Do we all live in a New Nordic Food world?

Edith Salminen
Edith Salminen
The Nordic region has gained an overwhelming adoration from the world. But such a culinary cohesion, the idea of the ‘Nordic’, is ironically quite foreign to the people it describes.

Edith Salminen

New Nordic Food (NNF) is proudly expressed on plates at restaurant across the region, but in the privacy of our homes, public institutions and on supermarket shelves its impact is not yet felt nearly as strongly. Before NNF turns into a mere package for export, we should aim to familiarize and include the critical masses to its meaning and outcome. Restaurants and gastrodiplomacy have been paving the way. Now we need to equalize and broaden the distribution by enhancing access to many of these products and the knowledge necessary to prepare them. 

I was enjoying a well-deserved drink with friends after work in my north-Copenhagen neighbourhood. As I sat there sipping my drink and laughing away the stress of the day, I suddenly became aware of the diversity of my company: across from me sat a Swedish chef slapping the back of a Danish café manager and next to him an Icelandic barista about to order another round of Carlsbergs. I myself am a food culture specialist from Finland. What is it that unites us four apart from being in that Nørrebro bar and drinking “probably the best beer in the world”? Our sense of community, some shared Nordicness? Is it the implicit understanding of what our jobs are constructed around – the new Nordic gastronomy? Or that we are all offspring of the now internationally branded food movement started in this very city by two visionaries back in 2004? I was about to interrupt the light chitchat to unpack the issue with my Nordic peers, but I quickly had second thoughts. Talking about it explicitly would have been odd. And my doubt in the moment lead me to more deeply ponder the nature and future of the presumed common Nordic gastronomy.

Food culture and gastronomy function like tasty glue, making people feel attached and alike in spite of other factors that could divide them. Agreeing on what is “our food” and “our eating habits” creates strong unspoken bonds. With the New Nordic Food (NNF) movement turned into an intergovernmental vehicle for gastrodiplomacy, the Nordic region united under one gastronomic banner has gained an impressive reputation and overwhelming adoration from the world, making us Nordics assess the bounty of our homeland in a new light. The Nordic peoples seem to have a lot in common ¬– at least in the eyes of someone looking at us from the outside. Our cuisine and approach is now cool. Abroad the Nordic brand is wanted and we know it. For the insiders, when it comes to (new) Nordic food, the distinctiveness between us seems blurred into a melting pot of fine-dining amalgams composed of lichen, mushrooms, wild herbs and berries, and maybe some light debates on the comparative sweetness and sourness of rye bread.

Food also works to distinguish between groups as much as it holds them together. Most every Nordic country has a type of meatball, for example, and long traditions of salting and smoking fish. But focussing too much on similarities covers up the crucial range of differences. Each of these meatballs is different. And Nordic fish preservation techniques yields many ap-proaches – salting, smoking, wind-curing, burying and more – all of which are adjusted to the local geography and climate. Therefore it comes as no surprise that many of us Nordics often feel a certain unease when grouped under umbrella terms that include five separate countries, an estimated 26 million people and a wide geographical range. The hypernym ’Nordic’ and the countries it comprises reveal fascinating regional and local differences when observed more deeply. These curiosities, the cradle for true and distinctive food culture, become obscured when we only focus on the common Nordic gastronomy. Such a proposed culinary cohesion is not as tangible to us who are actually Nordic as much as it is to others who see us from afar, as one region. Certainly we have shared values and norms, but we have also been brought up light-heartedly making fun of each other and our differences, even when it comes to food. The idea of the “Nordic” is ironically quite foreign to the people it describes.

Over the past four years a myriad of workshops, conferences, lectures and food experiences generated by NNF programme II have pushed us Nordics to further envision the future of NNF. What will Nordic gastronomy be like in 2024, what are the next steps to get us there? A great amount of energy and focus has been placed on improving and enhancing our self-image and self-awareness in building a shared food culture. And some results are stunning. I myself am fascinated to witness us Nordics stepping out from our comfort zones, lifting our heads up in pride, talking high and mighty about what is ours, when our dominant cultural identity opposes such a clear sense of exceptionalism. It’s stimulating to see various food ventures popping up and hear people discuss what to have for dinner while they wait for the traffic light to turn green. Some things have changed. Nevertheless, most Nordic communities still suffer from low gastronomic self-esteem. We’ve been told over and again that many of our wild plants are treasures of flavour and identity, yet many continue to deem the grass greener on the other side: can ‘Nordic’ stand next to our love of Mediterranean cuisine or have we reached the point where we choose to eat sunflower buds over artichokes, lake fish over tuna and berries over bananas? The allure of NNF is proudly expressed on plates at lauded restaurant across the region, but in the privacy of our homes, public institutions and on supermarket shelves its impact is not yet felt nearly as strongly.

Most people living in the region aren’t as ready to take a detour through the forest to find delicious ingredients as are chefs or the “foodies”. Most of us nowadays daily rely on supermarkets, and supermarkets continue to rely on imports. So what about an NNF supermarket? And more importantly, how would the average consumer fill a shopping trolley with such foods? Before we get too carried away with wrapping our regional particularity into a generic package for export, we should also aim for a regional food culture that is based not only our shared values, as the Manifesto suggests, but also on our everyday practices, as regionally diverse and locally particular as they may be. This quest for an authentic food culture in the Nordic region might bite its own tail if the pursuit for a common regional gastronomy generates one that is more or less synthetic, divorced from the actual landscapes and real communities out which it emerges.

As I left my group of Nordic friends that night in Nørrebro I thought about our shared knowledge and common appreciation of the products of the NNF movement. All of us – the Swede, the Dane, the Islander and myself – know we are a lucky bunch thanks to our jobs which grant us access to this knowledge and these products. Yet I wondered: could we obtain them, afford them, and would we know to demand them if we didn’t work so closely with them? All of us four have grown accustomed to use a single celeriac root to create a whole meal and we would most likely revel in an NNF supermarket – but what about our national and regional compatriots? 
I recently travelled to meet a small organic cheese producer in a little town on the south-western coast of Finland. This producer only uses milk of indigenous cow, goat and sheep breeds and her products speak loud and clear of their time and place. I asked my cousin who lives in the same town to join me for the farm visit. He had heard neither of the place nor the producer, even though they were only a 20-minute drive from his home. Needless to say, we need to have more knowledge of our edible surroundings.

NNF has pushed us to take the crucial first steps, but it still has a ways to go. In the past decade restaurants have certainly been paving the way, but now we need to equalize and broaden the distribution of the incredible yet sometimes unfamiliar flavours currently available mainly to only these restaurants. Home cooking has different goals and different means, but we can foster a similar mindset and approach in everyday cooking by enhancing access to many of these products and the knowledge necessary to prepare them. If we are to reach the critical masses – people like my cousin – we have to make sure to not leave them behind and exclude them from what belongs to them as much as to anyone else. “We are what we eat”, but what we eat should also be like us, like Swedes, Danes, Islanders, and Finns. We have succeeded in embracing the diverse ingredients our seemingly hostile climate and geography offer us; now we need to embrace our cultural characteristics connected to food, which are just as crucial when it comes to how food culture grows and develops. NNF has made its way around the world – it is time to bring it back home and make it resemble us again.

In the autumn of 2014, the Nordic Council of Ministers invited a group of leading players from across the Nordic Region to discuss their visions for the future of Nordic food. This essay formed part of this initiative #Nordicfood2024