The Essential Scandinavian Palate

Rachel Tepper Paley
April 21, 2014

Photo credit: StockFood, illustration credit: Jen Fox

Like all great cuisines, Scandinavian food is wonderfully and wildly varied. It’s associated with five countries—Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden—and dishes run the gamut. There are the peasant foods of necessity, the cafeteria-style fare famously popularized by IKEA, and, of course, the haute “New Nordic” experimentations of ground-breaking restaurants like Noma, which have catapulted Scandinavian food into the global spotlight.

They’re all different, but all draw inspiration from classic Scandinavian ingredients. Understanding them is key to grasping the Scandinavian palate—which might come in handy if ever you decide to throw a Scandinavian dinner party.

Here are 11 must-have flavors for any Scandinavian table.

Juniper. Crushed juniper berries are a popular addition to wild game dishes, like venison. Juniper, which is also the primary ingredient in gin, is prized for its sharp, clear but slightly resinous flavor.

Herring. Fermented Baltic herring is a staple of Swedish cuisine. Pungent and sour, it’s often served on buttered bread with sliced potatoes and onions.

Hard-boiled eggs. Open-faced sandwiches, called smørrebrød,are big in Scandinavia, and they’re often topped with thinly sliced hard-boiled eggs. These slices of toasted pumpernickel slathered with trout pate, radishes, and eggs would fit in at any Scandinavian lunch counter.

Caraway. Crescent-shaped caraway has a complex flavor that’s both peppery and earthy. It’s used to flavor Aquavit, a grain or potato-based spirit that’s been produced in Denmark since roughly 1400.

Nutmeg. Finely grated nutmeg tends finds its way into many a Scandinavian baked good, but it’s also a treat in savory dishes like Swedish meatballs with gravy.

Dill. This aromatic herb is used to flavor everything from soups to cured fish. It also shines in a salad with greens like lovage, tarragon, spinach, and arugula.

Gravlax. Speaking of dill, it’s an essential ingredient in gravlax, a type of cured salmon that’s been around for hundreds of years. Swedish fisherman needed a way to preserve their catch, and did so by burying it in sand soaked with salty ocean water.

Blue cheese. Though we tend not to associate Scandinavia with cheese, the region produces some fine curds. Among them is ädelost, a Swedish blue cheese made from whole cows’ milk. The cheese’s most distinguishing feature is the network of blue-gray veins that run throughout it. Its flavor is sharp, salty, and tangy.

Lingonberries. This list wouldn’t be complete without mention of tart-sweet lingonberries, which in jam or sauce-form accompanies countless Scandinavian classics, like reindeer sirloin or mustard-roasted salmon.