Explore Scandinavian Cuisine

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The term “Scandinavian cuisine” brings together the gastronomy of different countries, such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland. Although the cuisine is often described as simple and the ingredients for most dishes are fairly basic, the food culture of Scandinavia has been perfected over thousands of years and influenced by shared Nordic and Viking traditions. Modern day Scandinavian cooking is refined, complex, and surprising.

Until 1850, Scandinavian cuisine relied mainly on stews, where all products were mixed and slow-cooked over fire. However, the first stoves appeared, and the Scandinavians began to cook the dishes separately.

Contrary to popular belief, Scandinavian cuisine isn’t limited strictly to fish. The dishes found across the region are made with a variety of ingredients sourced from the land and sea. Known locally as husmanskost (“farmer’s fare”), many dishes feature beets, potatoes, cabbage, onions, mushrooms, cucumbers, apples, berries, and nuts paired with a wide variety of seafood, pork, poultry, game, and beef. 

When it comes to sweets, Nordic desserts are relatively low in sugar. Instead, pastries are very popular and are frequently made with fruits and jams. Also, sugary drinks are not frequently consumed, rather they are replaced with tea, dry sherry, beer, or aquavit (an alcoholic drink made from grain or potatoes). 

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The Nordic Table

Nordic countries mostly follow the standard rule of three meals per day, but with a slight twist. Breakfast usually consists of oatmeal porridge, eggs, bread, fish, fruits, and vegetables. Instead of a hearty and heavy meal for lunch, they prefer quick snacks like sandwiches. Their dinner is the main course of the day. For dinner, meat or fish combined with potatoes and vegetables is preferred. 

Nordic folks do love their coffee, though. In 2021 surveys on coffee consumption around the world, Finland and Norway took the first and the second spot on the chart with Sweden not far behind. On average, a Finnish person drinks almost four cups of coffee a day. In Finland, coffee is so valued that two 10-minute coffee breaks are mandatory by law! Maybe related to coffee consumption, or not, is that 4 of the top 5 happiest countries in the world are from Scandinavia, as ranked by the World Happiness Report’s annual ranking of 153 countries worldwide.

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Denmark

Danish cuisine is anchored by the area’s local produce, and enhanced by cooking techniques and equipment, like the home stove, developed in the late 1800s. Cooking in Denmark is inspired by foreign and continental practices. The use of imported tropical spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, and black pepper can be traced back to the Middle Ages and even to the Vikings. Some dishes Denmark is known for include open-face sandwiches called smorrebrod, dark rye bread called rugbrod, Pea Soup (ærtesuppe), Danish pastries called wienerbrod or just “Danish”, Carlsberg and Tuborg beers, and Danish butter cookies called vaniljekranse.

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Sweden

Sweden is a northern country with a harsh climate and long, cold, and dark winters. Under these difficult living and growing conditions, it makes sense that the cuisine was simple but had to be nutritious and nourishing. Even though Swedes still favor a no frills take on mixing ingredients, the cuisine is surprisingly diverse. Swedes love meat and fish, which are eaten along with vegetables, potatoes, and fruit. Christmas and Easter gave Swedes permission to enjoy elaborate feasts full of meats and poultry and an endless array of sweet and buttery cookies. Notable Swedish contributions to the culinary world are the cold meats and pickles buffet called smorgasbord, Cinnamon/cardamom buns, the aperitif aquavit, pickled herring, thumbprint (fruit topped), Ginger (snaps), and snowball (dusted shortbread) cookies and, of course, Swedish meatballs.

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Norway

Norway’s culinary traditions have been shaped by land and sea, arguably more so than its neighbors to the east and south. It was actually fishing, sealing, and hunting that brought the first settlers to the region 14 millennia ago after the last ice melted in Scandinavia. Norway’s harsh climate forced its inhabitants to conserve and preserve provisions so that a season’s yield could last year-round. The customs and techniques they developed became the foundations of Norway’s food culture.

Fårikål (Sheep in Cabbage) is Norway’s national dish and a glimpse into the country’s agrarian past. It’s a simple stew eaten in fall after the sheep are collected for the winter months. Other foods of note are codfish and salmon, large, flat Norwegian meatballs in gravy (as opposed to the smaller Swedish meatballs in cream sauce), sursild (Pickled Herring), brunost (sweet brown cheese), and a special boiled coffee (kokekaffe). 

Like the other Scandinavian countries, Christmas is the holiday in Norway, a time when all the traditions come to life. This means that the season has some of the best Norwegian foods with many regional variations and special touches. Holiday eating peaks with a traditional Christmas Eve dinner on December 24th where ribbe (roasted pork belly), juletorsk (Christmas cod), pinnekjøtt, kohlrabi, and risengrynsgrøt (rice pudding) are served.

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Finland

The cuisine of Finland is very similar to other Scandinavian countries. In the early days, the harsh climate caused fresh fruits and vegetables to be hard to come by for about nine months each year. This led to dependence on potatoes, dark rye breads, turnips, and dairy products. There were very few spices available except salt, fresh herbs could only be found during the summer.

Traditional Swedish rye bread often is full of spices and syrups, but the rye bread of Finland is not sweetened and is even a bit bitter. In addition to the strong Swedish influence on Finnish cuisine, German and Russian foods also influenced dishes in Finland. Finnish cuisine may not be well known outside of Europe’s northernmost reaches, but diners in the know are starting to pay attention to the Scandinavian country’s fresh and unusual cooking.

Modern Finnish cuisine combines traditional country fare and haute cuisine with contemporary continental style cooking. Fish and meat play a prominent role in traditional Finnish dishes from the western part of the country, while the dishes from the east have traditionally included various vegetables and mushrooms. Foraging for Mushrooms is considered a major Finnish activity and birthright.

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Iceland

In the past, resources in Iceland were few and far between. The lack of sunlight severely limited fishing and hunting options, and its far-flung location in the Arctic Circle made importing and exporting food and goods difficult. As a result, Iceland’s cuisine is simple and reflects the harsh natural circumstances they’ve struggled to survive in for centuries. Luckily, Iceland is surrounded by the bountiful North Atlantic Ocean, and the country is blessed with fresh water and a clean natural environment. With new technology and renewable geothermal energy, it’s also possible to have freshly-grown, locally-sourced ingredients year-round. But Iceland’s traditional food still remains popular with locals and visitors alike.

The most typical food in Iceland involves fish, lamb, or skyr (a type of yogurt). These have been the main elements in the Icelandic diet for over a thousand years. As an island nation, nothing has been more vital to their survival than fish. Fish is an integral part of Icelandic culture and heritage and a staple of traditional Icelandic food. Fishing not only put food on the table, but exports also helped transform the country from one of the poorest in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century to one of the richest today.

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