Friday, March 13, 2009

Wining & dining

Norwegian dining has, perhaps not surprisingly, changed radically in the past 150 years. From being a nation that subsisted mainly on herring and porridge, to being a modern, globalised culinary economy, where everything from sushi to pasta to something ridiculously spicy out of the Thai cookbook are all possible staple foods.

Still, Norwegian food culture is not perfect. We’re newcomers to haute cuisine, and people on average spend little time preparing meals. This is probably why Norwegians are the world’s leading consumer of frozen pizza, with the rather cardboardish Pizza Grandiosa being the most popular (it has been suggested, mostly in a joking tone of voice, as the Norwegian national food).

How an ancient Italian peasant food made its way into freezers across Norway is a mystery, but it seems to be there to stay.

Fortunately, this is not universal, and most Norwegians – men and women, young and old - can whip up a good meal when they take the time, and many, many Norwegians take great pride and pleasure in being good cooks.

Local ingredients - international acclaim
A trend in Norwegian cooking in the past twenty years has been a focus on local or traditional ingredients (sometimes organically grown) in non-traditional combinations.

Therefore, Norwegian cooks (both professionals and amateurs) can often be found at their best when making fish and game dishes and it is often dishes like these that help Norwegian chefs win international tournaments.

Bread, bread, dinner and .....bread
Norwegians traditionally eat three to four meals every day: a simple breakfast before work, a lunch break around noon which often consists of open-faced sandwiches in a packed lunch (so-called “ matpakke”) brought from home, a hot meal for dinner around five pm – the only hot meal of the day - and a small late meal which not everyone eats, but which many families with children choose to have because dinner is early.

However, as dining habits are changing radically, many variations of this pattern are appearing, with for instance lunch becoming a warm or at least larger meal, breakfast becoming late and more elaborate, the late meal disappearing altogether, etc.

Traditional Norwegian food

Norwegians often have a charming addiction to the traditional dishes in their culture, but (fortunately, some would say) most of them are only eaten on one specific day of the year, like Christmas or New years. Several of them can be rather difficult for the untrained palate, but they are eaten nonetheless.

Some of the milder examples are raspeballer: Grated, raw potatoes that are mashed together with flour and salt into little balls and boiled; or pinnekjøtt, which is salted meat from dried mutton ribs.

Some examples of the more idiosyncratic dishes are for instance smalahove, which is a sheep’s head that has been burned with a blowtorch, smoked and then boiled. You eat the cheeks, tongue and eyes.

Another such favourite is lutefisk. This is fish that has been soaked in a combination of cold water and caustic soda - a substance mostly used in soap or floorboard treatment - reducing it to a rough, jelly-like consistency. Nobody really knows who developed that stunning display of culinary lateral thinking, but it is still going strong centuries later. It’s very unlikely anyone will make you eat these, but it is all part of the complete Norway experience.

Dining in - dining out
The number of restaurants in Norway is rising, and almost every kind of national food cultures can be found in the cities - from Japanese to Vietnamese to Lebanese to Chinese. The quality of food has generally gone up, while prices have been adjusting towards the wage level as ingredients have become cheaper. Thus, it is now becoming increasingly possible to dine out often on a student budget, especially if you steer clear of the wine list.

Wine and spirits are prohibitively expensive in Norwegian restaurants, and beer can also put quite a dent in your budget. A pint can easily cost between 5 and 7 euros in both clubs and restaurants.

All night long
The cost of alcohol is probably why the Norwegian tradition of the ‘ vorspiel’ has been instituted. Vorspiel, a German word literally translated as ‘foreplay’, is a small party held in a private residence with friends. Here, the people who are going out will warm up with store-bought beer or spirits (which are much more affordable than in clubs) before going out around 11-12 pm, and staying out until the clubs close at around 3.30 am. Then they will go home or for the particularly resilient, there will often be a ‘ nachspiel’ (‘afterplay’).

The nachspiel is an afterparty in which usually just a small group of people wind down (or sometimes wind up) from a big night.

Norwegians drink more coffee than anyone else in the world. In rural Norway, getting invited in for coffee can sometimes seem to be the central form of social interaction. In the last twenty years, a café culture has flourished throughout Norway, and as a result, Norwegians are getting really good at coffee. This is comforting, because at the end of the day, an average Norwegian will drink about five cups of plain black coffee.

During your day at the university you will find that a lot of interesting discussions take place during coffee breaks. You will also get quite familiar with the expression to “go for a coffee”. This means “let’s go and talk over coffee”.

Maybe the rural and urban cultures are not as different as they like to think?

Raspeballer - the only potatoes you need.

Raspeballer - dump the french fries and go for potato dumplings.

Smalahove - not for the fainthearted.

Smalahove - not for the fainthearted. The eyes are considered a delicacy by connoisseurs.

Lutefisk - it's not a lye!

Lutefisk - the king of jellies. And that's not a lye!

PS: The dishes above are mostly for
professionals and/or native Norwegians.
It is perfectly polite to denounce
them and rather go for something
less exotic.


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