to the table. During the past, when the economy was largely agricultural, the gathering and conserving of fruits, mushrooms and vegetables for winter was essential. Today, gathering and conserving is less common because almost everything can be bought from stores, but preparing food for winter is still very popular in the countryside and continues to retain its charm for many, as opposed to the commercialization of eating habits. Upholding of traditions is important to many.
Black pudding (Estonian: verivorst), head cheese (Estonian: sült), and sauerkraut (Estonian: hapukapsas) with oven-roasted potatoes have been part of the traditional Estonian menu that nowadays are mostly Christmas specialties. Also, typical Christmas treats have been apples, Mandarin oranges and gingerbread.
Many influences have nudged modern Estonian eating into more diverse and open directions. Early influences that diversified the eating experience came through the Hanseatic League. Small Estonia has been conquered and ruled by many foreign powers, ranging from the Danes, Germans, Poles, and Swedes to the Russians. German nobles who colonized the Estonian countryside with hundreds of manors were modernizers over the centuries, and also acted as a transmission belt of Continental influences on Estonian cooking, although for a great many years, precious few of these influences trickled down to the impoverished Estonian peasants.
Things began to change with the gradual emancipation of the Estonian people in the 19th century and as a result of urbanization. By the time that Estonia enjoyed national independence between the two World Wars, Tallinn, Tartu and Parnu as well as other Estonian urban centers sported a diverse variety of restaurants and cafes that featured dishes from many European cuisines as well as the local menu. There was also a flowering of good cooking in Estonian homes throughout the country. A variety of newer Estonian dishes were developed, and cooks and housewives experimented with foods from other cultures
All of this came to a crashing halt in 1940, when the Baltic States were annexed by the USSR, restaurants were nationalized and closed down, and the few that were left suffered from a chronic shortage of ingredients. Although those who still had access to garden plots were able to supplement the limited variety of foods that were offered in Soviet-era food stores and markets, the period from 1940 to the early nineties brought with it a tragic decline, compared to the golden days of the twenties and thirties. On the other hand, migrants from various parts near and far of the USSR brought new recipes and styles. Even now, the foods of the Georgians, Azerbaijanis and others make the culinary experience in Estonia less one-sided.
Since the reestablishment of independence in 1991, Estonian cuisine has rebounded, slowly at first. Some good dishes enjoyed before WW II have not returned, while many others have. A number of restaurants in Tallinn and other Estonian cities have introduced culinary experiences previously not known, such as Indian and Mexican food. At the same time, a number of modern-day restaurateurs such as Imre Kose, Imre Sooäär, Dimitri Demjanov, and Kadri Kroon have not only introduced international dishes, but have also tweaked classical Estonian dishes in directions they had never gone before. They have created totally new and sometimes amazing combinations that may draw on local ingredients, but use the entire palette of innovations that a contemporary cook can allow him or herself. Some of the fusion and other ideas conjured up by Kose, for example, is groundbreaking. Although home cooks tend to be more conservative, they too try new things at a more tempered pace. Therefore, modern Estonian cooking is in flux. Traditional dishes are still common and even cherished, but Estonian cuisine is not static either.