Culinary Tour of Norway

From sweet lefse to savory koldtbord, Norway is rife with mouthwatering dishes

On my latest trip to Norway, I stayed with a family living on the outskirts of Oslo in a neighborhood situated at the foot of a forested hill. Snow fell steadily for the week I was there, keeping a pristine blanket over the city. Though my body craved hearty dishes in the frigid temperatures, like braises, stews, and roasts, I was introduced to a different and decidedly healthier approach to cold‐weather cooking by the Norwegians.

Staying with a family abroad affords the unique opportunity to fully immerse oneself in the culture of a country. What’s more, most families maintain that what they prepare in their home kitchens is far superior and more faithful to tradition than what is served in restaurants. And considering that home-cooked meals are so full of stories and memories, and so steeped in tradition, I’d be inclined to agree.

Norway is bordered completely by water on one side, meaning locals get to cook with and eat freshly caught fish and seafood year‐round. In fact, water critters find their way into nearly every meal in Norway. In a typical breakfast, koldtbord (what most know by the Swedish term smörgåsbord), one of the many toppings offered is a mayonnaise‐laden, miniature shrimp spread flecked with a varietal of pink roe. Just as common is brunost, an unusually sweet brown cheese. Made from goat’s milk (called gjetost), cow’s milk, or a combination of the two, the cheese is boiled for hours to lend its distinct color. I found myself sneaking curls of this irresistible, addictive cheese between meals, savoring its silky texture and caramel-tinged flavor. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/flickr.Marcus)

My other staple became a treat usually served at the holidays, but that my host family generously made to quell my curiosity. Lefse is the epitome of delicious simplicity; it is essentially just a butter, cinnamon, and sugar flatbread (the flatbread made from potato and milk). Eating lefse brought back memories of my childhood, being raised by a Swedish au pair who make me butter and sugar sandwiches (on Wonder bread, mind you) for lunch every day. To my delight, I discovered that Norwegians also made lefse with brunost!

Lefse aside, Norwegians are true to the Scandinavian reputation of a healthful diet. Most of the bread served is whole grain, the primary protein is fish, and desserts are often light and fruit‐based. But they have a knack for turning seemingly light dishes into something mistakenly guilt‐laden. Forget beef stew — Norwegians’ comfort foods come in the form of fish soup. Fish soup may not sound like a particularly comforting meal to be eaten by the fire in the depth of winter, but indeed in Norway it’s luxurious and soul warming.

They soups are most often cream-based, though other ingredients vary depending on what’s available — the fish is the day’s freshest catch, the vegetables seasonal, and so on. The one non-negotiable is the stock. It must be homemade, which means boiling fish remnants (usually reserved from the last fish soup). From there, the soup is layered with vegetables, spices, cream (in a variety of forms — coconut milk, crème fraîche, yogurt), cubes of fish (typically salmon and a white fish), and lastly, mussels. Served with warm, grainy rolls, this meal retained all the elements of a wintry dish while managing to feel nourishing and healthful as well.

Another classically Norwegian flavor combination is silky, buttery white fish and smoky, crispy bacon. Bacon is fried to a gritty char, then diced and crumbled over the top of a delicate fillet of fish like cod. It’s typically served with a range of sides, from asparagus and potatoes to a caviar sack. My host family expected me to be repulsed by this common Norwegian delicacy, but not only was I not repulsed, I adored it. The egg sack had been scraped right out of the fish we were eating, and it tasted every bit as fresh as it was. The texture was heavenly — slightly chewy but smooth, creamy not fishy, and unlike any caviar I’d ever tried. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/Yukon White Light)

Red meat does have a place in the Norwegian diet. More common than beef are game meats like reindeer and moose. I was treated to venison Bolognese, which, dare I say was even better than its beef counterpart. The venison had a richness to it that complemented the sweet tomatoes and fruity red wine, plus there was something so perfect about eating it by the window as the snow fell on the trees outside.

 

One of the biggest surprises (not necessarily in a good way) was the absence of alcohol, the one wintry custom that actually does invite warmth. The high price of alcohol in Norway makes it far less of a staple in Norwegian households than American ones. But a well upheld Scandinavian tradition, and one that my family still maintains, is of making glögg, a nearly toxic combination of five types of alcohol sweetened with sugar cubes, spices, and loaded with almonds and raisins. I admit, the boozy raisins are my favorite part. I have even taken to grinding up the almonds and raisins and folding them into oatmeal cookie batter to make glögg cookies.

But I digress; glögg is a holiday staple at my house and in many Scandinavian homes. The process of making it is a spectacle in itself — the alcohol in the tub (really a 10‐quart stockpot) is lit on fire while simmering on the stove, sending up violent blue flames. We then sing a lively Swedish drinking song, which, sung by an entirely American family that speaks absolutely no Swedish, is probably a total butchery of the lyrical language. Regardless, we toast, and drink up. The drink is not specific to Sweden; I found a bottle of glögg mix in my surrogate Norwegian family’s house and once on the shelves at Ikea. It’s a non-alcoholic mix that’s meant to be added to red wine or vodka. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/missteee)

Beyond the quirky delicacies, Norway showed me the joys of atypical comfort food. Though I’ll always crave the classic soul-warming dishes I’m used to turning to in colder months, I have a greater appreciation for the delicate balances of such comforting and still healthful dishes like Norwegian fish soup. Of course, making it at home stateside will pale in comparison — I won’t have the day’s freshest catch at my disposal, nor the country’s rustic romance. If there is one custom I wished to impart on my host family, though, is faith in the warming powers of a hot toddy on a cold day. 

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