Critics might have looked at Danish food with disdain 30 years ago, but now – thanks to Noma and the New Nordic culinary movement – the country’s food scene is seen as one of the best in the world.
“Danish food was a poor farmers’ cuisine in some ways,” says Copenhagen-based chef Rasmus Munk, who has seen cuisine in the country change dramatically in his lifetime.
Ingredients used to be what Munk describes as “down to earth,” with plenty of leeks, potatoes and onions, as well as root vegetables including celeriac, turnips and carrots. Growing up in Jutland, on the mainland of Denmark, Munk found that hearty fare was piled high: “You needed to be full when you left the table – there was a lot of protein.”
And much of that protein, of course, came from Denmark’s famous pork industry, with pork meat and bacon featuring heavily in traditional Danish grub.
These days, New Nordic culinary values – such as using fresh, locally grown, quality produce that’s in season – are now firmly part of Denmark’s culinary DNA. And they’re fundamental to Munk’s Copenhagen restaurant, Alchemist.
There, Munk uses seasonal Danish ingredients such as wild strawberries and Nordic herbs like cicely, but at age 28, he represents a new generation of Danish chefs intent on shaking things up further.
Munk’s 50-course menu at Alchemist encourages diners to think more about the origin of their food, and the state of the world: Danish pork is injected at the table with ‘antibiotics’ (apple sauce) to raise the issue of medicating the food supply, while cod jaw is topped with edible plastic to highlight the amount of waste in our oceans.
With Denmark’s culinary scene becoming ever boundary-pushing, chefs have been revamping old favourites for a new generation, too. In a country where once tinned asparagus would have sufficed in December, New Nordic values are bringing pure, fresh, just-harvested seasonal ingredients to old-school, gut-busting, meat-and-potato-based recipes, while chefs are reinventing their traditional formats and experimenting with different cooking techniques.
“The way Danish cuisine is transforming is quite interesting – it’s focusing more on the ingredients, but also looking at the ingredients in a new way. Potatoes begin to be more than just a poor ingredient – they begin to be a thing,” says Munk. “And it’s become an honour to pick the first beautiful strawberries, with the simplicity of milk and cream.”
Culture Trip asked Munk for his run-down of Denmark’s most traditional dishes.
This Danish meatloaf is made with minced pork, leeks and egg, with bacon strips weaved around it, and it’s served with gravy made from the pork bones. “When you roast it in the oven it comes out like a cake – but with bacon on the top,” says Munk. “There is a famous chef called Thomas Herman, who had a Michelin-star restaurant in Tivoli a few years ago. He was one of the top Danish chefs at the time, and he really made it popular again to do a take on forloren hare,” says Munk. Herman’s version was made with half pork, half lamb, mixed with sweetbreads, nuts and berries, with top-quality bacon and a fine glaze. “It really inspired a lot of Danish chefs to make new takes on forloren hare, and also other Danish dishes because you saw it in a completely different context.”
“We need to mention smørrebrød,” says Munk, “It’s really transforming, and becoming crazier and crazier.” The famous Scandi open sandwich always comes on buttered rye bread, and its two classic toppings in Denmark are pickled herring with salad, and dyrlægens natmad. The latter is typically topped with a layer of pork liver pâté, with salted ham and aspic jelly, topped with raw red onion rings. But today, anything goes. “Restaurant Palægade does egg and shrimp smørrebrød, which is also a very classic one, but the chef does a poached egg instead, then deep-fries it so it’s still liquid inside. They only do it in summertime when white asparagus is around. It’s far from traditional, but they can still call it a smørrebrød because there’s rye bread at the bottom.”
The name of this bacon-based dish translates to “burning love”, and it’s basically mashed potatoes topped with oven-roasted cubes of bacon, caramelised onions and butter. “It’s been around for a long time and it’s eaten in all Danish homes,” says Munk. “The Danish government wanted to promote the Danish pig industry in the rest of the world, so it made these bacon workshops where you could bring your favourite recipes.” Brændende kærlighed was a favourite, and it ended up being promoted as a national dish. These days, Munk says Danish chefs are transforming “burning love” for modern palates, using pork belly instead of bacon, and introducing techniques such as sous-vide.
“This dish has puff pastry at the bottom, kind of like an empty cupcake, then you fill it up with a kind of béchamel sauce with boiled chicken, mixed with white asparagus,” explains Munk. While Danes used to make it year-round at home with supermarket-bought tartlet cups and canned asparagus – plus maybe some carrots, peas and parsley – these days the focus is more on the quality of the ingredients. So, now the vegetables are determined by the seasons, with asparagus reserved for spring and summer, when it’s at its best. “It’s still one of the most popular dishes to eat at home,” adds Munk. “This one is also at all kinds of restaurants, because I think as a chef it’s easy to relate to. And when you raise it to another level, it gets very interesting.”
Brunkål, aka brown cabbage, is a farmers’ dish dating back more than a century (traditionally pig farmers also grew white cabbage in their fields). The bitter cabbage is caramelised in a pan with sugar to sweeten it a little, then put in the oven with pork shanks and a lid on top, for five hours. “You get all of the fat and juice from the pork shanks and it turns into this brown, sweet sauce that’s cooking the cabbage,” says Munk. The sauce is thickened with cornstarch, and it’s served with pickled cucumber. But these days, it’s elevated with different cuts of meat. As Munk explains: “The Danish head chef of Vollmers, a two-star restaurant in Malmö, Sweden, did this terrine of caramelised cabbage, and on top of it he poured this glazing of sauce and had very thin slices of lardo on top. It had the same taste as brown cabbage but it was completely different – a very fine-dining version.”
This article is an updated version of a story originally created by Aliki Seferou.