Made up of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden (with Finland and Iceland generally included), the Scandinavian region has rich history and culture distinct from the other parts of Europe — and nothing expresses that quite like their cuisine.
Scandinavian food highlights the bounty of the region, and it also features a wide variety of preservation techniques, traditionally used to ensure food lasted throughout the winters. Most of these food have now come to be considered delicacies, especially in America, brought here by immigrants over the past two centuries. But these delicacies can seem alien to those who have only heard of these dishes but never came across them in their own culinary adventures.
Highlighted below are seven beloved dishes perfect for your first steps into exploring this cuisine.
The appetizer known as gravlax is raw salmon that’s cured in salt and sugar for several days, then sliced thin and served chilled. The dish usually comes with a little chopped dill or a sweet mustard sauce. If salmon isn’t your thing, there are several other kinds of salted fish featured in Scandinavian cuisine.
Another preservation technique like dry curing, pickling in vinegar and salt is a very popular way to prepare this oily fish. One of the easier items on this list to find at your local grocery store, pickled herring is usually flavored with dill, onion, or mustard They’re traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve to help ensure a bountiful year (the silver color of the fish symbolizes coins and good fortune).
Pickled herring is often served on a smorgasbord (Scandinavian buffet) alongside a sharp firm cheese, hardboiled egg, boiled new potatoes, and sour cream. Herring can also be smoked for a more robust flavor.
When the Swedes began making what would become their signature meatballs (at least dating back to the 1700s), it was simply to ensure that leftover meat was used before it spoiled. This means that a lot of different meats were originally used when families made this dish. As a result, there were many different varieties of Swedish meatballs, but usually with some mixture of ground pork, veal, and beef with minced onion and spices.
Today, Scandinavian restaurants (and IKEA) choose their meat mixtures based on flavor and fat content preferences, so every place you go to will still be a little different. Swedish meatballs are usually smaller than your typical American meatball and can be pan-fried or baked in the oven, then accompanied by a white or brown sauce.
Scandinavian cuisine is full of venison recipes – that’s because reindeer, roe deer, elk, and a wide variety of other kinds of deer are indigenous to the region. Like other kinds of game, venison tends to be a tougher meat than beef, which is why slow cooking methods are often used to break down that muscle for a succulent and tender result. One of the more popular Scandinavian venison dishes is a hunter’s stew, a traditional hearty soup that usually includes big, savory dumplings.
These fried pancake balls (yes, you read that right!) are light and fluffy on the inside, similar to a popover. Aebleskiver can be a challenge for Americans to find all year round, since this Danish pastry is traditionally a Christmas treat. But have no fear, Californians: Slovang Restaurant in Slovang, CA, offers them 365 days a year, topping their aebleskiver with powdered sugar and a raspberry jam. If you like your pancake a little… flatter, another Scandinavian variation on pancakes is the pannekaker, which is similar to a crepe, but a little eggier.
Pronounced “smurh-broht,” this versatile open-faced sandwich always starts with buttered sourdough rye bread and, from there, is fully customizable to your taste. While there are certainly popular flavor profiles for smørrebrød, common toppings you can choose from include meat spreads, cheeses, pickled herring, smoked salmon, cold cuts, roast beef, pickles, horseradish, sliced red onion, dill, and much more.
Unlike their American counterpart, these Swedish cinnamon rolls have a more distinct spice flavor (cardamom along with cinnamon) and less sugar, which means they’re not so sticky and messy. And you can gobble a whole one up without worrying about a sugar bomb in your stomach. Kanebullar are usually topped with a little sprinkle of sliced almonds or pearl sugar.
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