|Nordic countries: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden|
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The cuisines of all Nordic countries are quite similar, although each country does have its signature dishes.
Countries and regions
Denmark is a major exporter of dairy products, pork and beer, and its cuisine has a slight Central European flair. Danes have a justified reputation of being more hedonistic than other Nordic people, eating greasy food, smoking, and enjoying more relaxed alcohol laws than further north.
Finland's cuisine has been influenced by Russian cuisine, with dishes such as meat pies (lihapiirakka), dark bread and, of course, vodka. They are the world's leading consumers of coffee and milk per capita.
Iceland is known for fish, lamb, and the more spectacular Þorramatur, a range of cured fish and meat products traditionally eaten during winter. Likely the most exotic of the Nordic cuisines, Iceland has dishes that not everyone may want to try, such as lamb's head and testicles, whale and puffin meat. The Faroe Islands have a cuisine rather similar to that of Iceland.
Norway also has a heritage of seafood. As with Iceland, Norway has a tradition of lamb dishes. Norwegians are said to eat more pizza per capita than people in any other country.
Sweden, being the largest country in size and population, has at least one "signature dish" in all categories of food. Some delicacies are freshwater fish, crayfish, game, berries, and the iconic meatballs. Scania is Sweden's breadbasket and gateway to Denmark, famous for rich meat, poultry and bread dishes.
Before modern times, the majority of Nordic people had a very limited range of ingredients, especially in the far north. Famines occurred as recently as the 19th century. While industrialization came late, dining in the Nordic countries has become very cosmopolitan in the 21st century.
Most traditional dishes are based on what used to be poor man's food, such as herring, dried fish, potatoes, and hard bread, although many have developed a certain refinement and are now considered classy enough for middle or even upper class people to enjoy openly.
The world's stinkiest fish dishAdventurous diners might want to try surströmming, which is Norrland's (northern Sweden's) entry in the revolting-foods-of-the-world contest. It's herring which is fermented in a tin can until the can starts to bulge and almost bursts. It all gets so foul-smelling that the fish is only eaten outdoors to keep it from stinking up the house, although it has been known for unsuspecting visitors from other countries to be "treated" to an indoor surströmming experience for more intensity.
It is considered bad manners not to notify (or invite) the neighbors before having a surströmmingsskiva, a party where the delicacy is consumed. It is claimed that the best way to get over the smell is to take a deep breath of it just when you open the can, to as quickly as possible knock out your smelling sense. Surströmming is traditionally eaten in late August. Some restaurants, for obvious reasons not many, serve surströmming during these days.
With a long coastline, the fertile waters of the North Atlantic, and several lakes, seafood has a traditional role. The right to access allows leisure fishing to some extent in all Nordic countries, and most restaurant menus feature some kind of seafood.
- Pickled herring, (Danish/Norwegian: sild, Swedish: sill, Finnish: silli), used to be the poor man's dish, but has developed into a traditional appetizer, often in a few varieties (such as with mustard, garlic, tomato sauce or dill). Baltic herring, strömming, is the same species, though smaller, less fatty, and caught in the Baltic Sea. Sour herring in Norway should not be confused with surströmming, Swedish fermented herring. In Norway herring is also dried and smoked.
- Canned sardines in oil is a traditional Norwegian product (particularly in Stavanger that had a booming canning industry), but is actually made from local brisling (also known as skipper or sprat).
- Shrimp have a prominent role in Norway, Denmark and western Sweden.
- Roe (fish eggs) is a delicacy in Sweden. Kaviar in Sweden and Norway refers to rendered fish roe with some additives, eaten as an everyday, relatively cheap, bread spread kept in "tubes".
- The red king crab (Russian crab) is an invasive species spreading from Russia to Norwegian waters, becoming a new and popular ingredient.
- Crayfish (European or noble crayfish, Norwegian: kreps, Swedish: kräfta) is traditionally fished and eaten during August in Norway and Sweden, and among Swedish-speaking Finns. Kräftskiva is a traditional Swedish crayfish party.
- Norway lobster, sjøkreps ("sea crayfish"), is a delicacy of the north Atlantic.
- Salmon (lax/laks/lohi) is farmed in Norway, and used to be an everyday dish in northern Sweden, especially smoked or cured. Smoked salmon, trout and other salmonid fish is served as everyday food in Norway, and can be fished with a rod. Hot and cold smoked are two variants. Cured salmon is known as gravlaks or gravlax. Fermented trout, rakfisk, is a smelly Norwegian specialty particularly produced and consumed in the interior valleys such as Valdres.
- Cod is the most important catch in Norwegian waters. The winter-spring (february-april) catch of skrei (the migrating cod) has since prehistoric times been the high season for coastal areas. The fisheries around Lofoten are in particular unusually rich. Fresh skrei served lightly boiled is a standard dish during the season. In Lofoten and Nordland cod is also served with roe, liver and potatoes in dish known as mølje.
- Wind-dried white fish such as cod tørrfisk (stockfish) is an ancient and important product of Northern Norway, used for lutefisk and other dishes. Salt-dried white fish klippfisk, an important product of western Norway, is used in similar ways.
- Freshwater and Baltic Sea fish, such as perch, pike and zander can be found at some restaurants and supermarkets, and is rather easy to fish with a rod. In Sweden, fishmongering is centralized to Gothenburg, so fish in places such as Stockholm is usually not day-fresh.
- Clams and mussels are harvested and eaten, especially in Denmark.
- Whale has a peculiar taste, and can be found in Iceland and Norway. Whaling is a sensitive issue; see animal ethics.
- Cod liver oil (tran) is used as dietary supplement particularly during winter for vitamin D. Bottles can be found on many breakfast buffets.
Meat such as beef and pork is ubiquitous. Chicken and other poultry used to be a luxury, but is common today. Still, all countries have lively vegetarian and vegan communities, especially among young city-dwellers. Vegetarians face less understanding in the countryside, where hunting and fishing are popular pastimes.
- Lamb is a signature dish of Iceland, the Faroe Islands and rural Norway. Several special dishes are based on lamb, for instance "sheep's head" (Norwegian: smalahove) or "sheep's ribs" (Norwegian: pinnekjøtt, ribbe). Dried, salted and smoked meat products are common.
- As hunting is a pastime in the countryside, game such as elk/moose, deer, and boar, is seasonally available. Wild poultry such as grouse is a treasured delicacy.
- Reindeer are traditionally bred within the Sami culture in the Arctic and sub-Arctic territories. The meat tastes more like game than domestic animal meats. Reindeer meat might be served as whole meat, or as sautéed reindeer, (renskav in Swedish, finnbiff in Norwegian), traditionally eaten with potatoes and lingonberries.
Bread (Swedish bröd, Danish/Norwegian brød, Finnish leipä) is a daily staple food.
- Soft bread comes in dozens of varieties, with dark, heavy rye bread of different types common. Especially Finland, with influences from the east, has many types of traditional bread. For more taste, try to find bread from a local bakery, instead of packed bread in supermarkets.
- Hard bread or crisp bread (Norwegian: knekkebrød, Swedish: knäckebröd, Finnish: näkkileipä) is more known for its traditional value, than its taste. Some types are served with cheese as dessert or snack, some are worth tasting in their own right.
- Scandinavian pastries are well known.
- The Danish pastry is called Wienerbrød ("Viennese bread"), since it was introduced by bakers from Vienna.
- The cinnamon roll presumably originated in Sweden as kanelbulle (Norwegian: skillingsbolle), in Bergen it is believed to be invented there by the Hanseatic merchants.
- The semla (in Finland: laskiaispulla/fastlagsbulla) is a Swedish pastry eaten during lent.
- Saffron buns are eaten for Christmas, traditionally on Saint Lucia's day in December; in Sweden they tend to be known as lussebulle.
- Cream cake (tårta in Swedish, lagkage in Danish) is traditionally made of cream, sponge cake and wild berries.
Milk and dairy products claim a large section of each supermarket, and are important ingredients in Nordic diets. Milk is consumed both as is ("sweet") and fermented ("sour"). Cream (Norwegian/Danish: fløte/fløde) and sour cream (Norwegian: rømme, Swedish: gräddfil) are also widely used ingredients. Rømmegrøt, a porridge made from sour cream, is a Norwegian specialty. Buttermilk (Swedish: filmjölk) and "thick milk" (Norwegian: tjukkmjølk/tettmelk), are sour variants of yoghurt. Whey butter (Swedish: messmör, Norwegian: prim) and whey cheese (Swedish: mesost, Norwegian: brunost) are other typical Nordic products.
- The dominant type of cheese is hard cheese from cow milk. Goat cheese, particularly the special Norwegian caramelised brown type (brunost, often made from goat milk and called geitost), is an iconic dish of Norway. Various traditional and novel cheeses are produced, increasingly on farms that sell the products themselves or through local groceries. Gammelost ("old cheese") is a pungent and rich Norwegian special cheese made from skimmed, sour milk.
- Skyr is an Icelandic dairy product, similar to yoghurt. It is traditionally eaten in a bowl with cold milk. Skyr originates from Norway, but the tradition died out in most of Scandinavia 1,100 years ago. Skyr is produced under an Icelandic licence in Norway, Sweden and Finland.
Wild mushrooms are picked and eaten in summer and autumn. This is however a recent tradition in most areas; Karl XIV Johan, a Napoleonic general, who ascended the throne of Sweden and Norway in 1814, introduced mushroom-eating to his new subjects. Since then, the porcini (Boletus edulis), one of the most popular mushrooms, is known as karljohan in Swedish. Eastern Finland has its own older tradition shared with the neighbouring regions in Russia. At restaurants you will mostly find chanterelles and cultivated button mushrooms. At open air markets in Finland, at least chanterelles and funnel chanterelles are available in season; some twenty more species were approved for sale before the market was deregulated, also other ones are often picked by experts. Commonly picked mushroom include Boletus, Russula and Lactarius species.
Traditional vegetables are those that thrive in the Nordic climate, such as cabbage, cauliflower, carrot and turnip (swede). Potatoes have been the main staple since the 19th century, most often simply boiled, but also made into mashed potatoes, potato salad and more. The almond potato, puikula/mandelpotatis/mandelpotet, is a variety grown particularly at high altitudes or latitudes, is a delicacy of Lapland, Norrland and Norway's high valleys. Fresh fruit used to be a luxury until modern times; berries such as bilberry, lingonberry, cranberry, cloudberries and juniper berries are traditional condiments. Apples and cherries are widely grown both commercially and in private gardens. In Norway, apples and sweet cherries are grown in the fjord areas, notably Hardanger. Strawberries of fine quality are produced in large quantities during July and well into August in several areas.
Spices are traditionally mild, although black pepper is common. Salt has been widely used for conservation and features in many traditional meat and fish products. It was however rare in the northern regions, where food was traditionally dried, smoked or fermented instead. Naturally occurring herbs such as "forest garlic" (ramsløk) have been "rediscovered" and introduced in various products (such as cheese) and dishes.
- See also: Street food#Nordic countries
Famous pan-Scandinavian dishes include:
- Smörgåsbord (Norwegian/Danish: koldtbord, Finnish seisova pöytä or lounaspöytä), an extensive buffet with bread, herring, smoked fish, cold cuts, warm meats and desserts. Buffets are also popular for breakfast, lunch and dinner on Baltic Sea ferries, especially those between Finland, Sweden and Estonia.
- Meatballs (Sw. köttbullar, No. kjøttkaker, Fi. lihapullia), served with potatoes, berries and creamy sauce (a certain furniture store largely popularized these outside of the Nordic countries)
- The falukorv is a sausage from Falun in Sweden. One of the most common ways of cooking it is sliced, fried and then served with ketchup and mashed potatoes.
- Pea soup (Sw. ärtsoppa, Fi. hernekeitto, No. ertesuppe, Da. gule ærter), especially associated with Sweden and Finland where it's traditionally eaten on Thursdays and with pancakes and jam as dessert. It is also encountered in the other Nordic countries. There are many just-so-stories about the association to Thursdays; one of them tells that the servants had half the day off, as it is an easy meal to prepare.
- Lutefisk/lutfisk (Finnish: lipeäkala) is lye-processed dried white fish (stockfish or klippfisk), carefully warmed and served with potatoes, pea stew, bacon, gravy. Drinks with lutefisk are typically beer and akvavit. Lutefisk is in many areas part of the christmas tradition. Heated lutefisk emits an unpleasant odor, taste is mild however.
- Open-face sandwiches are popular, especially the Danish and Norwegian smørrebrød/smørbrød. They can be small appetizers, or rich enough to make up a whole meal.
Lately there has been a focus on revitalizing the "Nordic kitchen" by focusing on local produce and generally raising the quality of gastronomy in the region, often coined as New Nordic Cuisine. This is influencing both everyday cooking as well as fine dining. As a result, especially Copenhagen and Stockholm have seen the development of excellent high end restaurants, including NOMA, which has been awarded the best in the world 3 years in a row. Maaemo, Norway's equivalent to Noma, has been awarded 2 stars by Michelin and has also been listed among the world's top 100 restaurants.
As in most of Europe, internationalized and ethnic cuisines from around the world are popular in major Scandinavian cities. Especially Denmark and Sweden have many Middle Eastern, Thai, Chinese and Indian restaurants. Norway has a large number of Asian cafés and restaurants.
There are some unique combinations of ethnic food, such as kebab pizza, in Sweden.
Nordic people are among the heaviest coffee drinkers in the world. Guests are typically invited for a cup of coffee and during a private visit in somebody's home guests will typically be offered coffee. In the Nordic countries, especially in Finland and Norway, coffee is generally more lightly roasted than in Central and Southern Europe. Drip brew (filter coffee) is the standard low price coffee, although cafes and coffee bars also offer a wide range of international styles. Boiled coffee is still used, particularly in the wilderness where electricity is not available. Tea and hot chocolate are usually available as alternatives to coffee.
Sweet, carbonated soft drinks (Norwegian: brus) are common and available everywhere. Tap water is generally of high quality (except some islands and mountain resorts), but many brands of bottled water (with or without gas) are available in shops and cafes. Some special types of mineral water have a higher content of salts and minerals.
- Julmust is a stout-like Christmas soft drink that every year annoys The Coca-Cola Company in Sweden by lowering Coke's sales figures by 50%. Available during Easter as well, by then known as Påskmust.
Juices and sweetened soft drinks based on local berries, saft, is popular.
Traditional Nordic drinking culture is double-natured; even one glass is taboo before work or driving, but binge drinking is accepted on weekends and holidays. In recent years, habits have become more continental, with more drinking during weekday nights. Drinking alcohol is still a sensitive issue for many people. Guests, particularly strangers, are customarily offered coffee rather than alcoholic drinks. Even some formal parties such as weddings are without alcohol for instance among people affiliated with the Christian temperance movement.
Alcohol laws used to be harsh in the early 20th century, with total prohibition in Norway, Finland and Iceland. Restrictions have been softened in later years; especially in restaurants, as most venues can today serve beer and wine.
With the exception of Denmark, the Nordic countries regulate and tax alcohol harder than any other European country. Elsewhere, strong alcohol (wine, spirits and strong beer) is not available in grocery shops, only government outlets Vinmonopolet in Norway, Alko in Finland, Systembolaget in Sweden, Vínbúð on Iceland and Rúsdrekkasøla Landsins on the Faroe Islands. Therefore many Nordic people take advantage of the "cheap" booze when abroad, with places close to the border or easily reachable by ferry, for example in Germany or Estonia, being frequent destinations for border tourism.
The main tipples are beer and vodka-like distilled spirits called brännvin/brennevin, including herb-flavored akvavit (Norwegian: akevitt). Akvavit is traditionally produced from potatoes. The "line akvavit" is a variant that has been stored in oak barrels and crossed the equator line twice. Spirits are typically drunk as snaps or ice-cold from shot glasses.
While Nordic wine production is more or less experimental, stores and restaurants provide wines from around the world. As the government stores are bulk buyers, a bottle of high-end wine can surprisingly cost less in Sweden or Finland, than in the country of origin.
Beer is a staple drink in restaurants and bars. Pils or pilsner, the light, pale lager beer, is the most widespread type of beer, often brewed to 4.5% (or the highest allowed alcohol content to be allowed in regular shops). Stronger beer is available in the above-mentioned monopoly stores or on licensed premises. Increasingly a wider selection of beer types, including local microbrews and exotic imports, are available in shops and bars.
Mead (mjöd) is an ancient fermented beverage made from honey, associated with the Viking Age. While not an everyday drink, and hard to find outside history-themed venues, it is an icon of Nordic culture. In Finland, mead (sima) is mostly associated with Walpurgis and May Day and it usually contains little or no alcohol.
Punsch (known as punssi in Finnish) (not to be confused with punch) is a traditional sweet liqueur made from a combination of water, lemon, sugar, spirits and arrack, unique for Sweden and Finland. It can be served both warm and cold, usually has 25% alcohol by volume (ABV) and 30% sugar, and is by tradition often served at Thursdays together with pea & pork soup and pancakes. It grew very popular during the 18th and 19th centuries, generating a strong punsch-culture with numerous special punsch drinking songs, and maintains a strong presence in student culture.
Breakfast is an important meal and typically includes bread, spread, eggs, milk or juice, and coffee. Most hotels, and many hostels, serve a substantial breakfast buffet that can keep travellers going for much of the day.
Lunch style varies. While Norwegians typically eat a light lunch at work/school with a few slices of bread (niste) and perhaps salad, Swedes and Finns usually have a hot meal.
Dinner is usually the heaviest meal of the day. Typically eaten or served from 17:00 or later. In the countryside some still practice the tradition of eating dinner at noon, the word for dinner in Norwegian and Swedish is accordingly middag (literally mid day).
Light meals usually consist of coffee with a sandwich or a pastry. In Sweden, they are referred to as fika. Offices usually have a daily coffee break around 2 or 3 PM.
Nordic countries are among the most expensive for eating and drinking out, due to high wages and taxes. Unlike, say, the Mediterranean countries, dining out is something locals don't do every week. Self-catering and home cooking are the norm. On workdays, however, it is common to eat lunch at a restaurant, and such lunches can be had for a reasonable price. For instance, the all-you-can-eat "lunch table" buffet, which many cafés and restaurants in Finland offer, typically consists of a couple of salads and bread, 2–3 warm dishes, some type of dessert, plus water, milk or kotikalja (what Russians know as kvass) and coffee or tea — for around €10. Also, fast food restaurants and ethnic restaurants offer more affordable deals. Norwegians usually eat a light packed lunch instead, and lunch offers in ordinary cafés and restaurants are limited. On the other hand Norwegian business hotels often offer hearty lunch buffés.
Tipping is welcome, particularly in full-service restaurants, but generally not expected. The exception is Iceland where, similar to some East Asian countries, tipping is never done.
Street food is less common than for instance in East Asia. In the Nordic countries street food is found mostly in terms of sausage stands, Denmark has many traditional pølsebod whereas in Norway there are few left. At Christmas markets, Saturday "farmers' market" or festivals there may be a wider selection of street food.
The international furniture chain IKEA promotes its Swedish roots by serving Nordic meals far below market price. Foreign IKEA stores also sell Swedish retail food.
Foraging, fishing and hunting
Picking berries, picking mushrooms, fishing and hunting are quite common pastimes in the Nordic countries, and the first three are easily available also to foreigners. There is suitable land for picking berries and mushrooms nearly everywhere and such foraging is allowed by the right to access (with a few restrictions). Also some fishing is available for free, while a permit for other lure fishing is mostly easy to buy. Hunting is more restricted.