Cepelinai: Lithuania's National Dish (And How I Like It Best)
Lithuanians love to talk about their cepelinai - often described as the national dish, along with their beloved, refreshing šaltibarščiai.
About a year ago, I shared a bit about my penchant for šaltibarščiai and a recipe for making it. But the hearty, wintery cepelinai has its own place in my heart: it was my first dish in the whole country. (Yes, in hot July. Not my wisest moment. I was too excited to care, y'all.)
And I'll be honest, I didn't quite get it.
Let me explain.
Source: Andrius Aleksandravicius
As The Scientist likes to say, cepelinai are potatoes made from potatoes - and he's right. In simple terms, they're potato dumplings filled with meat - or other tasty fillings. But here's the interesting part: when you break into them, the potatoes have an interesting texture - spongy, gelatinous,... intriguing. Definitely worth trying at least once.
I've continued to try them over my nearly two years here, and I've come to the conclusion that I don't prefer cepelinai with meat. (Gasp!) Mostly, I just don't like the meat - which makes sense, given I usually only eat meat outside my home. If I'm going to eat it, it better be delicious. This ain't cuttin' it.
So, pray tell, how do I eat my cepelinai, then? Well, with a varškė (curd cheese) filling. My favorite restaurant cepelinai can be found at Senoji trobelė - they fill their vegetarian cepelinai with varškė, tarragon, and other herbs. In fact, I'd recommend this restaurant to anyone visiting Lithuania - so keep that in mind. Named after Graff von Zeppelin (not Led Zeppelin, like I hoped!), some people believe cepelinai are based on the German Kartoffelknödel, but they've been a part of Lithuanian cuisine for at least 150 years. Now you see why I had to try it before anything else!
One day in 2021, my brother-in-law messaged me from the States to share a picture of his homemade cepelinai. I was floored and impressed - making this dish is a labor-intensive process... or so I'd heard. ;)
It took about a year and a half, but on one of Lithuania's independence days, The Scientist and I holed up with two friends to make our own varškė cepelinai - it seemed like the right day for such an exploration. My Lithuanian friend warned me I'd be putting in a lot of work, but hey, why else did I move here?
We peeled and peeled and peeled potatoes before boiling them and using an unusual, heavy-duty, Soviet-style potato grater machine to get each potato as scrappy as possible. I could go through every step of the process, but just know that it was laborious and involved lots of teamwork and alcohol - and extra potato starch because our initial cepelinai fell apart. You win some, you lose some - but hey, they were all delicious. (Here's an English recipe, if you're feeling brave! If you only have a grinder, use the smallest zest side for better results.)
I've come to realize cepelinai is a bonding experience for family members and friends - almost like a road trip. You commit to the process and appreciate the journey just as much as the end goal. Check out some photos from the day we made these bad boys; they're brown because we didn't use lemon to brighten the potatoes at any point. No regrets. ;)
Would I make them again? Yes, definitely - as long as it had a vegetarian filling. Ours bucked tradition a bit, but y'all know I feel about that: satisfied.
Have you ever made cepelinai? Thinking about doing it? Do you prefer šaltibarščiai over cepelinai? Let me know!
As per usual, feel free to subscribe at the bottom of this page to receive a bi-weekly email from me on whatever's on my heart that day! And as always, I'll see you next time here at Into the Forests I Go - iki pasimatymo - see you soon!