Norwegian Food

Tis the season of friends! As summer draws near and my Fulbright draws to a close, I’ve had more and more friends decide to come visit. At last count, I’m seeing six groups of friends over seven different weekends, so I’ve been trying to catch up on my blog during the week. So far I’ve seen two groups of friends, and it’s been fun talking about Norway and getting a chance to act as a cultural ambassador. Yay for fulfilling Fulbright goals!

Anyways, one recurring question that I’ve been asked is “What is Norwegian food like?” To be frank, I (as well as most people in Norway) rarely dine out, so my familiarity with traditional Norwegian fare is a bit sparse. That being said, I will do my best to tell you what I know.

Pinnekjøtt

One thing to remember about Norway is that it was poor for much of its history.* Because of this, it was necessary for many Norwegians to carefully preserve what food was available. This means that many traditional dishes are things that have been dried and salted. Pinnekjøtt is a traditional Christmas dish composed of salted and dried lamb’s ribs. The ribs are then steamed and served with potatoes and sausages.

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Norwegian Salmon

Norwegian salmon is world famous for good reason. The fish here is absolutely delicious, and is one of the few things you will find at a reasonable price. Norway is one of the world’s biggest fish exporters, and the cold water apparently helps the fish grow more slowly, helping add flavor and structure to the meat.

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Cod (Liver Oil), Tørrfisk, and Lutefisk

Cod is another very popular Norwegian fish. It’s particularly well known around the Lofoten Islands and thousands of cod are still caught and dried in that area.

Tørrfisk, or stock fish, is any sort of salted and dried fish, but it is generally made from cod.

Lutefisk, pictured below, takes tørrfisk a step further since it is tørrfisk in water and lye. Don’t worry though, lutefisk is generally cooked or grilled before being eaten.**

Last but not least, cod liver oil is part of the Norwegian way of life. This general cure all can be found in pretty much every grocery store and Norwegian home.

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Rømmegrøt

A porridge made of sour cream with cinnamon, sugar, and butter added in.

A popular Christmas variation is risengrøt, or rice porridge. Grøt, or porridge, is important around Christmas time because it is left out for the nisse, a type of Christmas elf. Feeding the nisse is supposed to provide farmers with good harvests, and risengrøt is eaten on Christmas Eve. An almond is supposed to be hidden in the mixture, and whoever finds it in their porridge wins a marzipan pig.

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Kjøttkaker

Beef meatballs that are a typical Norwegian dinner. They are usually served with potatoes, peas, gravy, and lingonberry sauce.

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Pølse i lompe

The Norwegian version of a hot dog. It is a very long and skinny hot dog wrapped in a tortilla.

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Brunost

No description of Norwegian food would be complete without brunost, or brown cheese. It is a combination of milk, cream, and whey that is boiled until it caramelizes, giving the cheese a brown color and slightly sweet flavor. People tend to either love or hate it, but it is definitely something worth giving a try. Personally, my favorite way of eating it is to have it with waffles and jam.

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Knekkebrød

Knekkebrød is another Norwegian favorite. I’m even told that Norwegians traveling abroad will take knekkebrød and brown cheese with them, since they know they won’t be able find them outside of the country. Knekkebrød, or crispbread, is a type of very light and dry cracker. It often comes loaded with a bunch of grains and seeds.

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Another important thing to know is that Norwegians have their meals on a very different timeline. In America, it’s common to have three meals a day:

  • Breakfast at around 7 or 8 am
  • Lunch at around 12 or 1 pm
  • Dinner around 6 or 7 pm

Norwegians prefer to have four meals a day:

  • Frokost/breakfast at around 7 am
  • Lunsj/lunch at around 11 am
  • Middag/first dinner at around 4 or 5 pm
  • Kveldsmat/second dinner at around 9 pm

To this day, I still find it strange to stop for lunch at 11 am.

That’s pretty much all that I can offer on Norwegian cuisine. My only other piece of advice is that if you happen to stay in a Norwegian hotel, I would definitely take advantage of the breakfast buffet, universally some of the best breakfasts that I’ve ever encountered. Happy eating and bon appétit!

*The dramatically simplified version of Norway’s history is: Things went downhill after the Vikings until Norway found oil in the late 1960’s.

**Funnily enough Heather, the Roving Scholar from Minnesota, was visiting one of my classes and asked them if there were any special foods she should try while she was in Norway. One of my students jokingly told her to give lutefisk a try, and, to everyone’s surprise, Heather told the class that she had already tried lutefisk. According to Heather, the large Norwegian-American community in Minnesota is pretty devoted to making traditional Norwegian food. She went on to say that people even have “I Love Lutefisk” t-shirts. Ironically enough, neither Heather nor I has met a single Norwegian who actually likes lutefisk.

Oil and Alternative Energy

Oil is something that is very salient in the minds of Norwegians, and it is oftentimes something that can literally dominate the Norwegian landscape.* I’ve seen more than my fair share of Statoil offices. 

Yet Norway has a convoluted relationship with oil. This makes sense when you consider that Norway is one of the countries at the forefront of encouraging environmental change; yet it is a country that has nearly a fifth of its gross domestic product (GDP) based on the offshore oil and gas industry. Oil is the resource that propelled this once cash strapped nation into spectacular wealth. A fact that Norwegians are acutely aware of. 

Oil was originally discovered in Norway in 1969, and the government has taken great care to manage this resource and the resulting wealth ever since. Norway’s oil wealth was originally used to develop Norway’s poor infrastructure and was then used to pay off the country’s debt. Once this was completed in 1995, the Norwegian Petroleum Fund was established. The fund was created to invest in the wellbeing of future Norwegians and to help support the country’s aging population. Considering the objective of the fund, its name was later changed to the Government Pension Fund. 

The fund itself has its own fascinating restrictions. Fund managers are only allowed to invest the fund in businesses outside of Norway in order to safeguard the local economy. Furthermore, funds can only be invested in ethical companies and countries. For example, companies that have a poor environmental track record or countries that have human rights violations cannot be invested in. A portion of Norway’s annual budget can come from the Government Pension Fund, but this portion caps out at a measly four percent. Granted four percent of a $845 billion is still pretty sizable (Reuters).  

The fund is one of the things that very clearly demonstrates the long term view that Norwegians have adopted towards oil. Aware that their oil supply is finite, Norwegians are stockpiling their wealth in preparation for the day when their oil runs out. In the meantime, they have adopted a responsible approach towards trying to create a more responsible and ethical world, even as they harm the environment through the oil industry. Everyone is aware of the irony.

Outside of oil, Norway is committed to combating climate change. In 2007, Norway pledged to become carbon neutral and have zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Although Norway has fallen in Yale’s Environmental Performance Index,** it is still doing quite well and was ranked 10 out of 178 countries in the 2014 rankings (the United States was 33 in case you were wondering). Almost none of Norway’s energy comes from fossil fuels. An impressive 56% comes from renewable energy sources and about 99% of its total power production is hydroelectric (intpow). Norway has even figured out how to burn trash to create energy (BBC).

Working at NTNU this past semester has also shown me that a significant percentage of my generation is dedicated to working in alternative energy. In my course, Academic Writing and Communication for Engineers, a significant number of my approximately 110 person class was writing their engineering theses on alternative energy. In their weekly writing, many of them would write about the importance of finding an alternative to oil. Most of these engineers were focused on hydropower or wind power, but there were also a few working on solar power. Even my students who were planning on going into the oil industry spent some time writing about reducing the environmental impact of oil.

So while Norway is committed to weaning itself off of oil, it is definitely still a process. The recent fall in oil prices has left its mark on Norway, and an estimated 40,000 jobs are on the chopping block as many oil companies cut back their operations and shut down projects (Bloomberg). The road ahead may be rocky, from what I can see, it looks like Norway is doing a great job of trying to navigate it.

*Random aside: I would say that an industry equally important to the Norwegian psyche would probably be fishing, specifically cod. I cannot emphasize enough the Norwegian obsession with cod. Cod liver oil is the equivalent of the Norwegian fountain of youth and considered a cure all for basically everything. Many Norwegians have a tablespoon of cod liver oil every day, and it’s not uncommon to see or hear the phrase “In Cod We Trust” (as opposed to “In God We Trust”).

**At this point even my competitive Harvard spirit admits that Fale manages to get things right every once in a blue moon.

Lofoten Islands: Å, Ramberg, Flakstad

Sleep, a shower, and breakfast helped Alix and I start to feel somewhat more human Tuesday morning. We were also excited to finally have a quick look around Nusfjord. Nusfjord is one of Norway’s best preserved fishing villages and it used to cost you 30 kroner just to walk around. According to Lonely Planet, many artists believe that the town captures the essence of the Lofoten Islands (pronounced Lu-fu-ten).

As far as Alix and I could tell, we were the only tourists staying in town. The main tourist season is in the summer, so coming in October meant that we pretty much had the place to ourselves. We had opted to stay in a rorbu, or a traditional fishing cottage. Rorbuer (the plural form of rorbu) are often renovated for tourists and come with their own kitchens and sea views. Alix and I were pretty big fans of ours. The beds were fine, the kitchen was sufficiently stocked, and the view was good (more pictures of the view later).

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Because Alix and I had had such a scattered amount of sleep, we decided to take the rest of the day at a slower pace. We hit the road for about an hour to get to the city of Å (pronounced Oh). Of course it just so happened that along the way everything we passed was breathtaking.

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Norway in its infinite wisdom decided to create roads called National Tourist Roads, in other words roads that are particularly scenic and geared specifically towards tourists. It just so happens that the main road through Lofoten, the E10, happens to be a National Tourist Road. This means that what was technically a 40 minute drive turned into an hour long drive since Alix and I kept pulling the car over to take pictures. We did eventually make it to Å though.

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Å used to be a fishing powerhouse, and until World War II was drying more than 700,000 cod a year. Cod is king on the Lofoten Islands and cod has been one of the biggest industries in Lofoten for decades. Even now, the Islands have an annual catch of around 50,000 tons. Little of the cod goes to waste. The cod is dried to make stockfish, cod tongue is eaten as a local delicacy, roe is salted, cod heads are sold to Nigeria where they are used in a local dish, and cod liver is used to make cod liver oil. Å used to process so much cod that a fishy smell was pervasive year round. The local attitude towards this was to simply say “you can smell the money.”

Cod is also a major player in local politics. According to Lonely Planet, in some northern Norwegian districts up to 90% of the population voted against joining the EU. Membership in the EU would grant other EU countries, specifically Spain, access to Norway’s inshore waters, thus allowing them to compete with local fishermen.

We spent most of our time in Å walking around the town and the Norsk Fiskeværsmuseum (Norwegian Fishing Village Museum). The museum was fairly low tech and Alix and I read sporadically from a paper guide that we were given. While we didn’t find the museum particularly informative (which to be fair was partially on us) we did enjoy walking around and seeing the dried fish, ship models, and cod liver oil vats.

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After the museum, we walked towards the edge of the city and the seashore. Apparently the area around Å has some of the world’s most dangerous waters due to the whirlpools that form with the tides. We were hoping to catch a glimpse of the whirlpools and instead saw placid waters. Oh well, we still had a nice time admiring the view. Afterwards, we piled into the car and prepared to slowly drive back to Nusfjord.

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On our way back we stopped by Ramberg and Flakstad. Alix and I had to stop by Ramberg for its grocery store, but we were also excited to stop since it gave us the opportunity to check out Ramberg’s much more famous landmark: its beach. Yes, Ramberg and Flakstad have actual sandy beaches. It’s as if you were miraculously transported to California–at least until you get outside and realize that going on the beach requires several layers of clothing, a hat, and wool gloves.

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It was an absolutely amazing day.