Smørrebrød, flaeskesteg, snobrød, risengrød, biksemad….herring. What the heck do these strange words mean? And moreover how in the world do you pronounce them? These were my first reactions to Danish food – it was something alien and bizarre – they put pickles and mayonnaise on herring for crying out loud! But as my host family in Copenhagen introduced me to the mouth-watering wonders of flaeskesteg (it’s like a savory juicy pork roast with a rack of crisp salty bacon on top, but better), the warm coziness of a bowl of rice pudding with a pad of melted butter flowing over the cinnamon and sugar you sprinkle on (risengrød), and, with much hesitation, to the way the weird combinations of ingredients in open-faced sandwiches (smørrebrød) actually compliment and enhance each other, I learned to really enjoy them.
Smørrebrød delight the Danes and remind them of Julefrokost (Christmas-day Lunch). But to Americans these open-faced sandwiches seem unappetizing at best. At first, they were enough to make my stomach turn, but then I forced myself to take a bite… It wasn’t so bad! It even tasted pretty good, in fact. Sure, it was a bit too heavy on the sweet-and-sour flavors like pickles and herring for me, but the chewy rye bread‘s sweet nutty flavor actually paired really well with the savory meats and crisp veggies piled inches high on top. My favorite is one made with a chilled, thick slice of pork covered in red cabbage and pickles. Ot her varieties are made with liver pate, meat-jelly, and pepper, or fried fish (usually cod) and remoulade (tastes like a more savory mayonnaise), or mini-shrimp marinated in salt-water and mixed on the bread with lettuce, cold butter, freshly cracked pepper, and remoulade. And what’s more? They pair these with herring marinated in either a sweet-cinnamony sauce or curry and then drink snaps and beer with it!
I would come to find over the next few months that this, at first startling, pairing of opposites makes Danish food interesting, scintillating, and unique. Sour with honeyed, crunchy with smooth, intense with mellow – during a group dinner, Dorthe (one of my host parents’ many close friends) told me with pride that she would never serve a dish without considering these combinations. High-end restaurants like Noma inspire the world with their unique creations– have you ever had a generous helping of beef tartar covered in ants? What about caramelized milk and monkfish liver… Yummmmm. But what these dishes all have in common is a pairing of opposites that excites the senses.
“Hygge” – the Danish catchphrase, shibboleth, and in many ways formula for living – also plays a lead role in their food culture. Danes go out to hygge with each other, thank each other for a hygge time together, and try to make their homes as hygge as possible. Hygge is both a description and an action – you can call a night spent with friends or a café hygge, but you can also say you’re going to hygge. It implies a sense of coziness, being together with close friends and family, trust and safety, but also living up to a certain norm. You’re expected to participate wholeheartedly in conversation but not predominate, laugh and smile but not overreact. The ideal is someone who is “man hviler i sig selv,” or rests in himself. The Danes treasure an environment that lets people be themselves, and enjoy doing so, without thinking about their outside concerns. Food reflects this harmonious hygge atmosphere – it allows the Danes to come together to enjoy conversation, laugh, share experiences, and discuss their views in a safe, trusting, and cozy atmosphere. At least in my homestay and their group of friends, eating together makes them family. All of them live far from the small villages and farms they grew up on in Jutland, and so they rely on each other for social support, good “hygge” times, and of course for “laekkert mad” (delicious food).
I think the best food experience I’ve had in Denmark was a light meal of bread cheese red peppers and olives that my friends and I shared at Ølsnedkeren – a craft brewery Copenhagen’s Nørrebro neighborhood. The dinner wasn’t anything special, and there weren’t even any Danes there, but we enjoyed eating, drinking, and laughing together for almost 5 hours. Although the food is important, enjoying a cozy evening (“have en hyggelit aften”) together with friends is better.