Cured Salmon to Cloudberries – Food Culture of Scandinavia

  • Published: 19 Jun 2018
  • Author: Ronan Gay

The Nordic countries of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland may be unique, however they also share a lot of similarities, especially when it comes to their cuisines. Dishes throughout the region are prepared in a simple way using the freshest local produce and often consist of seafood or meat served with potatoes.

The Scandinavian smörgåsbord

A smörgåsbord, as it is called in Swedish, literally translates as ‘sandwich table’ and is popular all over Scandinavia. It usually includes a variety of small dishes, both cold and hot, such as bowls of pickled herring, pates, meatballs, salads, and rye and crisp breads. In Sweden all the dishes are laid out at once and in Denmark, where it’s called det kolde bord (‘the cold table’) dishes are brought out throughout the meal.

A smorgasboard traditional Swedish food
A traditional Smorgasbord

Seafood – a cure for all ills

Because most Nordic countries have very long coastlines, fishing and seafood has become an important part of the culture here. One of the most popular fish, eaten across the region, is herring, which can be pickled, smoked or fried. Cured or smoked salmon, smoked mackerel and cod are also popular choices. In Sweden and Finland crayfish are also particularly prevalent and are celebrated during crayfish parties in late summer and early autumn. Visit Norway and you’ll see that they similarly celebrate Krabbe Fests (crab festivals), when crabs are in season in late autumn. Many of the best places for seafood in Norway can be visited on a Norwegian cruise. In Iceland, well-loved seafood snacks include harðfiskur or dried fish, usually cod, haddock or catfish.

Pickled herring food popular in Sweden Scandinavia
Pickled herring is an absolute classic in Scandinavia – but an acquired taste

Meat – more than just meatballs

Meatballs are probably the first type of meat that comes to mind when thinking of Nordic cuisine, and while the Swedish type is the most famous, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland all have their own versions using slightly different recipes. Lamb and mutton are also common, and are particularly used in Norwegian and Icelandic cuisine, most often dried and smoked. Hangikjot is the smoked lamb dish from Iceland, served with a white sauce and usually eaten at Christmas, while Fårikål is Norway’s national dish – a stew made from mutton, cabbage and black peppercorns. Other meat dishes eaten across the region include pork roast, as well as reindeer and elk, which can be found in both Swedish and Finnish Lapland.

Hangikjot – a smoked lamb dish eaten in Iceland

Farikal food found in Norway Scandinavia
Farikal is a classic across Norway

Smell the coffee

It could be said that Scandinavia, Finland and Iceland are fuelled by coffee, as people here generally drink more coffee than anywhere else in the world. According to Euromonitor International Finland and Norway are the top coffee consumers per capita, with the Finns drinking a national average of 2.64 cups per day and the Norwegians drinking an average of 1.98 cups per day. In fact, take children out of the equation and in reality they drink a lot more – often up to six or eight cups a day. Traditionally it is drunk strong and black and is sometimes ‘spiced up’ with a dash of ground cardamom. In Sweden they even have a special word, which roughly translates as ‘having coffee’, called fika.

Fika coffee and pastry in Sweden and Scandinavia
Fika is a almost a rite of passage in Scandinavia

Sweet treats: cakes and pastries

Because coffee and café culture is so big in the region, it goes without saying that cakes and pastries are pretty popular here too. The cinnamon bun is probably the queen of the Nordic bakery and is beloved by locals all across the region. Here they’re made from enriched dough flavoured with cardamom, as well as cinnamon. In Finland they’re called korvapuusti, while in Norway they’re known as skillingsboller. In Denmark you’ll ask for a kanelsnegle and in Sweden a kanelbullar. The Swedes in fact love cinnamon buns so much that they’ve created a special day for them – Kanelbullens Dag on October 4th. Visit Stockholm, Sweden on this day and you’ll soon see what all the fuss is about. Danish pastries are another sweet the Scandinavians do well, but in bakeries in Copenhagen, Denmark you’ll see they’re called wienerbrod or ‘Vienna bread’ instead. Scandis even celebrate International Waffle Day – Våffeldagen. Marked principally in Sweden and Norway, it all started from Swedish Vårfrudagen, meaning 'Our Lady's Day' which sounds similar to Våffeldagen – so over time it was called Waffle Day. It historically marked the beginning of spring and is celebrated, naturally, by eating waffles all day.

Vienna Bread of Denmark Scandinavia
Vienna Bread is a popular Danish snack

Berries, berries everywhere

Other popular treats include pies and tarts packed with fruit, particularly berries such as blueberries, lingonberries, bilberries and cloudberries. Cloudberries are somewhat similar to raspberries in taste, although visually resemble Scotch bonnets! They've been made more popular recently by their depiction on the Finnish €2 coin, and are now their largest berry export – Norway import 200-300 tonnes from them every year. They are almost impossible to cultivate commercially, helping smaller, independent companies thrive.

Lingonberries, also called cowberries, are often cited as a 'superfood', and can be used in sweet foodstuffs, such as jams and preserves, but also pair well with traditional dinners such as chicken and salmon recipes.

Cloudberries can be picked in Scandinavia
Cloudberries are a light, fruity berry enjoyed across Scandinavia

Feeling Inspired?

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