For many people, the phrase "Scandinavian food" probably doesn't bring much to mind beyond the Ikea food court. For those who do have a connection with these Northern European countries, the mental image is probably smothered in gravy with a side of potatoes. But if you're coming to Copenhagen's noma restaurant expecting the same old meatballs and pickled fish, think again.
New Nordic cuisine has been catching the attention of foodies around the globe for a couple of years now, thanks in no small part to noma and other pioneering Scandinavian restaurants that are making over an old-fashioned and, some would say, outdated cuisine.
This is not "new" as in "revisited." This is "new" as in "new." Sure, there's still room for traditional whole grain rye bread, roast pork with crackling skin and strawberry porridge — if it's organic. But New Nordic cuisine is so much more.
New Nordic "is a mentality right now. It's a mentality of discovery. It's a mentality of sort of scientific and creative exploration," says Ben Reade, head of culinary research and development at the Nordic Food Lab, the place where a lot of this exploration of new and old food sources and preservation techniques is happening.
On a houseboat parked right outside of noma (though independent), a handful of young, energetic cooks and academics spend their days experimenting with things like seaweed, pine needles, lichens and insects. Their only directive? To share their findings with anyone who's interested.
As his colleagues taste-test mealworms and make vinegar from rosehips, anthropologist Mark Emil Hermanson gets to think about how food contributes to a region's identity and what delineates the edible from the inedible.
"We've decided that the line is deliciousness itself," he says, sucking down a dropper of fermented grasshopper garum. (It is, truly, delicious. Like soy sauce with oomph.)
All this experimentation stems from the fact that New Nordic is a movement driven by a manifesto — literally — of local and healthy. And local is tricky when the growing season might last only from June to August. Under these parameters, the ocean takes on added importance, as do wild game, root vegetables and cold-climate berries.
The result is light, salty, sour, and full of fish. It's also quite playful. At the summer Olympics, noma's chef Rene Redzepi caused a stir by serving live, lemongrass-flavored ants at his London pop-up. When asked about what's notable in his kitchen these days, Redzepi mentions a "yeast fudge."
"It looks totally weird. It actually looks like a slice of bread," he explains. "It's a new thing that incorporates not only lots of good flavors, but also humor and surprise."
Redzepi says 10 years ago, his greatest challenge was in sourcing. Back then, humble Scandinavians weren't used to looking out the window for high-quality ingredients. For example, he says, not so long ago sea urchins were imported from France ... until Danes discovered they were plentiful in their own waters.
It's an indicator of just how things stood 15 years ago when fine dining in Copenhagen meant going out for French or Italian. Now, says David Johansen, head chef at Copenhagen's Kokkeriet, also on the vanguard of the new Nordic movement, "it's total opposite. It's almost impossible to get a French meal in Copenhagen. We have maybe four or five places. Whereas all the kitchens are based on the Nordic."
But you don't have to live in Copenhagen or Scandinavia to take part in the New Nordic craze. Redzepi says the lessons here are transferable.
"If there is a message that comes through this, it's that right now cooking is happening in a part of the world where the history of cooking is poor, the weather conditions are extreme...everything talks against it, so to speak," he says. "(But) it's happening. And that's the message: that good food can happen anywhere."
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Now, turning to a completely different story. If lingonberries in reindeer blood or white asparagus with poached egg yolk and woodruff sauce sound appealing, you can thank the acclaimed Copenhagen restaurant called Noma. It's widely considered to be one of the best restaurants in the world, at the cutting edge of what's called new Nordic cuisine.
And reporter Sidsel Overgaard went to the Copenhagen Cooking Festival to find out how a region better known for pickled herring and meatballs became an epicurean destination.
SIDSEL OVERGAARD, BYLINE: To me, Scandinavia has always tasted like meatballs, potatoes, pickled red cabbage, hot dogs and butter, lots of butter. Here at the old Carlsberg brewery where some of Denmark and Sweden's top restaurants are handing out samples, there are hints of those things, but this is not Grandma's kitchen.
DAVID JOHANSEN: My name is David Johansen. I'm the head chef at Kokkeriet in Copenhagen, a one-star Michelin restaurant. This is a classic Danish traditional dish called braendende kaerlighed, means, like, burning love.
OVERGAARD: Burning Love. In my grandmother's kitchen, this would have been a heavy pile of mashed potatoes smothered in bacon, onions and pickled beets.
JOHANSEN: It's caramelized onion and pickled onion. On top of that, a potato compote with rapeseed oil and buttermilk, a crumble of potato peelings and almonds and a bit of malt.
OVERGAARD: And he tops this dainty dish with a foamy, fuchsia-colored chiffon made of pickled beet juice. Copenhagen resident Susana Mostrand(ph) has just visited a different booth where the arctic pizza comes topped with salmon, potatoes, smoked cheese and cress and explains why, for her, this is quintessential New Nordic.
SUSANA MOSTRAND: There was all these sort of components to the dish that made it very sort of like tasting, taking a bite out of Denmark, you know?
MOSTRAND: It had both the sea and the fields and the herbs and the green and then the dairy products with the cows and everything.
OVERGAARD: If she sounds a little giddy, it's because until recently, Scandinavians haven't had much to crow about in the upscale kitchen. That started to change in the late '90s and reached a tipping point in 2004 when a group of chefs drafted the manifesto of the New Nordic kitchen which can be summarized as: keep it local, keep it healthy.
You might think adhering to a locavore philosophy in such a cold climate would be daunting. No black pepper, no citrus, no vanilla. But it's almost as if these days, Scandinavians are opening the curtains and looking outside for the first time. And maybe it would be a challenge if they weren't so delighted by what they were finding.
Nowhere is that creative energy more apparent than on this houseboat docked in a nearby part of the city. The Nordic Food Lab is a culinary playground with a mandate to explore local ingredients and share the results with anyone who's interested. It's staffed by a handful of young cooks and academics who spend their days experimenting with things like seaweed, pine needles, lichen and even mealworms. Mark Emil Hermansen is the anthropologist here.
MARK EMIL HERMANSEN: These are two boxes, and one of them is - says verbena, and the other one says pine. And basically, what we did is we took mealworms, and then we fed them different things because we wanted to find out about these insects, how they would taste, because mealworms don't taste very well. So then they - we dried them and tasted them, and it turns out, it didn't make a difference.
OVERGAARD: A more successful experiment resulted in a tasty garum, a kind of ancient fish sauce but made of grasshoppers. New Nordic is sometimes talked about as a looking back. But here, as cooks test the boundaries of what's edible, they are just as happy to make use of a high-tech centrifuge as a traditional wooden vinegar barrel. Head of research and development Ben Reade.
BEN READE: It's a mentality right now. It's a mentality of discovery. It's a mentality of sort of scientific and creative exploration.
OVERGAARD: But if you're still a little confused about what New Nordic actually tastes like, you're in good company.
RENE REDZEPI: The ultimate big challenge that we are nowhere near the goal line with is what is the flavor, then, of this region?
OVERGAARD: Noma's head chef, Rene Redzepi.
REDZEPI: How do you define that? How do you even talk about it? And we're nowhere near the end. And hopefully, we will never actually get to the end because the process is what's interesting, not the end results, so to speak.
OVERGAARD: But Redzepi assures me my grandmother's meatballs are in there somewhere. For NPR, I'm Sidsel Overgaard, Copenhagen.
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RAZ: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.