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Mämmi Maestro. Ahmed Ladarsi is an expert on a Finnish "delicacy"
By Ritva Korpimo
Is this for real? I mean, could it really be that it requires a Tunisian-born man to tell the Finns how you should eat mämmi, all the different ways in which mämmi can be prepared, and how one should approach this rather esoteric Finnish dish, one that is associated with Easter in much the same way as lutefisk is associated with Christmas? Mämmi belongs to the Easter celebrations, sure, but there are almost as many who loathe it as there are who cannot live without it.
Yes, it is all perfectly true, and the man in question is Ahmed Ladarsi, 52, who established Suomen Mämmiseura (The Finnish Mämmi Association) a year ago.
However, before we go on, for the sake of those among our readers who do not know these things, we must address a few fundamental questions.
What IS mämmi?
And even, WHY is mämmi?
Mämmi is a thick dark brown porridge made from water and sweetened rye malt. It is baked in the oven, then stored in the fridge and served cold, perhaps with sugar and milk or cream.
Rather like another odd Finnish speciality, the salty licorice-flavoured candy known as salmiakki (made, believe it or not, from ammonium chloride), mämmi is "an acquired taste".
Actually a Germanic (and Roman Catholic) invention, mämmi is now just a curious Finnish relic, and it has even lost its early laxative/purgative usage during Lent and is seen simply as a traditional Easter dessert.
The laxative aspect of the dish leads us smoothly on to the reasons for Ladarsi's decision to establish the association that proudly bears its name. He finally heard the old Finnish joke about the stuff one too many times.
That is the one where an innocent foreigner is offered a bowl of mämmi and is sufficiently shocked at the sight of it to blurt out: "You Finns, you seem to eat your food twice over!"
"Yep, that's the one. And everyone who tells it thinks you are hearing it for the first time", scoffs Ladarsi.
And so he, the former chef at the Italian Embassy in Helsinki, grabbed a standard 700-gram box of Finnish mämmi and set to thinking what he could do with it.
Plenty, as it happens.
Ahmed Ladarsi now has around 50 recipes collected, with mämmi as an integral ingredient in all of them. There is mämmi bread, mämmi truffles, mämmi cookies, mämmi toffee, even mämmi jam or marmelade.
"And in all the recipes mämmi itself accounts for more than 40% of the whole", Ladarsi swears.
In some cases it can be a good deal more. For example in the mämmi truffles the delicacy makes up 80%, but all the same they taste like chocolates.
Ladarsi is looking for a publisher for his recipes, since he feels a mämmi book could become a collectors' item: "I'm not thinking about some paperback volume, but a proper book, with every copy individually numbered."
Naturally the founder of Suomen Mämmiseura was also the jury chairman at the World Mämmi-Eating Championships held last weekend in a shopping mall in Toijala, a town between Hämeenlinna and Tampere.
Toijala is also incidentally home to "the world's largest mämmi factory", as you may learn if you see the product in the Finnish shops this week. Annual consumption runs to about 2 million kilos and the Toijala plant turns out around 3.5 million packets of the dessert to stores and kitchens.
There were two competition categories: the "Camping" series and the "Salon" series. In each case the competitors had to eat two decilitres of mämmi in a manner that appealed to the panel of judges.
"In a civilised fashion!" stresses Ladarsi.
This is the same principle that Ladarsi, who has lived in Finland for 27 years, applied in his first approach to mämmi.
He never liked the crude mämmi cracks, since as a former cook he believes it is utterly wrong to be prejudiced about any kind of food, even if he is not a meat-eater himself: "It's completely out of order to point to unpleasant comparisons about food like that."
Ladarsi and Suomen Mämmiseura would like to make an international dish of the humble Finnish mämmi. And they aren't even so happy with the "humble" epithet, either.
In the view of the association's chairman, mämmi could perfectly well be served up at the President's annual Independence Day Reception, since in its traditional birch-bark* container, it is about the most authentically Finnish of Finnish foods you can find.
And yes, Tunisian-born Ahmed Ladarsi quite happily uses the rather obscure Finnish word "tuokkonen" - probably known these days to a tiny fraction of the native Finnish population under the age of 30 - to describe the rectangular box that mämmi should be authentically baked in and served from.
"The French always say that a proper gentleman has a couple of hundred bottles of good wine in his cellar. And I say that any decent hostess should have at least five tuokkonens of mämmi in the house."
But...and the question must be asked... Does Ahmed Ladarsi actually LIKE mämmi?
He turns his head to one side and smiles winningly. Only then does he open his mouth to reply.
"Mämmi is... strong stuff."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 16.3.2005
Anyone who is interested in the subject may join Suomen Mämmiseura. Membership is free. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
*See the reference in the Virtual Finland link.
RITVA KORPIMO / Helsingin Sanomat