‘Tis the season—to be Scandinavian

Seattle’s Scandinavian Specialties helps customers with traditional foods for holiday celebrations

Scandinavian Specialties

Photo: Christy Olsen Field
A Christmastime, Scandinavian Specialties transforms into a magical Nordic wonderland, filled with tomter and nisser.

Christy Olsen Field
Taste of Norway Editor

Christmas is often the time when people celebrate their Norwegian heritage the most, and food plays an important role.

With so many regional specialties throughout Norway, I wanted to learn more about how Norwegian Americans keep food traditions from the old country alive. And I knew just who to ask: Bjørn Ruud, the owner of the venerable Scandinavian Specialties shop in Seattle.

Scandinavian Specialties has been a mainstay in the Seattle area for decades. It was founded in 1962 by Alf Sagland, a Norwegian sausage maker, as the Norwegian Sausage Company. It was located in North Ballard, the traditionally Scandinavian neighborhood in Seattle, next to a Scandinavian bakery. 

In 1980, Sagland sold the shop to Ruby and Herb Anderson, who changed the name to Scandinavian Specialties, and in 2000, Anne-Lise Berger and Osmund “Ozzie” Kvithammer, Ruud’s mother and stepfather, bought it. A year later, they moved it to its current location at 6719 15th Ave., N.W. in Seattle. Ruud bought the company in 2017.

“We have so much support and loyalty from the community, and that’s what keeps us going. We also have a lot of tourists and out-of-town visitors who come to the shop,” said Ruud.

Planning for the Christmas season starts early at Scandinavian Specialties, even earlier than I would have expected. Vendors reach out in February and March so Ruud can place orders for ornaments and nisser. Chocolates, candies, and specialty food items from Scandinavia are ordered in June. The Christmas tree is decorated by Halloween.

But behind the well-curated shelves of merchandise is the kitchen. The kitchen puts together a wonderful array of smørbrød sandwiches, vafler with brunost, and cakes for the in-store café, as well as catering for local events.

They also make an impressive selection of traditional Scandinavian foods in-house, and people wait in long lines to procure these for their holiday celebrations.

I didn’t grow up with most of these foods on the Christmas table (my family makes homemade kjøttboller as our special Christmas Eve tradition), so I asked Ruud to walk me through some of Scandinavian Specialties’ offerings.

Svineribbe, or pork ribs with a thick layer of fat that is cross-hatched to render the fat, is a very popular Norwegian dish to serve at Christmas. Ruud says that the Danish svinekam is growing more popular in place of the ribs. It’s bone-in pork loin with the thick cap of fat that renders into crispy perfection in the oven.

“The svinekam is meatier and less fatty, and it’s really good,” said Ruud.

Scandinavian Specialties also makes its own fenelår, which is leg of lamb that has been salted, dried, and cured. It is then thinly sliced (like Italian prosciutto) and served at Christmas time. Pinnekjøtt, lamb ribs that are salted, dried, and then steamed, are also very popular for the centerpiece dish on holiday tables.

“We make a lot of rullepølse [a cold cut made by rolling a cut of lamb with spices and curing it, which is then sliced] and sylte [a pressed meat loaf]. We also do four different types of medisterpølse [a pork sausage made with allspice, clove, salt and pepper], among other things,” said Ruud.

Scandinavian Specialties

Photo courtesy of Scandinavian Specialties
Scandinavian Specialties is famous for its fish cakes. During the Christmas season, the specialty store sells up to 200 pounds of them per week.

With its location near the beating heart of Seattle’s fishing industry, Scandinavian Specialties offers several fish items as well.

“We pickle our own herring in a nice white wine sauce with spices,” said Ruud.

But perhaps they are best known for their fiskekaker, fish cakes made with rockfish. These fish cakes are legendary: They sell 150 pounds each week, and up to 300 pounds per week in the busy season. 

“I have customers who will call us to check when the next batch of fish cakes are ready,” said Ruud. “I even had one customer who came in, put money on the counter and said, ‘I’ll take as many fish cakes as $25 can buy.” 

To serve the fiskekaker, Ruud recommends basting them in butter to be served with potatoes and carrots and a white sauce, seasoned with white pepper and nutmeg. Fiskekaker are naturally gluten-free, because they are made with potato starch. It also comes as fiskepudding, which can be sliced and fried.

Lutefisk can be purchased in the freezer section.

Scandinavian Specialties also maintains a bustling e-commerce presence, with a gorgeous website redesign that recently launched at www.scanspecialties.com.

“People love to buy the candies and chocolates. One really popular one is Smash, made by Nidar of Norway. It’s a cone-shaped corn cracker, like a Bugle, dipped in milk chocolate. It’s really good,” said Ruud.

I asked Ruud about the changes he’s observed in customers’ food preferences over the years.

“We used to do 600 pounds of pinnekjøtt each year, but now it’s about 400 pounds per year,” said Ruud.

“Ten years ago, if we ran out of raspeballer [potato dumplings], people would freak out and tell us immediately. That’s not the case anymore, where we can be out of stock for a few weeks and someone might casually mention it.”

While Scandinavian Specialties doesn’t take pre-orders, Ruud said that people can drop by anytime.

“In the weeks leading up to Christmas, we have 650+ customers every day. You can beat the rush by coming now,” said Ruud. “Most items can be kept in your freezer and then thawed right before you need them.”

Scandinavian Specialties is open seven days a week. Visit them online at www.scanspecialties.com, or visit in person at 6719 15th Ave., N.W., Seattle, WA 98117.

This article originally appeared in the November 15, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

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