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Food > Nordic cuisine
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Nordic countries: Denmark (GreenlandFaroe Islands), Finland (Åland), Iceland, Norway, Sweden:
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Nordic history: Vikings & Old NorseDanish EmpireSwedish Empire

The cuisines of all Nordic countries are quite similar, although each country does have its signature dishes.

Countries

  • 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.

Ingredients

The world's stinkiest fish dish

Adventurous 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.
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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.

Seafood features prominently on restaurant menus.

  • 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.
  • 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) has spread 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.
  • 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.
Sautéed raindeer, a dish from northern Scandinavia, here served with mashed potatoes, pickled cucumber and lingonberry jam

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. The falukorv is a sausage from Falun in Sweden.
  • 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.

Bread is a daily staple food.

  • 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 (avoid packed bread in supermarkets to try the real thing).
  • Hard bread or crisp bread (Norwegian: knekkebrød, Swedish: knäckebröd, Finnish: näkkileipä) is more known for its traditional value, than its taste. They are sometimes served with cheese as dessert or snack.
  • Scandinavian pastries are well known. The Danish pastry is called Wienerbrød ("Viennese bread") in Denmark and Norway, 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.
Sandwich with eggs and kaviar

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.

  • Cheese, which is primarily from cow milk but also includes goat cheeses, particularly the special Norwegian caramelised brown type (brunost, often made from goat milk and called geitost), remains popular. 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 currently 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; 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. At restaurants you will mostly find only cultivated button mushrooms.

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, mandelpotatis/mandelpotet, is a variety grown particularly at high altitudes or latitudes, is a delicacy of 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.

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 occuring herbs such as "forest garlic" (ramsløk) have been "rediscovered" and introduced in various products (such as cheese) and dishes.

Dishes

Norwegian road sign indicating traditional food and farm tourism
Fish balls; meatballs made of fish

Famous pan-Scandinavian dishes include:

  • 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)
  • Smörgåsbord (Norwegian/Danish: koldtbord, Finnish seisova pöytä or lounaspöytä), a popular lunch option with bread, herring, smoked fish, cold cuts and more. Buffets are also popular for breakfast, lunch and dinner on Baltic Sea ferries, especially those between Finland, Sweden and Estonia.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Foreign cuisines

As in most of Europe, internationalized ethnic cuisines are popular in major Scandinavian cities. Especially Denmark and Sweden have many Middle Eastern and Asian diners. Norway has a large number of Asian cafes and restaurants.

There are some unique combinations of ethnic food, such as kebab pizza, in Sweden.

Beverages

File:KBG741S-AO.jpg
Typical coffee making

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, 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.

Juices and sweetened soft drinks based on local berries, saft, is popular.

Alcohol

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.

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 inhabitants of Nordic countries take advantage of the "cheap" booze when abroad, with places close to the border, for example in Germany or Estonia, being frequent destinations for border tourism.

Wine is consumed, but local production is usually more or less experimental. Beer is traditionally the dominant alcoholic drink and is the typical choice in 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 are available in shops and bars. These special beers are often produced by micro-breweries; in addition imported beer is available in some bars and cafes.

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.

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 in Norway. Even some formal parties such as weddings are without alcohol for instance among people affiliated with the Christian temperance movement.

Meals

Smørrebrød (open sandwich) typical in Denmark and Norway

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.

Restaurants

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 buffes.

Tipping is recommended for full-service restaurants, but not mandatory. The exception is Iceland where, similar to some East Asian countries, tipping is never done.

Pubs and bars are about as common as further south in Europe, but do prepare to shell out more for your pint, especially in Norway and Iceland.

Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, a hot dog kiosk which has been a Reykjavik institution since the 1930's

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

See Right to access, foraging, and fishing.

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