Norway is undoubtedly a very special place. It’s had the highest Human Development Index ranking since 2009, and has been in the top 5 of the World Happiness Report rankings, holding the first place in 2017, as well as first place for the OECD Better Life Index, The Index of Public Integrity and the Democracy Index, as well as boasting incredibly low crime rates and high education scores. The English word Norway literally means “way leading to the north” and indeed the country sits on the northernmost tip of continental Europe, bordering Sweden, Finland and Russia to the south and east. By all accounts, the country has a special remote beauty, from the arctic tundras, to the myriad fjords and glaciers on the northern coasts, the steep jagged cliff faces encircling mountains, and the midnight summer sun and unending nights of winter, lit only by the magnificent Northern lights. Norwegian cuisine is distinct from its neighbours in that it uses a greater amount of seafood, such as smoked salmon, pickled herring, cod etc., due to its large coastline and long history of naval exploration. There is also a long history of hunting and eating game, such as moose, reindeer, fowl and mountain hare, often served with juniper berries and lingonberries. Due to the long winters, Norway has rich traditions of curing ingredients to prevent them from spoiling, including drying, salting, smoking and fermenting. Perhaps all of these particularities of the geography, ecology, culture and cuisine have contributed to Norway being such a successful cradle for human progress? A nutritious and delicious meal is certainly a good place to start when aiming for the pinnacles of democracy, happiness and human development in my opinion.
Krabbefest literally means “feast of crab” and takes place in the Norwegian summer, when there is an abundance of brown crabs in the waters surrounding Bergen. Ever since the seventh week of my cooking challenge, when I couldn’t find any crayfish for a Swedish crayfish party, I’ve been romanticising the event, where people sit outside under the summer sun late into the day, sharing crayfish, bread, dill and salads under paper lanterns. I therefore jumped at this opportunity to replicate a similar neighbouring concept, as mud crabs are apparently fairly similar to brown crabs, and my city has those in abundance. I cooked the crabs in boiling water flavoured with salt, sugar, beer, lemons and dill. I served the crab with homemade mayonnaise, and, although not pictured, lots of dark rye bread and salad. Crab is one of my favourite flavours: the subtle delicate sweetness of the meat is unique to a select few in the crustacean family, and is always a decadent delight. However, for me, buying and cooking whole crabs is a bittersweet joy, as, inevitably, pain accompanies the process. The first of these pains is financial, as I still haven’t managed to make any fisherman friends who would take me crabbing, despite there being a wide abundance of wild crabs near where I live. Perhaps I should start hanging out at boat ramps? The second of these pains is the pain of cleaning my kitchen, as, no matter how hard I try, the process of cleaning the crabs is messy and smelly. The third pain is literally of the flesh. I am generally a very careful and precise cook and despite cooking so much it is a very rare occasion in which I ever cut or burn myself. However, every time I’ve cleaned crab, I’ve ended up with a horrible festering wound on my hands, inflicted by the very sharp spines on the shell while trying to force the claws open. I was nearing the end of cleaning these crabs and feeling quite smug and self-congratulatory that I hadn’t hurt myself this time, when, of course, I sliced open my right thumb pad. The most inconvenient aspect of this is that now my thumbprint recognition software on my smartphone doesn’t recognise the new mutilated flesh as human, and I have to type in my password every time. Talk about first world problems! Despite my complaints, the crab meat was incredible, and worth all the pain (just…).
Stekt fisk, agurksalat, lefse and vegetables
Stekt fisk, meaning fried fish, is a simple yet classic preparation of white fish, such as cod, coated in a light dusting of flour, seasoned, then panfried in a little oil. Agurksalat means “cucumber salad” and is a preparation of sliced cucumber, vinegar, sugar, peppercorns, salt and parsley. It’s a light and refreshing dish that I wouldn’t have thought would go well with a fish dinner, but is actually a perfect accompaniment to the hot fried flesh. Lefse is the most uniquely Norwegian item on this plate, being a traditional flatbread made with a dough of cooked and mashed potatoes, plain flour, butter and milk. Once the dough is formed, a rolling pin with deep grooves and spikes is traditionally used to roll it into thin sheets, although, lacking a specific lefse rolling pin in my arsenal of kitchen tools, I just used a regular one. The rolled out lefse dough is then cooked on a griddle, and has the advantage of taking a very short time to be ready in the grand scheme of breads. Once cooked, lefse can be eaten with both sweet and savoury toppings, the most common being knobs of butter that the lefse is then rolled around like a cigar, known as “lefse-klenning”. There is a legend floating around that the Norse God Odin served lefse to slain warrior Vikings upon their appearance in Valhalla to nourish them before their final battle. This would have to be a truly divine act, however, given that potatoes didn’t exist in Norway during Viking times… Maybe we should give them the benefit of the doubt and assume it was a different sort of lefse without potatoes?
Fiskesuppe “fish soup”, is a fish stock and milk-based broth containing any fish and seafood handy to the cook, as well as vegetables such as celery, onion, leek, carrots, parsnip, celeriac and potatoes. I used cod and clams for my fiskesuppe, and infused and garnished the soup with bulging handfuls of dill, as is traditional. It is a soup rather than a bisque, which describes a thicker creamy mixture, whereas this recipe should be lighter and relatively thin. This is fortunate, because I think I must have eaten 6 litres of this soup over the week. I made lots on purpose, because I knew in my heart that I would love fiskesuppe. Fortunately, this love of dairy-based fish preparations was belatedly discovered when I began my cooking challenge, and before that I wouldn’t have guessed that I would become so enamoured of the combination. After all, warm fish milk is not the most appetising of descriptions. Although not pictured, I ate my fiskesuppe with dark rye bread, and it kept me very warm in one of the coldest weeks of the Brisbane winter this year (a sunny maximum of 23 degrees Celsius… perhaps I shouldn’t complain?).
Fårikål is widely considered to be the national dish of Norway, although there is a story surrounding this fact that I think is extremely cute in a very typically Scandinavian way. Fårikål was elected to the esteemed position of national dish by popular vote through a radio program back in the 1970s. Apparently the citizens thought the matter forever settled, because when a food and agriculture minister announced a new competition in recent years, scandal and uproar gripped the community, and many called indignantly for her resignation over the insult to fårikål. However, in the end, all was well; the citizens voted and fårikål was confirmed as the correct choice after all. This was likely helped along by the group called Fårikålens Venner (friends of fårikål), who have set their ambitions higher than just Norway, and campaign to have fårikål recognised as the world’s best national dish. A completely unbiased decision, I’m sure! I won’t dare to make any sort of statement about “world’s best” with fearsome organisations such as “friends of fårikål” stalking in the shadows, but I will say that fårikål is certainly one of the most minimalistic national dishes I’ve struck in my culinary adventure. There are five ingredients: lamb or mutton, cabbage, whole black peppercorns, salt and water. The major two ingredients are helpfully described in the name, which means “sheep in cabbage”, and are layered alternately in a pot and cooked without stirring. These components are stewed together for hours until the meat is fall-apart tender, and the flavours have infused the rich broth. Fårikål is traditionally prepared in early autumn, after the annual round up of sheep from grazing in the mountains over summer, and even boasts its own Feast Day on the last Thursday of every September. I really did try to make this dish look beautiful, however, I’m an amateur cook and blogger, not a miracle worker, and there’s only so much that can be done with lighting and filters when you are working with a bowl of brown mush… However, what fårikål lacks in beauty, it makes up for in the sort of warm comforting taste that can only be achieved by slow cooked and simple recipes. I can imagine that, despite the limited ingredients, every Norwegian grandmother has her own secrets that make her fårikål unique and beloved by all of her descendants.