A culture’s cuisine can provide a profound insight into its believes, values and lifestyle. As such, I took a peek into Scandinavian culture through its hearty and lively food.
to an early meal,
but eat your fill before a feast.
If you’re hungry
you have no time
to talk at the table.
– The Havamal
When I first started trying to cook Scandinavian food, the foremost problem I faced was the lack of availability of the necessary ingredients. Hence, initially I spent hours scouring through cookbooks and websites trying to find recipes with the ingredients available to me. The only recipe I could find was for a tomato salad with goat cheese dressing.
So next, I decided to skip seemingly “minor” ingredients specified in the recipe. I made savoury dill and Västerbotten cheese breakfast muffins (skipping the dill and substituting the cheese with another type). Although the muffins turned out pretty good, I was not satisfied. In reality, I was merely playing pretend, calling “ordinary” food “fancy” names.
It is at this point I started realising my false assumptions about Scandinavian food. Up until that point, to me, all their crispbreads and flatbreads made from rye flour and their smoked, pickled and cured meat dishes were fanciful. Scandinavian cuisine was exotic.
But in truth, Scandinavians eat simple. They obtain their ingredients from their mountains and farms. In fact, locals term their cuisine husmanskost, meaning farmers’ fare. Their cooking techniques are light and healthy. They promote simplicity in their cooking techniques and eating habits. It all seemed exotic to me because a) it was new to me and hence a novelty, and b) obviously, all their ingredients would be impossible, or at the least rare, in my part of the world due to completely different weather and climatic conditions. This understanding was crucial to broadening my understanding and appreciation of Scandinavian food, and in turn, Scandinavian culture.
Next, I tried Smørrebrød – an open sandwich. It is basically a a slice of bread with butter spread lightly and topped with fish-usually smoked salmon- ham or cheese. This time, I knew there was no way I could try to make it taste authentic. I am Indian and used to spices. There was no way I could purposefully make something “so bland” (relatively) and resist the temptation to add spices so that it would suit my taste pallet. I just melted mozzarella over a slice of rye bread and topped it with avocado, akoori and salmon. I paired it with homemade sour blueberry cordial.
Still, I was interested in tasting authentic (as authentic as it can get out of its place of origin) Scandinavian food. Hence, I decided to go out to a Scandinavian restaurant.
Eating a different culture’s food requires taking a shift in one’s perceptive. You have to let go of the tastes you are used to and be willing to like a completely different set of flavours. In a way, it requires open-mindedness. You need to not only set aside preconceived notions about the culture, but also preset notions regarding different flavours and ingredients. You must be willing to taste what you normally dislike and you might be surprised.
For instance, I am not a big fan of chicken cooked in a non-Indian style in Singapore. The chicken in Singapore, though flavourful at the skin and outermost flesh, tends to get bland as it progresses inwards. Moreover, the chicken sometimes feels half-cooked as it is normally cooked in such a way to make it succulent and juicy. But the almond coated chicken I tried at this restaurant is seriously the best chicken I have ever had in my life.
Another delicious dish I had was the Swedish brownie, called kladdkaka. ”kladdkaka” in Swedish means sticky cake. Swedish brownies have more sugar and no baking powder, which causes a more dense and sticky brownie. This brownie is hard on the outside and sticky on the inside. Yet, it melts smoothly into sweetness with a hint of bitterness in the mouth. It is also a regular Fika dessert. Fika (also the name of the restaurant) is basically a social tradition in Scandinavia where people take a break from work and have coffee accompanied by something to eat- usually sweet things such as biscuits, cakes and most commonly, cinnamon roll.
Every culture has a central ideal or belief relating to food that transcends the edible objects themselves. In Scandinavian culture, that ideal is hygge. It is a feeling or moment, whether alone or with friends, at home or out, ordinary or extraordinary that is cosy, charming or special. It simply requires being present and and taking the time to recognize and fully experience that moment.
Indeed, this idea is conceptualized by the tradition of Smörgåsbord in Scandinavian cuisine. Smörgåsbord is merely the name given to the meal where families sit together at a long table where multiple hot and cold dishes of various foods are served, buffet-style. Traditionally, each table can last for hours. A few hours prior to the actual meal, shots of aquavit were served with a selection of cheeses, pickles and meats on a snack table. The main table consists of a few rounds which are only vaguely adhered to; in order: pickled herring and ice cold aquavit, seafood dishes, cold meats and pies, warm meats, cheese selections, dessert.
Through my experiences tasting and attempting to create nearly-Scandinavian food, I have caught a glimpse of a culture that values hard work and self-sufficiency through simplicity and yet, also prioritizes family, health and happiness. In this age where success is equated with tangible gains and hard work with incessant laborious efforts, Scandinavian culture truly embodies the idea of “work hard, play hard”. As such, it comes as no surprise that the world’s most happiest people do live in Scandinavia.