Tag Archives: Jonah

A Day in the Life

So far this semester, I have been introducing you to some especially popular or notable foods in Scandinavia (especially Denmark), and I have also been introducing you to the food culture. At this point, though, you may be asking yourself: what is it that people eat on a daily basis? My goal with this post is to walk you through a typical gastronomic day in the life of a Dane, as I have observed from my stay with a host family and through discussions with other students about their host families.

As in most of the western world, Scandinavians typically divide their days into three meals: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Morgenmad (Breakfast, or literally “morning food”)

Knäckebröd with butter and marmalade

Breakfast is eaten early in the day, typically before leaving for work or school. It is usually centered around some type of grain. Sometimes people will eat, for example, yogurt (which comes in cartons and is much thinner than its American counterpart) with muesli or a standard breakfast cereal with milk. Children, on the other hand, may be more partial to a pastry.

More commonly, though, breakfast involves toast or some other type of bread. Danes take their bread very seriously, and therefore they will usually not eat the squishy supermarket bread, but rather rolls that have been freshly baked or frozen and reheated in the oven. They also seem to prefer bread with at least a little bit of whole grain.

This toast or bread almost always has a liberal spread of butter. On top of this, Danes will often put one or more of the following:

  • Chocolate (either Nutella or thinly-sliced chocolate sheets called pålægschokolade, both of which are readily available in grocery stores),
  • Honey
  • Cheese
  • Marmalade

My personal favorite is a nice roll with butter, cheese, and marmalade. It might sound like a strange combination if you have no had it before, but trust me, it is worth a try next time you get a chance!

In Sweden especially, they are particularly fond of a type of bread called knäckebröd, which is a thin rye cracker, prepared much like a roll might be. It is sometimes eaten in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries as well. The main advantage is that is lasts forever. If you ask me, that’s because it always tastes stale. Crazy Swedes!

Tea and/or coffee are also often served to drink, along with standard juices.

Frokost (Lunch)

Around the world, lunch has become the meal most affected by industrialization. In Denmark, this is no exception. As in most countries, Danish families used to eat their largest meal at midday. It has now become a more hurried affair.

In urban areas, many Danes will simply buy food at local restaurants and eat it there, eat it while sitting on a bench outside, or bring it back to their offices.

Far more common, though, especially among children, is to bring a lunch from home. This lunch is almost always a Danish classic: smørrebrød (literally: butter bread). I will write a future post exclusively about smørrebrød, but for now, it will suffice to say that this is an open-faced sandwich on an extremely hearty, completely whole grain, sour, unleavened Danish bread called rugbrød (literally: rye bread. It is usually translated as black bread because of its dark color). On top of this is spread butter (are you beginning to sense a pattern?), along with a deli meat and some kind of sauce (usually mayonnaise or remoulade). Here are some common toppings:

  • Leverpostej (like liver pâté) and cucumber
  • Ham
  • Turkey
  • Chicken
  • Frikadeller (Danish meatballs)

Middag or aftensmad (Dinner; literally “midday” and “evening food,” the first referencing the time when lunch was main meal)

These are Swedish meatballs, although it is very typical of what might be served for dinner in an average household.

Dinner is very important to Danish families. It almost always takes place at the home, and very seldom takes less than half an hour or with any family members missing. It is much earlier than in other parts of Europe, and usually takes place between 6pm and 8pm.

The meals are generally home cooked, prepared with fresh ingredients and with minimal pre-prepared or frozen additions. It is hard to give specifics about all of the different types of food that can be served, but there are a few characteristics of the meal that are worth noting. It generally includes a main dish (usually meat-based) and one or two side dishes, often potatoes or cabbage prepared in various different ways. Further, it often includes alcohol, although usually not every night. In addition to traditional red and white wines from around Europe, Danes are especially partial to their national beers, Tuborg and Carlsberg.

All of that said, here are some main dishes I have especially enjoyed:

  • Frikadeller (Danish meatballs) and potatoes
  • Curry chicken stir fry, topped with coconut shavings and a dried fruit and nuts mix, on top of rice (for some mysterious reason I have yet to uncover, curry is very popular here)
  • Soups (usually pureed with a dash of cream for richness)
  • Risengrød (rice porridge with butter and sugar, often served at Christmas time)
  • Fried, baked, or grilled white fish
  • Sausage (sometimes filled with cheese, sometimes wrapped in bacon)

Snacks and dessert

There is very little snacking in Denmark. However, tea or coffee and a small amount of sweets (pastries, chocolate, gummies, or salty licorice) are often served in the evening, an hour or more after dinner has ended.

Thanks for spending a day eating with me in Denmark! What do you think your favorite meal would be in Denmark?


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!

Welcome to the Frigid North!

Denmark in January

What do you think of when I say Denmark? If you love literature, maybe you are thinking of Hamlet, Hans Christian Andersen, or even Søren Kierkegaard. If you love design, maybe you are thinking of Arne Jacobsen or Hans Wegner.

But to those of us who love food, we might think of Noma, the world’s top rated restaurant for three years running. Or maybe of New Nordic Cuisine, the new avant-garde (yet precisely formulated) cooking tradition spear-headed by Claus Meyer of which Noma is the flagship. And the story of why we think of these things is a very interesting one.

Until the last five years or so, northern Europe was seen as the backwaters of European cuisine. The French and Italians have long held the limelight for their fine dining, while other countries like Germany have become internationally renowned for their sausages, beer, and other spirits. Little attention was paid, however, to the Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes.

Perhaps this is for good reason. Until the nineteenth century, the diets of ordinary Danes consisted mainly of potatoes, porridge, and herring. As international trade began to thrive, Danish agriculture gained prominence, and rye bread became a staple of the Danish diet, as did new animal products like bacon, sausage, and butter. Maybe not what you think of when you think of “fine dining.” Yet there is something very essential to be learned about Scandinavian culture from this cultural tradition of simple, wholesome ingredients, a tradition that has found itself at the center of one of the world’s front-running culinary movements.

This semester, I have been blessed with the opportunity to study in Copenhagen, Denmark. Over the course of the next four months, I seek to explore Scandinavian cuisine and, along the way, discover what has led to the culinary renaissance of the past decade. Some topics I will be exploring include:

  • Danish food culture
  • Everyday Danish cuisine and common food items
  • The guiding principles of New Nordic Cuisine and its historical development

I hope you’ll come along! Is there anything that you would like to learn more about? Tell me in the comments!