Food in Scandinavian Culture

Lunchtime at a café in downtown Stockholm, Sweden.

Having had the opportunity to live with a Danish host family over the last two months, I have come to recognize that the Scandinavian relationship with food is quite different from that in other parts of the world, especially the United States. Here are a few adjectives that I would use to characterize this Scandinavian culture of eating.

Scandinavian cultures place a lot of emphasis on time spent with the family, as evidenced by their work days, which typically end in the mid-afternoon. Families will often go to extreme lengths to make sure that everyone can be home for dinner together each night.

Perhaps the most informative way to look understand this emphasis on togetherness is through the Danish concept of hygge. The word is typically considered to be un-translatable, but perhaps the closest word we have in English is “cozy.” Hygge is a verb (sometimes even reflexive) and a noun, and can also be used as hyggeligt, which is an adjective describing the state of hygge.

Linguistic properties aside, hygge is a very important concept to the Danes, who strive to achieve it in nearly all aspects of life. Hygge is characterized by a warm sense of tranquility and calm, especially in a group. You can’t be hyggeligt when someone is missing! So, of course, there is a tremendous emphasis on inclusiveness in society generally, which even extends to meal habits and the importance of being together during meal times.

Home Preparation
By and large, Scandinavian dinners are prepared from scratch at home, and this is especially the case in family units. This norm likely comes from a variety of social and cultural influences.

Most simply, it is simply a result of the high cost of eating at restaurants. To give you a sense of the cost, one could expect to pay at least the equivalent of $10 (USD) for a modest meal at McDonald’s, and it is quite rare to find a sit-down restaurant with meals for anything less than $30 (USD); based on my travels, I can also say that this is not only true in Denmark, but also in Oslo, Helsinki, and Stockholm. Those prices even make New York look reasonable!

But perhaps more importantly than simple economics, cooking at home is simply more hyggeligt. The delicious smells from the kitchen slowly intensify as dinner approaches, and as you sit down to dinner the whole family has the satisfaction of sharing from a common source of food lovingly prepared by one of the family members.

As a side note, fitting with Scandinavia’s progressive attitudes towards social matters, it is typical for both partners to share cooking responsibilities, or for the task to be delegated on the matter of simple preference rather than gender roles. When dating, men will often invite women to their homes for a homemade meal to show off their cooking skills. The goal for these suitors is to make complex meals but act as though it were no effort at all. Special schools have even formed in a lot of the larger cities that specifically cater towards adolescents for this reason.

Everything about food is taken very casually in Scandinavian cultures, with an emphasis on leisure and relaxation. Cooking at home is a good example of this mentality: cooking is a very leisurely activity, only to be undertaken by those who have the time and mental energy to devote to its execution.

The meals themselves are also consumed at a leisurely pace, with plenty of conversation lasting long after the food has finished. It is not uncommon to sit at a Danish dinner for an hour or longer.

This is not to say, though, that there are not ‘rules’ during Danish meals. There are some strictly regimented idiosyncrasies of Danish meals. Here are a few:

  • Toasts are usually offered after a few bites have been taken already, rather than at the very beginning of a meal.
  • Glasses are not usually clinked at toasts; it is more common to make eye contact with each of the other members of the table.
  • Smørrebrød sandwiches (to be covered in a later post) are eaten with a fork and knife and are consumed in a certain order (fish first, then meat).
  • Every meal ends by thanking the cook.

Yet despite these ‘rules,’ Danish meals are still a very casual affair, even at dinner parties

The emphasis on leisure extends far beyond the home, as well. The concept of ‘to go’ is not well understood in Denmark; as a symbol of this lack of understanding, there is not a commonly used Danish term for the concept, so people just say ‘to go’ in English. When people do buy food ‘to go,’ it is usually to take it somewhere else to eat. Around hotdog stands, you will often find crowds of Danes standing around and eating the hotdogs they just purchased. It is quite uncommon to see people carrying cups of coffee on the street. Food is to be leisurely enjoyed to the Scandinavians, not eaten quickly on the way from one place to another.

One also finds this emphasis on leisure in the café culture. Like much of Europe (and indeed, most of the western world), people will gather at cafés for hours to leisurely chat with friends over coffee and a pastry. Perhaps nowhere is this better expressed than in the fika in Sweden, which Amanda excellently covered in her first Fika Friday post.

As I mentioned previously, in Danish households, it is customary to end every meal with the phrase tak for mad (pronounced “tock fo mel”), which literally translates to, “thank you for the food.” This simple, almost formulaic phrase, though, is just one manifestation of a deep-seated reverence for food. As I have written, Scandinavians take their time to focus on the food they are preparing and consuming, and almost always do so in the company of others. Very little is wasted, generally through carefully tuned proportions that end up being the perfect amount of food for the table.

The romantic, and probably somewhat valid, explanation for this thankfulness and reverence is the paucity of material abundance in the cold and rough Nordic regions, which causes people to be more thankful of what they do have. Alternatively, maybe it has something to do with the historical (and continued) importance of agriculture in the Scandinavian economies. Regardless of the ‘real’ reasons, though, I cannot help but hope that this overall mentality towards food becomes a more important part of Stateside culture than the lip service we pay at Thanksgiving.

So, what do you think of the Scandinavian way of eating? Let me know in the comments!

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Hi there! I'm Jonah, a junior in Columbia College studying sociology and statistics. Coming from a background in the social sciences, I am especially interested in the social and cultural meanings of food and food culture. Also... I really like food. Whether it's home-cooked and eaten around a table with family, eaten at a nice restaurant with good friends, or simply picked up during the course of a busy day, I believe all food deserves to be noticed, and more importantly, enjoyed. I look forward to sharing my gastronomic, cultural, and culinary adventures in Scandinavia with you!

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