The Nordic Diet: Healthy Eating with an Environmental Bent

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Herbs and fish can often be found at the Nordic table.
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The cuisine of Nordic countries mirrors its subtle, grounded landscape.
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The typical Nordic meal might include whole-grain bread, meats, fish or other proteins.

Modern Nordic cuisine, or “New Nordic,” is constantly evolving, and is a celebration of modern twists on ancient methods of cooking (from the lands of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden), and of sourcing local ingredients — from foraging to fishing and hunting.

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The flavors are earthy, clean and subtle, often with soft contrasts of sweet and sour. Occasionally, Nordic foods can be a bit of a challenge to the palate, asking us to test our everyday ideas of how flavors work, and to suspend our preconceptions. New Nordic cuisine mirrors its landscape: raw, subtle, grounded, just like the vast treeless plains of Iceland or the rocky outcrops of the many archipelagos scattered around the coasts. The beauty of the region will creep up on you until you truly appreciate its harmony and subtle complexity, just like its cuisine.

Key Ingredients in Nordic Cuisine

Yogurts, creams, butters and cheeses are an intrinsic, everyday part of the Nordic diet. Of particular interest in the dairy category is a range of sour and fermented milks.

Flour is not limited to one variety; the list is long. Buckwheat, rye, whole-wheat and many other flours in a huge array of textures and densities result in a diverse selection of breads.

• With such a large coastline and with many inland waterways, fish and seafood feature highly. The varieties of fish found in the region (mainly oily and/or firm-fleshed) lend themselves well to traditional preservation techniques, such as brining, smoking, pickling and curing. Salmon and herring are the most common, but trout, shrimp and crayfish are also popular.

• Traditional Nordic cooking has always relied heavily on meat components in a dish. This is changing somewhat as New Nordic cooking is shifting its focus to seasonal, local produce. Beef, lamb and pork are still used. Poultry, in comparison to other Western cultures, is less significant, with the exception of wild-caught poultry. With endless forests, lean game meats, such as venison and elk, are popular at home and on restaurant menus.

• As the range of vegetables able to grow this far north is limited, chefs get pretty creative. Cold-climate vegetables used across the region include cabbage, cauliflower, onions, beets, radishes and Swedes (or rutabagas). The potato is ever-present in Nordic cuisine, and is especially beloved by inhabitants of the region when newly harvested around midsummer. The cucumber is king, providing the perfect crisp balance to a slice of salty, sweet or smoky fish, followed closely by red onion, which is often lightly pickled and used as a garnish. There are always herbs on the Nordic table, especially dill.

• When it comes to fruit, Nordic cuisine favors keeping things close to home. This includes apricots, cherries, plums and rhubarb, plus berries, pears and apples in abundance.

• Because olive trees don’t take well to the Nordic landscape, rapeseed (canola) oil is used instead — and butter, of course.

Fruit and malt vinegars replace the balsamic and wine vinegars of classical European cuisine, in addition to a strong pickling vinegar called attiksprit. White pepper tends to be preferred to black. Nordic mustard always contains sugar. The balance of sweet and savory is paramount in Nordic cooking, and sugar in some amount finds its way into many dishes.

• With vigorous, contrasting seasons and long winter months, preserved foods were a necessity in days gone past. Brining, smoking, pickling and curing have left such a mark on the culture that even though they are no longer essential for survival, they are still popular at pretty much every Nordic meal.

What the Diet Delivers

According to highly acclaimed Nordic chef Magnus Nilsson, the quickest way to get a handle on what Nordic food is all about is to enjoy the tradition of Smørrebrød — open-faced sandwiches piled high with butter, cheese and, frequently, eggs, meat, fish and vegetables. Many Scandinavians eat this type of sandwich every day. “An open cheese sandwich speaks of the most fundamental aspects that make up a food culture in the Nordic region,” Nilsson says, “but also demonstrates that a ‘taste chord’ (the harmony that comes from several flavors) can live a very long time if it’s important to people and provides meaning.”

Let’s examine this not-so-healthy-sounding sandwich more closely. Made from high-quality whole grains such as rye, barley and oats, the breads are dense, hearty, naturally fermented and full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, protein, fiber and flavor. The butter and cheeses likely come from sustainably managed cows and sheep who have eaten a natural diet of grasses, yielding dairy that’s chock-full of protein, vitamins, minerals and health-promoting essential fatty acids. Eggs and meats (such as reindeer, venison, pheasant and duck) in Nordic cuisine are generally pasture-raised or wild-caught, and often cured naturally, providing heart-protecting healthy fats. And fish may be one of the primary drivers of nutrition in Nordic food, as cold-water, wild-caught fish such as herring, mackerel and salmon are the world’s richest natural sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Finally, because the Northern climate can only produce fresh food for a short season, vegetables are wild-fermented unless they’re fresh and in season. The lactobacilli in these probiotic pickled foods produces B vitamins and new flavor compounds, and helps improve digestion and immunity. The unique “taste chord” in Nordic food comes from the healthful blend of these fresh and preserved flavors.

Scandinavians also eat plenty of antioxidant-rich berries and fruits, which are linked with a lower risk of heart attack and healthy weight maintenance, and numerous wild mushrooms, as well as beans and legumes.

Scandinavians are passionate about protecting their fields and forests. Managing agriculture sustainably is essential to preserving the health of the soil, which leads directly to healthier plants, animals and people. Besides the inherent quality of the food, focusing on locally produced food — whether you live in Scandinavia or the American South — also reduces energy consumption.

Health Benefits of Nordic Cuisine

If you’ve never heard of the Nordic diet, you might imagine a plate of those Swedish meatballs sold at Ikea. But in fact, the eating style of the Nordic region focuses on healthier fare, including plenty of the plant-based foods that nutritionists always encourage us to eat. And while data is limited so far, several studies suggest following a Nordic eating pattern may foster weight loss and lower blood pressure.

Developed in collaboration with the acclaimed Copenhagen gourmet restaurant NOMA, the modern Nordic diet emphasizes the use of seasonal, healthy, regional foods. It doesn’t necessarily represent how most Scandinavians eat on a daily basis, however.

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