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Mega-chef Magnus Nilsson tracked down recipes from hundreds of Nordic home kitchens—including his grandmother’s—for his massive new cookbook. Here, he describes the hunt and shares his favorite finds.
When I was four years old, I got my first kitchen job. My grandmother Britt let me slice cucumbers. It’s one of my earliest memories; I stood on a box in her kitchen and used a dull table knife to cut the vegetables. It was a good job for a young child; we used sliced cucumbers for the pickles we always had with my grandmother Doris’s meatballs. When I was little, I thought the meatballs were huge, but now I think they only seemed that way to a small child.
I included those meatballs in my new book, The Nordic Cookbook. I collected the recipes from home cooks all over Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Åland and the Faroe Islands. (People ask about the difference between the Nordic region and Scandinavia. The answer is that only Sweden, Norway and Denmark are considered part of Scandinavia.) There’s a popular Saturday radio show in Sweden called Meny—it’s iconic, it’s been around forever—and I asked people to send in their recipes. I got more meatball recipes than just about anything else—several dozen of them, some handwritten on index cards, many exactly the same even though the people who sent them described them as treasured family recipes.
As I wrote my book, I discovered that meatballs highlight the diversity of Nordic cooking: Our cultures are quite similar but also fundamentally different. In Denmark and Norway, cooks make meatballs from ground pork, but my Swedish grandmother’s version has ground beef, too; they’re not too heavy or too dry because she added boiled potato. We always had those meatballs with lingonberry jam, but in Denmark, they’re often served in a curry cream sauce.
Cookies and pastries are another point of distinction among Nordic cultures. I found a lot of doughnut-style fried sweets in Norway. In Sweden, cooks bake a seemingly infinite amount of cookies and sweet buns. Finnish sticks are buttery, crumbly almond cookies; they’re very Swedish. Ironically, no one in Finland knows about them. I think the name must come from an insult or a joke; I tried hard to find the story, but I couldn’t.
It took me three years of traveling to complete the research for the book. It’s not just because the Nordic territory is quite immense (though it is—about 1.3 million square miles). It’s because the region is such a complex mix of cultures, from Finland in the East to Greenland in the West. Denmark is more like its neighbor Germany than it is like Finland; meanwhile, Finland is quite similar to Russia. Nordic food is a sprawling concept.
When I traveled to do my research, I usually stayed in people’s houses. Quite often I would know one person and go to his town for a specific purpose, and he would introduce me to someone else. And the next thing you know, I’m dangling on a cliff in the Faroe Islands looking for puffin eggs. I slept on a lot of sofas; in Norway, I stayed in a tent. It’s not how most writers travel when they research, but for a book dedicated to Nordic home cooking, it seemed more normal to stay in someone’s spare room than in a nice hotel.
Besides collecting recipes, I also shot all the landscapes and portraits in the book. I’ve been taking photographs since I was six and found a camera in the cupboard of my grandmother Britt’s house. Britt lived on a farm about two hours from where my restaurant Fäviken now is, in Järpen. The camera was a Kodak Instamatic with a flashbulb on top, the kind that twisted around when you took a picture. I ended up with about 8,000 pictures for the book. A selection of those photos will be in a show organized by the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis that will travel around the world starting this spring.
My purpose with all these recipes and photographs was to document Nordic food culture today. I wanted to record what people are really cooking on a daily basis, not create a fairy-tale version of Nordic cooking. That’s why one of the most notable recipes in this book is taco pie. In the late ’80s, spice companies flooded Sweden with little packets of taco spices. We started cooking with them and somehow arrived at the taco pie, or tacopaj, one of the most popular dishes in Sweden today. I believe that the evolution was something like this: People thought, We like savory pie, and we like pie with ground meat in it, so why don’t we add the spices to the meat pie and eat it for supper? If you ask my fellow Swedes for a food that best represents their country, they might say pickled herring or cabbage rolls. But then they’ll go home and make taco pie.
“I wanted to record what people are really cooking, not create a fairy-tale version of Nordic cooking.”
In the Nordic region, it’s simply too cold too much of the time to cultivate a lot of produce. So we take advantage of sturdy vegetables. People have grown cabbage in Scandinavia since the Middle Ages. Carrots also date back to the Middle Ages, cultivated by monks in monastery gardens. Onions are very important to our cooking; in Denmark, sweet fried onions are revered. We tend to favor simple preparations for vegetables, like gratins with a cream sauce and cheese topping that are great for leeks as well as potatoes and mushrooms. Likewise, I tend toward soups that taste mostly of the vegetable. In fact, the ones I make are almost purees, like my spinach one, loosened with a little stock and some cream, with a pretty garnish of hard-boiled egg.
If there’s a quintessentially Nordic food, it’s fish. Two of the region’s iconic dishes are pickled herring—for which there are countless variations—and gravlax, perhaps the most famous Swedish export, apart from the chef on The Muppets. The Nordic region has a huge shoreline, plus all those lakes: Finland alone has more than 50,000, and Sweden more than 90,000. The array of fish we cook with is vast. It ranges from ubiquitous varieties like cod and trout to rarities like lamprey, which isn’t well known outside the Baltic Sea area, where it is often eaten smoked or grilled (its blood is poisonous—don’t eat a fresh one). Fish cakes are one of the most popular dishes for Norwegian home cooks, like the woman above, because there are always leftover fillets and scraps to use up.
In Sweden, we have a beloved tradition of fika, or coffee breaks. They take place several times a day and are one reason we are near the top of the world’s coffee consumption list, beaten only by the Finns and the Dutch. A lot of fika involve some kind of cookie or little cake. With so many coffee breaks, of course there’s a wide assortment of baked goods, and everyone has a favorite. Vanilla-flavored sweets are popular; so are those with cardamom (a terrifically popular spice in Sweden). I add a little extra to the sugared pretzels I make for my kids.
Potatoes arrived in the Nordic region in the early 1800s thanks to Spain, which brought the tuber over from South America. Before that, people on the Scandinavian mainland ate at least a pound of bread a day. Potatoes have since become a staple of our diet, the hearty ingredient that kept entire villages from starving during freezing winters when it was impossible to find other ingredients. Our modern roster of potato dishes includes salads (often, I’m sorry to say, made with bad supermarket mayonnaise) as well as sugar-browned potatoes (popular among Danes at Christmas) and oven-baked potatoes Hasselbacken. This fantastic dish is named for the place where it was invented during the 1950s, a restaurant turned cooking school in Stockholm. Not only are the sliced baked potatoes attractive, they’re also delicious: crisp on the outside and tender within.