Danish food might not be everyone's thing, but it does have a certain hearty charm to it. Monika, a British expat living in Copenhagen, shares her insights on traditional Danish food culture.
Moving, dealing with transition and hurdles, and setting up a new lifestyle is a regular procedure for an expat. Once the hair pulling or mundane aspects have been completed, it is time for the exciting part of the move and that is exploring a new cuisine.
Having arrived from the eastern corner of Germany, it was necessary to become accustomed to a few things including the currency. The ease of the Euro was replaced with the Kroner, which baffled me for there were far too many noughts. I had to keep using my currency converter app to gage the actual cost.
There is no denying it, food prices, along with everything else, are high, but the quality of Danish food is good. Danes love to eat and they certainly do not tolerate poor quality food products.
Danish food starts with bread
Bread is the essence of life and a trip to the bakery ( bageren) is a morning constitutional. The two biggest chains are Lagkagehuset or Emmerys. There are many very good local bakeries to pick up rundstykker, meaning round pieces or morning rolls with options such as carrot (gulerodsboller), muesli, or pumpkin seed rolls. These rolls are eaten with lashings of butter for this is the land of Lurpak and often a slice of ‘rubbery cheese’ that tends to come pre-sliced and with a range of strengths and fat content. It is not so often it is from a block of cheese or a diverse European cheese board, unless dining in a hotel restaurant or at a workplace canteen.
Another very popular filling is a different version of the beloved ’Nutella’ that comes in the form of a sliver of chocolate known as chokoladepålæg. This brings with it a humorous incident that captures one’s nativity as an expat. Unaware of its true purpose, I thought it was a take on the well known ’After Eight’ dark chocolate mint filled squares that are common in the UK, but can also be found in Denmark. I served them as after dinner chocolates to accompany coffee much to the entertainment of every Dane at the table!
Also a morning treat are an array of Danish pastries. This includes baker’s bad eye (bagerens dårlige øje), which thankfully looks far more appealing than its name, wienerbrød that may have originated from Austrian bakers located in Denmark in the 1800’s, and kanelsnegle, again named so after its circular swirls of icing. These are a few of the many delicious pastries to try out.
The point to add is that there is no such thing as a loaf of manufactured, stodgy white bread, as is the norm in the UK. Instead, there is a plethora of rye or spelt or wholemeal bread at the bakery, too. Denmark has a feast in store for bread lovers.
Smørrebrød - the traditional Danish lunch
Another speciality is Smørrebrød, which is an open sandwich, typically on rye bread, eaten at 12.00 noon. Another trip to the bakers enlightens one to the fact that there is another chapter to be learnt about the range of rugbrød. The essence of which is the grains and the sour dough used to make this dense, dark, healthy bread.
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Danish signature dishes worth mentioning
Back in the day, Smørrebrød was a simplistic, large canapé topped with cold meats or paté or fish. In more recent times, it has regained popularity, as it has morphed into a much refined offering dressed in a fancy fashion with a range of garnishes and toppings. Typical, delicious selections include:
- liver paté (leverpostej) and bacon
- roast beef with toasted onion, and remoulade (a pickled gherkin and mayonnaise type dressing)
- roasted pork, red cabbage, and remoulade
- egg and prawns with sliced tomato and mayonnaise
- smoked salmon, dill, cucumber, and lumpfish roe
... to mention a few of the mouth watering choices. This is an absolute tradition and if it is part of a celebration then a glass of Aalborg snaps or a more modern version needs to accompany the luncheon with marinated herrings, curry salad (karrysalat), sliced raw onions and hard boiled eggs on smørrebrød
There is not a particular afternoon snack, so the next meal is dinner at 18.00, and just like the Germans, you can set your watch by it!
Dinner in Denmark
Dinner is a hot meal that often consists of meat and potatoes (kartofler). There are a few Danish signature dishes that need to be experienced as an expat. Be warned that nouveau cuisine portions are not an option, so belt loosening is necessary.
One can not underestimate the options offrikadeller, which are pan fried meatballs made with pork mince and other ingredients. Other varieties of meatball can be made from beef (oksekød) or veal mince, and then there is also the freshly made fish frikadeller that is a must eat snack whilst at the harbourside fish shop. Frikadeller are usually eaten with boiled potatoes and brown sauce (brun sovs), which I thought was like British gravy. Again, I was mistaken, for it is a creamy sauce that is consumed in great quantities at any discerning Dane’s dinner table.
Another dish to be sampled is roast pork (flæskesteg) with crackling, usually served with red cabbage, boiled potatoes, and heavy brown sauce. Keeping with the hearty food is the Danish version of sausage and mash, known as ‘Medisterpølse’ which comes with mashed potatoes, parsley, and pickles.
However, fear not, as there are lighter meal options. Being a country surrounded by water, there is a very healthy fishing industry and an excellent selection of freshly caught fish or shellfish available at every labour town or village.
Not to be forgotten is the grilling scene. Every household possesses a grilling machine however small or complex, for it is an institutional norm like the national flag, the Dannebrog, flapping in the back garden. Steak, burgers, chicken, and sausages (grillpølser) are the favourites to be enjoyed by family and friends.
And if ever hunger pangs strike, there is always a ‘pølsevogn’ to serve hotdogs in the local vicinity or a Shawarma kebab shop!
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Popular Danish beverages to wash it all down
And what is a more natural accompaniment to tasty food, but a good drink. Denmark has a serious coffee culture with coffee houses serving every kind of variety and blend on every street corner. Having a coffee and chatting with a friend is a big part of the culture and allows one to ‘slappe af’ crudely pronounced as ‘slapper A’, meaning to relax. At times, the very difficult language evokes a fantastic phrase that captures a sensation or situation!
Coupled with this, is the passion for beer. The two major breweries, incredibly, were located in Copenhagen in the 1800’s. Carlsberg, associated with the very powerful advertising campaign and strapline: ‘Carlsberg, probably the best lager in the world’ was located in Valby, while Tuborg was located in Hellerup, a wealthy area of Copenhagen. Since the 1970’s, Carlsberg bought out Tuborg.
A rivalry continues to exist between the two brands, for Grøn Tuborg is popular through- out Denmark while Carlsberg is more of a Copenhageners’ and international beer. To compliment them, there are stronger versions such as Guld Tuborg and then there are brown beers offerings including Tuborg Classic or from a newer brewery, Royal Classic. To rival this, Carlsberg has Jacobsen, which is a strong, dark beer.
Fortunately, there is not a total monopoly of the market by Carlsberg, for there is a very active micro and client brewery industry.
Brands such Mikkeller and Nørrebro Bryghus exist in Copenhagen as well as a multitude of others across the country. There is always an opportunity to try out a new beer, so it is no wonder the Danes love a drink or two. And, there is nothing is finer than a beer in the sun or at a friend's grill party to create ‘hygge’. This is another classic word in the Danish language to describe having a good time in a cosy environment.
Food and drink in Denmark are definitely at the core life.With so many aspects still to explore as a newbie in town, there is no chance of being at a loss for a new culinary adventure!