By Larry Levine –
It’s done. I’ve eaten Danish pastry in Denmark and Swedish meatballs in Sweden, two of the three goals I announced before we left on our recent 16-day Norwegian cruise. The third goal, authentic Norwegian food in Norway, well, that didn’t go so well.
It’s a thing I do. I look for the oldest restaurants in the places to which we travel and I seek out the local cuisine.
As a result, I’ve eaten haggis in Scotland and full English fry ups in England. I’ve had Irish stew in Ireland, where it’s known by its local name – lamb stew. I’ve had crepes and croissants, and escargot in France. Cornish pasties in Cornwall, tortellini en brodo in Bologna, clotted cream in Devon, pollo con mole in Mexico, lobster in Maine, soft shell crabs at Chesapeake Bay, reindeer hot dogs in Alaska, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs at Coney Island, Tyler Texas bar-b-que in Tyler Texas, North Carolina bar-b-que in North Carolina, Philly cheese steaks in Philadelphia, Chicago Dogs in Chicago, at least 19 different varieties of oysters in Seattle, and lau lau at a lau lau truck on Kawaii.
But my quest for Norwegian food in Norway brought me face-to-face with a harsh reality: we are homogenizing the character out of the world’s cuisine. At restaurants in 13 ports in Norway I could get all the pizza and hamburgers I might want. I could get tacos, spaghetti, and French fries. Hot dogs? No problem. Just not reindeer hot dogs. In one city I had what was billed as a “traditional” Norwegian open-faced sandwich. It turned out to be diced crayfish and lettuce in a mayonnaise sauce on a single slice of bread.
I’m not sure what I expected of Norwegian food. Fish, of course. But what kind of fish and what kind of preparation. And what else. I ate herring in vinegar sauce, herring in tomato sauce, herring in mustard sauce, fish balls, and cold-smoked salmon, all at the breakfast buffet on the ship. Cold-smoked salmon doesn’t even count because it’s served as a substitute for lox everywhere in Europe. But nowhere on shore could I find even one single restaurant with a menu that offered legitimate indigenous Norwegian food. On an excursion to visit the Sami people I did get to sample reindeer soup. The Sami live in the northern reaches of Norway, Sweden and Finland, an area once known as Lapland.
A computer search informed that authentic Norwegian food trends toward stew-type dishes. The national dish is farikal, a stew made with mutton and cabbage. There’s a stew made with a sheep’s head that’s called Smalahove, a soup made with mutton, cabbage and potatoes, whale steak (they haven’t banned whaling), and dried cod fish. Doesn’t matter. I couldn’t find any of it.
I speculated: these are things Norwegians cook at home, but when they go out to eat they might want something else. Thus all that fast food fare. Or could it be these restaurants in cruise ship ports cater to cruise ship passengers who may want a break from cruise ship buffet food and have an itch for things they get at home. (Our small ship had mostly a mix of Americans, Australians, and British.)
After our cruise ended with failure on the Norwegian food front, we moved on to Copenhagen Denmark and a side visit to Malmo Sweden, where my other goals became achievable.
The Danish pastry goal took no effort on our part. There was a basket of them in the lobby of our hotel in Copenhagen, free for the taking. I wanted a cheese Danish. That’s what I grew up on at Jewish delis in New York and Los Angeles. Most of those in the lobby basket had strawberry or raspberry jam fillings. I took one that looked like cheese and found it was custard. Later, a tour guide told us there’s no such thing as a cheese Danish in Denmark. I checked him out on Wikipedia and apparently he’s correct. Cheese Danish appears to be an invention of Jewish delicatessens in the U.S. But my stated goal was Danish pastry in Denmark and that I had. They were wonderful. After eating a few, Jennifer said she won’t order a Danish anywhere else ever again. We’ll see how long that lasts.
Swedish meatballs took a bit more effort. While we were enjoying the old section of Malmo, our tour guide consulted several sources and decided a restaurant called Bullen was the place to go. How right he was. We got a table outdoors and everywhere I looked there were plates of meatballs.
I had excellent meatballs at the late, great Swedish-themed Scandia restaurant on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. I even have their recipe, but they’re different from the ones in Malmo, where the meat was exclusively veal. At Scandia it was veal, pork and beef, more like an Italian polpetti with different seasonings. I’ve had nice cocktail meatballs at scores of banquets and parties. And lots of people tell me the Swedish meatbolls sold at Ikea are very good. But that isn’t the same as having them in Sweden.
At Bullen, I told the waitress I came all the way from California to have Swedish meatballs. She laughed and brought a plate with five hefty-size meatballs in a lovely brown whiskey cream sauce. Accompanying them was a portion of lingonberries, some thin-sliced pickled cucumbers and a bowl of mashed potatoes swimming in butter. I gave the potatoes to Jennifer and I attacked the meatballs.
First taste produced a deep, appreciative swoon. But I had tasted the meatball without any of the accompaniments. We enlisted the guidance of the Danish man at the next table, who also was lunching on meatballs. He told me to put a piece of meatball on a fork, spoon some lingonberries onto the back of the fork British style, lay on a slice of cucumber and go for it. I polished off three of the five meatballs that way while Jennifer knocked off the mashed potatoes.
Not bad. I went on a quest for Norwegian food, Danish pastry, and Swedish meatballs. Two out of three ain’t bad. Good enough to sustain me in the face of saddening evidence that American fast food (read junk food) is taking over the world.
It wasn’t a shock. We saw a Tony Roma rib joint in London as long as 30 years ago. We found a KFC in the heart of Copenhagen this month. Across the street was a Burger King. The longest lines waiting outside a building in Rome or Paris probably will be at McDonalds.
As for me, I’ll continue looking for the oldest restaurant in any city I visit. If it’s 100 years old or older, I’ll probably eat there. And I’ll comb the growing forest of fast food joints to seek out iconic local foods of those places.