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.

The appetizer trio of smørrebrød at Noord, featuring cherrywood smoked salmon, smoked head-on prawns, smoked diver scallops with red lump fish caviar, boiled potatoes with mustard, and an array of pickled items, including red onion, cucumbers, Amsterdam onions, and caper berries.
Grace Dickinson / STAFF
The appetizer trio of smørrebrød at Noord, featuring cherrywood smoked salmon, smoked head-on prawns, smoked diver scallops with red lump fish caviar, boiled potatoes with mustard, and an array of pickled items, including red onion, cucumbers, Amsterdam onions, and caper berries.

Nordic Cuisine 101

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:

  • Seafood: Nordic countries — that is, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands — have miles and miles of coastline and, as a result, abundant access to seafood. Fish is frequently part of lunch and often dinner, too. In many cases, it’s preserved: Gravlax (or cured salmon), pickled herring, and salted cod are some of the best-known preparations. “Salmon’s very popular nowadays," Ringbom says, "but cod has always been the go-to.” He recommends using it in soup. “Throw it in there with root vegetables, some dill, and some mustard greens and have the huge pot to share when people come over.”
  • Meat: Swedish meatballs may be one of the most famous Nordic exports, but smoked sausages — often served with mashed potatoes and green peas — and other preserved meats are arguably even more common. As for those meatballs, each country has their own take. In Sweden and Norway, cooks usually use a mix of beef and pork. In Denmark, minced pork is the go-to. And in Finland, you might find reindeer meatballs. 
  • Dark bread: Nordic breads are often made from hearty whole grains such as rye, barley, and whole wheat. Rye is often used to create crispbread, a flat and dry cracker essential to any proper Nordic bread basket, according to Ringbom. “I love it for lunch with some sliced cheese, or ham, or with smoked fish.”
  • Foraged food: Northern Europeans make the most of the hardy berries and plants that do grow in their harsh climate. Ringbom remembers picking blueberries and lingonberries in the forests of Sweden and Finland as a child. “There was never a lack of homemade jam,” he says. Items such as wild mushrooms, black and red currants, tart cloudberries, and wild garlic are also popular.
Nordic cuisine characteristically relies on the heavy use of local ingredients, including seasonal and foraged produce, like the lingonberries within the jam pictured here.
Grace Dickinson / STAFF
Nordic cuisine characteristically relies on the heavy use of local ingredients, including seasonal and foraged produce, like the lingonberries within the jam pictured here.
  • Preserved vegetables: When fresh vegetables are in season, Nordic preparations can be very straightforward — Ringbom describes a simple snack of fresh-picked chanterelles sautéed in butter and onions, scattered on dark bread — but more often, produce is pickled or fermented. Preserved items like sauerkraut and pickled beets are eaten year-round.
  • Smørrebrød: These open-faced sandwiches, popular for lunch in Denmark, combine several mainstay ingredients into a single bite. A slice of dark rye is the classic base, and toppings include eggs, smoked fish, cured meat, and/or preserved or fresh vegetables.
The smørrebrød, an open-faced sandwiches, serves as a popular lunch item, particularly within Danish culture. With dark rye as the traditional base, toppings include smoked fish, cured meat, and/or preserved or fresh vegetables.
Grace Dickinson / STAFF
The smørrebrød, an open-faced sandwiches, serves as a popular lunch item, particularly within Danish culture. With dark rye as the traditional base, toppings include smoked fish, cured meat, and/or preserved or fresh vegetables.
  • Smorgasbord: A Swedish concept that migrated to the U.S. long ago, smorgasbord (which translates to sandwich table) originally meant a spread of bread, cheese, and butter. Today, it often includes a buffet’s worth of hot and cold Swedish staples, such as pickled herring, gravlax, egg dishes, cured meats, crispbreads, meatballs, and lingonberry jam.
  • Aquavit: Distilled from grain or potatoes and flavored with caraway and dill, this Scandinavian spirit is often described as rye bread in a bottle. “Aquavit and schnapps are a big part of our culture," Ringbom says. “Especially when we have a midsummer fest, Christmas, or crayfish party, you pour a shot, sing a song, and everyone does the shot together — it’s a lot of fun.”

Finding Nordic Food in Philadelphia

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 Kitchen chef Eric Leveilee uses local, seasonal ingredients and avant-garde culinary techniques to turn out New Nordic dishes, like this take on rømmegrøt, a Norwegian sour cream porridge.
Courtesy Marigold Kitchen
Marigold Kitchen chef Eric Leveilee uses local, seasonal ingredients and avant-garde culinary techniques to turn out New Nordic dishes, like this take on rømmegrøt, a Norwegian sour cream porridge.

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.

DIY Nordic Dinner

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.

Pickled vegetables are easier to find than ever. Brine Street Picklery products are in several area stores. And local markets like Weavers Way (Chestnut Hill, Mount Airy, and Ambler) and Riverwards Produce (Fishtown) offer even more selection.

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.

Once you’ve assembled some staple Nordic ingredients, you can easily make your own smørrebrød or a simple smorgasbord. Serve shots of Rowhouse Spirits' Akvavit — found at the Kensington distillery and in area state stores — for the perfect liquid pairing.

Home-cured salmon is suprisingly easy to make. / RACHEL WISNIEWSKI for the Inquirer
RACHEL WISNIEWSKI / For the Inquirer
Home-cured salmon is suprisingly easy to make. / RACHEL WISNIEWSKI for the Inquirer

“Big Dill” gravlax recipe

Serves 5 to 7

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 pound salmon filet (highest grade available, deboned with skin on)
  • 1½ cups sea salt
  • 1½ cups white sugar
  • 4 tablespoons coriander, lightly crushed
  • 3 teaspoons white pepper
  • 3 teaspoons minced garlic (use minced and smoked garlic, if available)
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 bunch fresh dill

DIRECTIONS

  1. Combine salt, sugar, coriander, white pepper, and minced garlic in a bowl.
  2. Zest the lemon and finely chop half of the fresh dill. Add the dill and lemon zest into curing mixture and mix well.
  3. Dry the salmon with paper towels and place it, skin-side down, in a baking dish or pan.
  4. Heavily coat the top, bottom, and sides of the salmon with the curing mixture.
  5. 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. 
  6. 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.
  7. Remove salmon from the refrigerator, rinse well, and dry.
  8. Finely chop the rest of the dill and rub over the outside of the salmon.
  9. Slice the salmon as thin as possible, discarding any blood line or skin.

— Matthew Cahn of Middle Child