Old Scandinavian, New Nordic

The intersection between traditional and modern proves inspiring

Photo: Tina Stafrèn / Visitnorway.com

Photo: Tina Stafrèn / Visitnorway.com

Daytona Strong
Taste of Norway Editor

Some years ago, when I was coming into my own as a Norwegian-American home cook, resources were pretty limited, at least in the big bookstores and the library. The books I did find smelled of decades, their paper and ink shaded with the timestamp of age. They were good books, to be sure, including the tall, slim The Cooking of Scandinavia (1974) from Time Life Books, with an accompanying spiral notebook of recipes, a pairing that seemed as much encyclopedia as cookbook. But many were dated and the cuisine seemed forgotten by publishers at the time.

As I searched more and cooked from my growing collection, I also became interested in New Nordic cuisine. It seemed to me that there were two primary camps: traditional Scandinavian cooking and New Nordic. Eventually many cookbooks started coming out, and I wondered why none seemed to satisfactorily explore the intersection of these branches or reflect the modern cooking that might reside someplace in between.

Photo: Daytona Strong A traditional lutefisk dinner, often the first thing to spring to mind when one thinks of typical Norwegian cuisine.

Photo: Daytona Strong
A traditional lutefisk dinner, often the first thing to spring to mind when one thinks of typical Norwegian cuisine.

I saw that shift begin to happen last year with the release of The Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nilsson—two star chef of Sweden’s celebrated restaurant Fäviken—and Fire and Ice: Classic Nordic Cooking by Darra Goldstein. To create his 768-page hardcover, Nilsson researched and traveled for years, collecting recipes and stories. The world-famous chef aimed to showcase what people truly eat in the Nordic countries, not an idealized version that he saw in so many of the English-language cookbooks he collected in his research (the Time Life book was one of the few that he thought represented the food well). The Nordic Cookbook has become the resource I reach for time and time again for information on a particular recipe or ingredient. Likewise, Fire and Ice unquestionably represents the traditional, but in a way that’s deeply rooted in place and puts the recipes in context. Goldstein, professor of Russian at Williams College and founding editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, managed to preserve the traditional—the roots that inspired the food that those emigrating from the Nordic countries passed from one generation to the next—while updating their presentation and context. The book is fresh and modern in its appearance, the recipes straightforward and sound.

Satisfied that I was beginning to see the links between traditional and modern explored, I began asking chefs and cookbook authors for their thoughts on these different yet connected branches of Nordic cooking.

A New Nordic
“A lot of the practices of New Nordic cuisine—the idea of going out and foraging and looking to nature for what it can offer, even if it seems like it’s this cold, barren place with a difficult climate, it actually, you know it has extraordinary riches,” Goldstein said. “Just think about all the seafood, all the river and lake fish, the mushrooms, the berries—they’re just extraordinary.”

But on the topic of New Nordic cuisine, she said that while it’s very chef-driven and exciting, it’s not reflective of how people cook at home.

“They’re working with a lot of unusual ingredients that most people aren’t necessarily gathering. Like when I had a meal at Noma, to make a sweet-and-sour caramelized onion dish they had these beautiful onions that were really sweet but to give that sour taste they sprinkled them with ants. You know no one is really eating that way at home,” she said.

Photo: CH / Visitnorway.com Still fish, but a more modern preparation and presentation. New Nordic focuses on using high-quality ingredients that are local and seasonal.

Photo: CH / Visitnorway.com
Still fish, but a more modern preparation and presentation. New Nordic focuses on using high-quality ingredients that are local and seasonal.

“Also lemons and all of these warm spices like cardamom and cinnamon and ginger that we so associate with Christmas and the gløgg and things like that came into Scandinavia really early on because there was so much trade. So to ignore those I think doesn’t reflect Scandinavian home cooking. But the intersection would be a focus on local ingredients and on age-old techniques, but in a way taken to the extreme by the New Nordic chefs where it remains more mainstream for regular folks.”

One can hardly write about New Nordic without exploring Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant at the center of the movement’s origins. Founded in 2003 by René Redzepi and Claus Meyer, the restaurant has earned the tittle of world’s best restaurant several times. Meyer was also behind 2004’s “Manifesto for the New Nordic Cuisine,” and recently opened Agern and the Great Northern Food Hall in New York. He summed up the cuisine: “New Nordic cuisine is a set of guiding principles which speaks to sourcing, collaboration, the concept of time and place in cooking, and the idea of serving a purpose larger than the food itself or the restaurant,” he said.

I asked Meyer about the gap between traditional Scandinavian, or perhaps what a lot of people think of as Scandinavian-American cooking, and New Nordic cuisine.

“We explored and unfolded it in Scandinavia as a start but found out that the principles behind it are universal and can travel (that’s what we did in Bolivia for instance with restaurant Gustu, unlocking the flavors of Bolivia and creating a new Bolivian cuisine)—which I think is the fundamental difference to traditional Scandinavian cooking, where recipes and special dishes have been handed down for generations,” he said.

“I would say there is a crossover though—some of the old Nordic techniques such as fermentation, pickling, and smoking are being used in modern Nordic cooking—because it’s a way to get back to really making the most out of simple ingredients, unfolding deliciousness.”

Photo courtesy of the Nordic Heritage Museum Andreas Viestad was one of many top chefs to share knowledge of Nordic cuisine at a conference held at Seattle’s Nordic Heritage Museum earlier this year.

Photo courtesy of the Nordic Heritage Museum
Andreas Viestad was one of many top chefs to share knowledge of Nordic cuisine at a conference held at Seattle’s Nordic Heritage Museum earlier this year.

Unlearning stereotypes
Much of the Scandinavian food served in the U.S. seems like it could exist in a time capsule. I mentioned that to the speakers at the Nordic Culinary Conference at Seattle’s Nordic Heritage Museum this past spring, including Andreas Viestad, Norwegian-born food writer, restauranteur, and host of the television series New Scandinavian Cooking.

Viestad responded, “When I was in Seattle the first time, people came up to me and they said, ‘Hi, I’m Scandinavian and I love Scandinavia, I love Norwegian food, but don’t you ever get tired of potetpølse?’ And it’s like what, potato sausage, huh? And one thing is that I have never tasted it, but I’ve never heard about it. What you bring with you is not necessarily representative of the region or the country, and what survives of those things is also very few—so you have like two, three different selection processes. And lutefisk and potato sausage is at the very periphery of what I see.”

Nilsson of Fäviken added to the conversation, saying that food is a natural expression of how things are going in society, and it changes and develops.

“Perhaps if you move to a country and you take a few things with you that you cherish and that remind you about the past and so on, and you try to kind of keep those unchanged, after a while it becomes really strange because the rest of the world, like the origins of those recipes, has changed so much,” he said.

“I also saw this a lot when I was doing the research for [The Nordic Cookbook], because I bought pretty much anything, everything that has been published in the last 40 years of Scandinavian and Nordic cooking in English and looked through it and most of it is not very representative, neither of what’s eaten in the Nordics today or what was eaten historically in the Nordics, and that’s quite interesting. And most of it is written by people who are not from the Nordic region, but from an outside perspective,” he said.

In a separate interview, Goldstein spoke about the stereotypes and New Nordic cuisine’s ability to shed new light on the cooking as a whole. And while this cookbook author is not from Scandinavia, she lived there for a while and also gives an academic authority to her work.

“The Scandinavian flavors are actually really bold and exciting. You have a lot of vinegar, you have a lot of salt, you have a lot of smoke, you have a lot of muskiness from all of these things that come from the earth, and then you have this incredible freshness that you get seasonally,” Goldstein said. “And so I think that one of the wonderful things about New Nordic is that it helped people re-envision what Scandinavian food is all about.”

Many branches, all inspired
Ultimately, there are so many different ways to look at the food, from Scandinavian-American to the chef-driven New Nordic, and the modern Nordic cooking that reflects what people eat in those countries today.

At the conference Viestad talked about the Italian dishes that he had created at his farm in Norway. Though they looked Italian and were inspired by his travels, they were created with ingredients from the area, making them a type of Italian you could get nowhere other than in Norway. I asked how he embraces what’s uniquely Norwegian in his cooking when he’s in Norway and how Americans can embrace this idea wherever they live.

“There are at least two different ways to draw inspiration from the Nordic way of cooking,” he said. “One is to cook Nordic dishes. You can have a Nordic restaurant in Portland, much the same way you can have an Italian restaurant in Vancouver. But the most interesting way to be inspired is to look at the idea behind, which is an ongoing investigation of what your place tastes like. What is unique to the Pacific Northwest? I don’t know the answer, but I bet it is delicious.”

Think globally, eat locally
The focus on local flavors is perhaps that idea that has helped to propel Nordic cuisine onto the worldwide stage. Simon Bajada, author of the recently released Nordic Light: Lighter, everyday eating from a Scandinavian kitchen, shared his thoughts on the movement’s global significance.

“Eating what’s on your doorstep and when those products are at their best makes complete sense,” he said. “It’s been amazing to see; I saw Nordic preparations on the menu of a South East Asian Michelin starred restaurant recently!”

New Nordic is no longer new, Meyer pointed out, as it’s over 10 years old. But it continues to inspire.

“I think it’s up to others to speak to the significance of the New Nordic cuisine and Noma,” he said, “but I think it’s fair to say that as an approach to cooking it has had a widespread appeal and as a catalyst or instrument to unlock the true potential of a food culture—it has a lot of potential to change the food systems of tomorrow.”

Daytona Strong is The Norwegian American’s Taste of Norway editor. She writes about her family’s Norwegian heritage through the lens of food at her Scandinavian food blog, www.outside-oslo.com. Find her on Facebook www.facebook.com/OutsideOslo; Twitter @daytonastrong; Pinterest @daytonastrong; and Instagram @daytonastrong.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 9, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Norwegian American Logo

The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.