Travel guides and all-in-one holiday packages promote ‘authentic’ experiences because, despite society’s wanderlust, the tourist is a shameful figure. You’re reduced from moving through your city with unconscious aplomb to navigating the unknown with an invisible ‘traveller’ tattoo. This mark changes how you interact with your surroundings. The restaurant transforms from a relaxing indulgence to a stage on which there’s a play for which you don’t have the script. That’s how I felt as I approached my first Finnish meal: I didn’t know where the director was and I missed rehearsal.
Könstan Mölja is a slightly tourist-ed (though this word is relative in Helsinki) restaurant that serves a buffet of Finnish delicacies for 18 euro. There’s also a fixed price menu, though the last copies were likely thrown out long ago. Entering the restaurant is similar to arriving in Helsinki. Exotic tokens such as language, people and architecture seem to possess easily interpreted meanings. Könstan Mölja’s dark wooden interior could evoke the nautical themed eateries of childhood summers. Yet, the details — people, light and food — make the traveller realise that Finland gives these tokens new significance.
Such as Finnish cuisine, which combines familiar ingredients in new preparations, changing your interpretation of them. Salmon ceases to be an elegant dinner and becomes stick-to-your-ribs home cooking. Although karelian pasty, a savoury egg and butter pie with rye crust, may remind you of quiche, Finland’s version is less composed than its French counterpart. These small pies, with their carefully fluted edges, fit comfortably in the palm of your hand. A chewy combination of rice, butter and eggs is piled in the centre and tastes deliciously exotic but blandly sweet. You’ll find it underneath a napkin in a dark wicker basket on a shelf above the warm food, as you might the warm rolls at a theme restaurant in Pennsylvania.
Like an American buffet, Könstan Mölja invites you to try more, so long as you can shift your understanding of ‘more’. The herring is mouth puckering-ly acidic with a can’t-stop sweetness. Salmon is served whole with a pick to flake off large chunks of the surprisingly creamy fish. Mounds of reindeer and beef stew hide inside cafeteria-style steel containers. But go quickly, before the man sitting next to you takes all the reindeer that’s left and tops it with a few spoonfuls of lingonberry jam. If this happens, you can fill your plate with a spoonful of Finnish tortelli, a hunk of roast chicken and a mound of mashed or boiled potatoes. Don’t look for brown gravy in a little pitcher. It’s mushroom gravy and you’ll find it in the container next to the reindeer.
As you begin to eat, forget the worries about ‘authenticity’ that threatened to stop you from dining here. ‘Authentic’ is the misguided keyword of guidebooks, tourist manuals and freebie city maps. Finns likely don’t eat reindeer in July. They probably never chase two karelian pasties with a pile of red cabbage. As a tourist, it’s difficult to verify whether your activities align with local habits. Rather than searching for that imaginary ‘real’, we should seek the experiences we want. It’s ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ if it exists in front of you and you choose to consume it. Whether or not you enjoy it comes from internal, not external factors.