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Travel + Culture

A Midsummer Night’s Sandwich

Maybe it’s the midnight sun, but something has caused the residents of Helsinki to develop a curious fascination with very strange sandwiches. Cannibal, anyone?

Jaskan Grilli is a famous place in Helsinki. A grill hut the size of a tollbooth located behind the parliament building, it’s open every day until 4:30 a.m. and is frequented, it is said, by Finnish president (and Conan O’Brien lookalike) Tarja Halonen. In fact, Jaskan offers a sandwich named after her, as after many politicians. This was not just street meat, this was culturally and politically exalted street meat. And I love street meat, love the sandwiches grecques in Paris, the Turkish döner kebabs in Berlin. Basically, I will try anything that resembles charred leather caught at high velocity in a carbohydrate mitt and sauced.

Summers are sleepy in Helsinki, and even the president was on vacation on this late June night. The crowd came exclusively from the open-air death metal festival letting out across town. I asked a very polite drunk young man with a Metal Festival VIP Pass around his neck for recommendations. In colloquial English, he explained that once you eat Jaskan Grilli, it gets in your system and you crave it, you have to keep coming back. This sounded magical to me, and I had high hopes watching the little white hut glow gold in the setting midnight sun.

He and his friends were all drinking half-liter cartons of whole milk. “Milk is good with these sandwiches?” I probed, hoping he would explain what to me seemed patently weird. “Yes.” He chugged a little, looking at me over his milk carton like a big, sweet baby.

The Uosukainen, which honors the first female Finnish speaker of the house with a baked meat pie split open and stuffed with sliced meat, sausage, and an egg, piqued my interest. The Kannibaali (yes, Cannibal), a beef patty, a beef steak, a fried egg, two ham patties, sliced ham, and a hot dog, piqued my fear of death. But on the recommendation of my milk-swilling friends, I ordered the Jaskan Special, the signature sandwich.

The steely, grey-haired matron inside the hut was pulling from rows of stacked meat patties with the nimble hands of a croupier tossing betting chips. For my sandwich, she pulled a garlic-flecked beef patty, a disk of pink hot-dog meat so fluorescent you could use it for a nightlight, and another pink sausage, threw them into a fluffy white roll, and reached up to yank on the pendulous nozzled sacks of mustard and ketchup attached to the ceiling. On top of this she slopped about two cups of mayonnaise, half a cup of pickle relish, the same amount of raw grated garlic, and crumbs of rubbery yellow cheese. There was no precedent, in my lifetime experience of simple Finnish home cooking, or in the markets, or at the sprawling deli counters with their smoked hams and their German-style wurst, for this idiosyncratic concoction.

I nibbled at the lukewarm meats, funky with garlic and onion. I licked at the mayonnaise, challenged my teeth with the resilient cheese bits. I paused, put the sandwich on top of a trashcan, and watched pigeons avoid it.

I have a few questions, in ascending order of importance.

1. Does good street food depend on a consistent immigrant culture, which Finland, as opposed to, say, France or Germany, does not have?
2. Is there a chance that people keep coming back to Jaskan Grilli because their bodies are searching for some sort of antidote to a virus?
3. How big is the bottle of Tums on Tarja Halonen’s desk?
4. How does Finnish parliament stay in session, and should we consider the possibility that Jaskan Grilli may be a covert Russian tactical assault?

There’s no doubt that Jaskan provides excellent late-night anthropological sight-seeing, and for that eager beaver with the All-Your-Favorite-Finnish-Members-of-Parliament Autograph Book to fill in, there’s no better street corner. As I walked through the neighboring park to the taxi line, I noticed some wild strawberries flowering along the path—delicious Finnish street food.