The Danish have a word that describes the warm comfort you feel when surrounded by friends and family.
“Hygge”—pronounced “hooga”—encapsulates the Nordic spirit of overcoming the brutal winter by sharing warmth with others.
“It doesn’t have a direct English translation. It’s this idea of comfort and coziness that’s predicated on being with people, not the kind of curling in bed by yourself or with your cat,” explained food writer Darra Goldstein.
Goldstein is the author of the recently published cookbook, “Fire and Ice: Classic Nordic Cooking,” and has traveled extensively throughout the Nordic region, absorbing the culinary cultures of Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Sweden.
Here in New York, we’ve yet to experience winter, with an uncharacteristically warm December. But inevitably, the days ahead will grow colder.
When it comes to surviving the harsh cold, the Nordic and Scandinavian cultures know best. During the depths of the season, some places go several months without seeing the sun rise. Thus they’ve developed a rich tradition of cooking and enjoying hearty, nourishing food together with those they cherish most.
Interest in Nordic cooking has exploded in recent years; in the world of fine dining, the success of restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark (ranked as the world’s No. 1 restaurant several years in a row) sparked a movement in new Nordic cuisine. These restaurants employ traditional Nordic cooking principles, like gathering the freshest seasonal ingredients from the surrounding land and sea, to create inventive, intensely flavorful dishes.
In New York, too, Nordic chefs bring their dedication to local ingredients and old techniques. Chef Morten Sohlberg of Blenheim and Smorgas Chef, runs an upstate farm that supplies the produce for his restaurants, while chef Daniel Burns at the Michelin-starred Luksus at Torst, uses traditional preservation techniques to cure local East Coast seafood.
So what dishes do Nordic people feast on when they celebrate? Seasonality lies at the center of Nordic cooking. “In Nordic countries, it’s something that’s built into the rhythm of life. Because the climate is so cold there, they have to gather and grow foods during the brief growing season, then preserve it for winter,” Goldstein said.
The Nordic cuisine makes the most out of what the land and surrounding seas have to offer through different kinds of curing—pickling, brining, and fermenting. The “1-2-3 solution” is often used to pickle everything from herring to cucumbers: one part distilled vinegar, two parts sugar, and three parts water. The result is a sweet and sour taste that is characteristic of many Nordic dishes, Goldstein said.
Foraging is also an important element of Nordic cuisine. In the summer, many locals search in the wild for berries, mushrooms, and herbs, sourcing cooking ingredients right from their backyards, said Goldstein.
Berries foraged in the short summer—cloudberries, lingonberries, blueberries—are cooked with sugar to make jams, then stored for consumption through the winter. The classic dish of Swedish meatballs, often served at the Christmas dinner, must include a side of lingonberry preserves to add a touch of tart sweetness. In Norway, a traditional Christmas dessert is multekrem, slightly sweetened cloudberries stirred with whipped cream.
Several of the Nordic countries allow for “all man’s rights,” whereby people are free to explore any forest or field across the country. “It’s the sense that the natural world is there for everyone to enjoy. It’s a really beautiful thing and I think it does help people connect [to the land], and to see the intensity of the seasonal changes,” said Goldstein.
Seafood was historically an essential part of the diet, as the protein, vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids provided nutrients in a climate where few vegetables were available. From Goldstein’s cookbook, she recommends an easy-to-make wintry dish that represents quintessential Nordic flavors: mussels with horseradish cream, which are steamed in aquavit, a Nordic spirit flavored with caraway (if you can’t find aquavit, you can substitute vodka.)
Finally, warm spices like cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, ginger, and saffron are used to bake many traditional pastries like ginger snaps and the saffron buns eaten on St. Lucia’s Day, a festival of light celebrated on Dec. 13 every year. Their golden-yellow color brightens the dinner table.
In the Nordic region, the Christmas holiday is a grand celebration that lasts over a week. Everything slows down, as people spend more time indoors with family. During a time of extreme cold and darkness, “all that family, partying, and eating brought some energy back to the people,” said Morten Sohlberg, chef-owner of Blenheim and the Smorgas Chef restaurants, which serve seasonal American and Nordic cuisines, respectively.
Sohlberg recalls how when he was a child, his family would gather in their house outside Oslo, Norway, for the big Christmas dinner (celebrated on Dec. 24) prepared by his father. His task was to go down to the basement and grab the ingredients. “I really didn’t want to go down there, because there would be an entire carcass of a moose, hanging from the ceiling on chains, that was aging because it would be part of the Christmas meal. But to have a skinned whole moose, it really looks like a scene out of a Freddy Krueger movie,” he said.
Aside from the moose, Sohlberg said that a distinctive feature of the holiday meal is that many of the dishes are simmered or slow-cooked for a long time, “with a little more fat, very flavorful, [and] a lot of sweetness to some of the dishes, like lingonberries on the meat. That’s what appeals to me. They have all these qualities that enable you to survive a long, cold, and dark winter,” he said.
Some of Sohlberg’s favorites are dishes served as part of the Swedish Christmas smorgasbord, a buffet-style meal. The Christmas meal, known as the julbord, features an enormous spread of cheeses, cured fish, pates, and richly indulgent dishes like pork belly (with a crackling rind) and Jansson’s Temptation, a potato casserole cooked with heavy cream and Swedish sprats that have been cured with sugar, salt, and spices.
And of course, everything is washed down with glogg, a mulled wine that is mixed with spices and sugar. “You wake up a little bit, and you feel happy in the dark season,” Sohlberg said.
For a Nordic-influenced holiday dinner, try this recipe for a classic Danish Christmas dish, roast duck with apples and prunes.
Click here for a recipe to make Tosca cake, a popular Swedish treat.
And click here to find out what New York’s best Nordic chefs say about surviving winter and their favorite winter dishes.