In Finnish, kala kukko means “fish cock.” (Think rooster.) But in Karelian—a Finnic language spoken in parts of Finland and the Russian Republic of Karelia—kukko refers to pie or pastry.
This bread loaf stuffed with bacon-wrapped fish is a traditional food invented as an early form of take out. In the town of Rautalampi, Finland, bakers even gave kalakukko a wooden handle so they could easily carry their hearty meal-on-a-stick. When hunger struck, they ripped open the top to scoop out savory filling using chunks of rye crust.
A classic kalakukko is filled with bacon and vendace, a small-boned lake fish from eastern Finland. Bakers place a stack of whole, headless vendace in the center of flattened rye dough, then cover them in raw bacon strips. Heating the pork fat melts it over the fish, softening the bones and creating a thick, smoky, briny filling.
The end result may appear no more complicated than an oversized dumpling. But getting the kalakukko’s crust just right is not easy as pie. Sculpting the dough around the filling takes precision: Making the crust too thick renders it difficult to eat; overly thin crusts dry the whole loaf out. And baking kalakukko takes at least five hours and special care. At the Hanna Partanen bakery in Kuopio, bakers remove the doughy round after 20 minutes in the oven to patch newly formed cracks. Halfway through the 10-hour, low-heat baking process, they fill a syringe with melted butter and inject it into the core.
Nordic wayfarers once sustained themselves on kalakukko packed with bacon fat, an aquarium’s worth of fish, and butter. Modern Finns still enjoy the dish, although they are more inclined to serve the rich loaf in reasonably portioned slices.
Need to Know
Kalakukko is most popular in the Savonia region of Eastern Finland, especially the city of Kuopio. You can find several bakeries that specialize in the fish dish there, but it is otherwise hard to find. Kalakukko is often paired with beer or cold milk.
- "Loaves and fishes;" Lawrence, Sue; Sunday Times, London; January, 12, 1997.