Marko Suksi and the love of chilli: it started with cayenne pepper, was spurred on by the first habanero, and now it brings strong flavours to many Finnish dinner tables though a company named Poppamies. In mid-August, the whole city of Tampere goes crazy for chilli when Finland’s hottest festival comes to town.
In the beginning, there was an aunt. In years past, Finnish home kitchens were extremely conservative in their use of spices, but Marko Suksi was able to develop a taste for “the peppers” at a young age when his aunt brought strong spices as souvenirs from her travels. Although the rest of the family were not enthused, the future Poppamies entrepreneur sprinkled a generous pinch of cayenne pepper on his fish fingers – and liked it.
- That’s where the use of spice started. In my twenties, I was already a big fan of Tabasco sauce and ate the jalapeños in kebab dishes with great enthusiasm, Suksi says.
Suksi remembers his first habanero with special affection. He encountered it in a restaurant on a trip abroad. The waiter warned him that the chilli on top of the steak was hot, extremely hot.
- I think I said the classic words, that I have eaten plenty of jalapeños. Then I took a bite and noted that, goddammit, this is something completely different. It was an intense experience, Suksi says.
When a friend told him that habanero sauce could be mixed into food and simmered into a delicious dish, his interest in strong flavours truly took off. At times it involves searching for and combining flavours, sometimes just something hotter and hotter.
- Sometimes you have to sort of put yourself back in your place, or cook a chili con carne dish which my friend and I call ‘beat-down hour’. 30 habanero peppers go into one pot, Suksi reveals.
The interest in fiery flavours has also become Suksi’s profession. His previous job in the IT field took him on trips abroad. He often returned home with a suitcase full of hot sauces that were not available in Finland, but which he and his friends loved. A few friends were in the same situation, and something needed to be done.
We coded the Poppamies online shop as a side business, and it was in the background for the first few years. In the third year, I decided to take a sabbatical from my day job because the phone was constantly ringing about chilli matters, Suksi says.
Today, Poppamies imports approximately 600 products and has its own brand, with constant development of new tastes. The products travel from the Tampere warehouse to shop shelves or, through the online shop, straight to the consumer.
Poppamies is the result of three friends’ shared passion for chilli. Marko Suksi has played a strong role in the company brand from the start; he is a memorable guy who gives the chilli interviews and is the public face of the company.
- I am also at the forefront in developing flavours and trying them in my own kitchen, so talking about these things is a pleasure, Suksi says.
The kitchen is certainly a special domain. When Marko Suksi cooks, he creates meals for himself and his friends but also recipes for new sauces and spice mixes for the Poppamies brand. Sometimes the right combination is easy to find, but sometimes it requires experiment after experiment to the point of bullheadedness.
- I developed a great chili con carne spice mix by cooking and experimenting with a specific chili con carne recipe around four times a week for four months. I ate it almost every day and made my friends eat it too, and then I broke down the sauces and spices in the recipe into dry spices. The result was a spice mix that has everything you need.
- Eating chili con carne for four straight months did not make me tire of it: I still love chili con carne made from the same recipe!
However, Suksi’s life involves more than hot treats and chilli fame these days. Founding and expanding Poppamies pushed the software architect into the middle of business life.
- It was extremely challenging to suddenly find myself the owner of a distribution company, product developer and employer. I had to understand shop distribution, delivery pipelines, marketing, contracts, cost structure, personnel work and so on...
At the same time, he exchanged a steady monthly pay-check for the unpredictable income and long hours of an entrepreneur. All in all, Suksi still thinks that his quality of life improved.
- I especially enjoy the freedom of being an entrepreneur. Whether things go well or badly, I can always look in the mirror and see the person responsible for it. I also like how this job allows me to truly fulfil myself.
Marko Suksi and his partners have managed to bring a large dose of chilli culture to Tampere and Finland. Chilifest Finland, organised for the fifth time this year, is one sign of it.
The popularity of the festival surprised its organisers right from the first, and the number of festival-goers exceeded all expectations. Since then, the festival has expanded and diversified each year, attracting both home cooks and dedicated chilli enthusiasts.
One more question: what is the favourite chilli of a man of strong flavours?
- I have to say that it’s the orange habanero. Why? It just speaks to me.
Read the article in Finnish on www.tampereenseudunvetovoima.fi.