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All about Nordic cuisine: Tastes, influences and the food movement that put it on the map

Scandinavia has experienced a renewed interest in its Nordic cuisine in recent years, and we’re not just talking about the Swedish meatballs at IKEA (though they’re delicious too!). 

The region now boasts some of the most popular restaurants in the world, including Michelin-favourite Noma, as well as a growing number of internationally renowned chefs. 

Suffice to say, you’d get crazy looks if you visited the region without tasting one of their traditional Nordic dishes or delicious baked goods. 

But what is Nordic cuisine, really?

Fresh, pure and earthy are three things that come to mind when mulling over the food movement born out of the landscape, people and culture of the region. 

These days you’ll find that ingredients are often locally sourced, and flavours often reflect whatever is in season. Nordic cooking is also a unique melding of traditional techniques and modern values, to a degree that perhaps isn’t as obvious in other cuisines from around the world. 

But defining the cuisine as a whole is no easy feat, with many cultural elements at play. 

Nordic dishes reflect diverse tastes that cross borders and oceans

The thing about Nordic cuisine is that it’s not so straightforward. Unlike the distinct cuisines of French or Italian with their signature flavours and culinary techniques, Nordic cooking can’t help but be a little more diverse. 

Famous chef, Magnus Nilsson, explains this concept well in his book ‘The Nordic Cook Book’ when he argues his belief that “Nordic is not a cuisine, it’s a region”. 

Recipes stem from the cultures of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Finland — that’s a lot of ground to cover so there’s a fair bit of variance at play.

And yes, you will have culinary crossovers, as is always the case amongst countries that share similar climates, and have allied and ruled over one another throughout the centuries. 

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An interesting example of this is Iceland where rye bread is popular, largely because they were limited to Danish exports (where they got their rye) from 1602 until 1786 because of a trade monopoly that existed at the time. 

But there is also the unique culture and terrain of each individual country that influences their tastes and culinary practices. For example, Denmark famously loves its pork, while the seafaring people of Norway are renowned for their seafood dishes

Which brings us to our next question…

What foods and ingredients are popular in traditional Nordic dishes from each county?

This area of the world is full of oceans, rivers, fjords, forests and agricultural land that has formed the basis of the Scandinavian diet over the centuries. You’ll find that some things, like berries and seafood for instance, are widely available all across the region, reflected in the dishes of each country.

You’ll also notice that a couple of the countries are quite similar in their diets — for example, Finland was once part of Sweden, so there are bound to be similarities in their traditional recipes. 

Let’s take a closer look at just a few of the foods commonly eaten across the region:

  • Sweden: Lingonberries are a Swedish staple for sure, and they also love their fish, potato, crisp-bread, pork and beef (which you need for their famous meatballs!).
  • Norway: As mentioned, they are masters of seafood (especially salmon, cod and crabs), but you’ll also see lots of lamb, reindeer, cheese, berries, mushrooms, potato and cabbage.
  • Denmark: It’s traditionally a hearty diet for the Danes who adore their pork, bacon, rye bread, root vegetables, cabbage, fish and potatoes. Oh and you can’t mention Danish food without a shoutout to the famous smørrebrød!
  • Finland: Like the Swedes, they love lingonberries but bilberries are equally popular, as well as pork, beef, reindeer, mushrooms, fish, rye bread and potatoes.
  • Iceland: Surrounded by water, it’s no surprise that fish are a huge part of local cuisine, but you’ll also see lots of lamb, skyr (similar to yoghurt), rye flatbread and berries.

Then of course, all of Scandinavia and the Nordic countries appreciate the sweeter things in life! You’ll notice that their sweets, pastries and biscuits use a lot of butter, sugar, cream, cinnamon, saffron and cardamom.

How Scandinavia’s climate helped shape Nordic food preservation traditions

The Nordic cooking style was forced to develop and adapt in a climate where many fruits and vegetables only grew at certain times of the year, and meat could become scarce in the cold. Back in the day, this meant you had to somehow preserve food in the warmer months to survive the winter. 

As a result, curing, smoking and pickling became a popular method across much of the Nordic region, and was famously used by the Vikings. It led to Nordic specialties such as smoked salmon and pickled herring. 

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These traditional food-preservation techniques may not be necessary for survival as they once were, however, they’ve actually seen a resurgence with chefs in recent years.

Of course, they’ve been a staple in home kitchens for generations, but you’ll notice these techniques are also commonly used in the restaurants that are part of the New Nordic cuisine movement. 

What is ‘New Nordic’ cuisine and is it different from traditional Nordic cooking?

If you’re a foodie who can’t get enough of the Michelin-restaurant scene, you’ve likely heard the term ‘New Nordic’ cuisine thrown around. But of course, it’s not limited to high-end restaurants these days, with many pubs and cafes now sporting ‘New Nordic’ menus. 

It’s essentially a fancy term for a modern take on Nordic cuisine. So, no, it’s not really that different from traditional Nordic cooking. It’s just an updated version that has breathed new life into the genre.  

This new era of Nordic cooking really took off in 2004, when the New Nordic Kitchen Manifesto was created by a team of 12 chefs, with Danish chef Claus Meyer at the helm. They shined a light on the areas of purity, season, ethics, health, sustainability and quality of food and dishes.

But their goal wasn’t to reinvent Nordic cuisine, but to take it back to its roots. New Nordic cuisine values the use of local organic ingredients, favours a return to traditional methods (like pickling for example), and advocates a strong ethical approach to the whole culinary lifecycle. 

You’ll see many New Nordic restaurants change their menus depending on the season. Many of them also couple up with local farms to ensure sustainable agricultural practices for a more organic approach.

The result is often described as a very ‘authentic’ reflection of the Nordic way of life.   

It’s important though to remember that while many New Nordic restaurants of the Michelin ilk are famous for their inventive and creative cooking creations, this is just their unique stamp on the cuisine. 

Traditionally, Nordic dishes are loved for their simplicity and unpretentious nature, and this should be celebrated too.

If anything, these two different ways of presenting Nordic cuisine just once again illustrate the wonderful diversity of the region. 

Nordic baking: The masters of sweet buns, cakes and pastries

We can’t talk about Nordic cuisine without touching on their baked goods. That’s half the reason you go to Scandinavia, right?!

Just like the rest of their culinary culture, diversity here is king.  

While there are the traditional flavours and common recipes, you’ll find a lot of variance in the baked goods coming out of the Nordic region. 

For example, everybody might be baking saffron buns, but depending on the country, village or household it’s baked in, the result could be something deliciously different. 

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Famous chef, Magnus Nilsson, puts this down to the smaller and more scarce populations of the Nordic region — with smaller opportunities for the sharing of information throughout history, Scandinavia’s baking traditions don’t seem to have the same strict recipes rules as say the French baking tradition.

If this means we just need to try several different versions of a saffron bun to understand the full impact of the recipe, we don’t mind that one bit. 

Don’t be afraid to give Nordic cooking a go in your own kitchen

The interesting thing about Nordic cuisine is the hesitant uptake in restaurants outside of Scandinavia. While you’ll see an Italian pizza shop, Vietnamese deli or Indian take-away in most capital cities around the world, it’s hard to find authentic Nordic eateries offering their wares.

Maybe it’s got something to do with the reliance on local ingredients that aren’t as easily translated outside of Northern Europe. Or perhaps it’s the high standard set by restaurants in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Finland, that make foreign chefs afraid to take the leap.

Whatever the case, if you’re feeling like you need a little more Nordic in your diet, you can always give the recipes a go yourself. 

Because remember, the Nordic cuisine is really a mixed pot anyway — it’s developed in a region where diversity in cultures, ingredients and tastes is the norm. True, you might not have the exact same local ingredients, but the Nordic food movement is also about using what is available

Using those same Nordic principles, you might find yourself putting your own twist on the Nordic cuisine. Then again, Option B is to save up your appetite and book a plane ticket, which doesn’t sound too bad either. 

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