Dark bread, cured salmon, foraged mushrooms, and pickled vegetables — you might mistake this for a menu item from one of Philly’s seasonally influenced restaurants. But it’s also what the Vikings ate.
As the Franklin Institute’s massive, six-month-long Vikings exhibit soldiers on (it closes March 3), the museum partnered with WHYY to supplement the display’s 600 historical artifacts with something visitors could digest in a single sitting: a Nordic feast.
That idea led to Jan. 17′s Vikings: Beyond the Feast dinner at the American Swedish Historical Museum. The dinner’s tasting menu features a selection of traditional Nordic dishes prepared by Swedish chef Henrik Ringbom, who currently heads the kitchen at Wallingford’s Pendle Hill retreat center, along with his friend and former Brauhaus Schmitz sous chef Eric Chicaleski.
While Ringbom’s dinner is sold out, it’s far from your only chance to try Nordic cuisine. Defined by ancient (and once-again popular) methods like fermenting, smoking, and foraging, Nordic food has been enjoying a moment for the past several years in the United States and beyond. (Granted, that moment has been less pronounced in Philadelphia than in cities like Chicago and Minneapolis, which have historically large Scandinavian American populations.)
There are several local spots to try salty-sweet cured salmon, open-faced smørrebrød, caraway-laced aquavit, and other staples from the land of the Vikings. Below, we explore some of the hallmark traditions and dishes of Nordic cuisine — and where to find them in Philadelphia.
Cold, dark weather — the kind we’re experiencing now — has a lot to do with Nordic food. Northern Europe’s below-zero temps and short harvest season shaped its cuisine.
“People relied on preserved foods like dried cod to make it through,” Ringbom says. “The fermentation, the smoking, the salting — it all originated in figuring out how to survive the winter, and it remains a huge part of the cuisine today.”
The frigid atmosphere lends itself to substantial fare, too. “There’s an emphasis on root vegetables and heartier foods like stews and sausages and potatoes — boiled potatoes show up at a lot of meals.”
Other staples of Nordic cuisine include:
Fancy your own Nordic feast? You have options.
For classic highlights, head to East Passyunk’s Noord, where chef-owner Joncarl Lachman prepares a few Nordic staples as part of his mostly Dutch-inspired menu.
“We wanted to be an ode to the North Sea and all of the cultures that come together there,” Lachman says.
Noord’s current menu includes a grilled gravlax dish with pickled beets and watermelon rind, and a celery leaf sour cream. The rotating smørrebrød trio piles smoked or cured fish and pickles on house-made rye bread. And for a Dutch-Nordic mash-up, there’s the broodje haring, a Dutch-style sandwich topped with herring, a classic Scandinavian ingredient. Lachman serves it as a slider, with cucumbers, pickled onions, and a potato roll.
Elsewhere, there’s Fairmount’s Bar Hygge, named after the Danish concept hygge (pronounced HOO-gah), which describes the feeling of contentment in enjoying simple things. While its menu doesn’t adhere exclusively to the Danish theme, the brewpub does have a variety of boards — each served with local bread — featuring smoked meat, fish, cheese, and vegetables.
For ultrasophisticated Nordic cuisine, turn to longtime West Philly BYOB Marigold Kitchen. Chef Eric Leveilee uses local, seasonal ingredients and some of the avant-garde culinary techniques that New Nordic cuisine — popularized by the legendary Copenhagen restaurant, noma — is known for. Think toasting hay (to extract its aroma), pureeing fermented rice, and aerating unconventional ingredients to make foam.
One of Leveilee’s current favorites is a take on rømmegrøt, a rich, tangy porridge made with sour cream and whole-wheat flour; to transform it, he lets it solidify, then slices and fries it in blocks before it coating it with shave fenalår (cured leg of lamb) and garnishing it with pickled pumpkin and an almond béchamel.
Marigold offers 10- to 15-course tasting menus Tuesday through Saturday ($100), five- to six-course menus Tuesday through Thursday ($50), and à la carte brunch on Sundays.
Finally, for much more mainstream — and cheap — Nordic fare, head to IKEA. The cafeteria usually offers Swedish meatballs, mashed potatoes, and beet salad at very reasonable prices. And their take-home market sells items like lingonberry preserves, potato fritters, dill-flavored crispbread, and several types of frozen meatballs (beef and pork, salmon, vegetarian). Many of the items can be purchased online, for those not near IKEA’s South Philly or Conshohocken stores.
Of course, you can always bring a little hygge into your own home. Ringbom says the real key to eating like a Nordic native is to frequent farmers' markets and use what’s in season.
Good dark bread is easy to find. In the Northeast and South Philadelphia, Lipkin’s Bakery carries fresh-made pumpernickel and seeded rye. Or choose from many rye breads at Kaplan’s New Model Bakery in Northern Liberties. Lost Bread Co. also makes a beetroot rye; visit its Kensington outlet at 1313 N. Howard St. on weekends, or check with the many shops that carry the bakery’s loaves.
For seafood, Ringbom swears by the fresh cuts and smoked salmon at Samuels & Son. Visit their store at 3400 Lawrence St., near the stadiums in South Philly. (Samuels & Son’s other storefront, Ippolito’s Seafood, closed last year for renovation and doesn’t have a set return date.) Famous 4th Street Deli also carries an excellent selection of smoked fish and deli meats, as do Eastern European markets — Bell’s Market and NetCost — in the Northeast. And to make your own gravlax, see the recipe below.
Serves 5 to 7
- Combine salt, sugar, coriander, white pepper, and minced garlic in a bowl.
- Zest the lemon and finely chop half of the fresh dill. Add the dill and lemon zest into curing mixture and mix well.
- Dry the salmon with paper towels and place it, skin-side down, in a baking dish or pan.
- Heavily coat the top, bottom, and sides of the salmon with the curing mixture.
- Cover the salmon with plastic wrap. Place weight on top of the salmon using, for example, a plate with cans of tomatoes or bags of rice on top.
- Place the salmon in the refrigerator and allow to cure for 24 to 48 hours, flipping and draining any liquid every 12 to 24 hours.
- Remove salmon from the refrigerator, rinse well, and dry.
- Finely chop the rest of the dill and rub over the outside of the salmon.
- Slice the salmon as thin as possible, discarding any blood line or skin.