Pickled fish, bitter greens and sour fruits typically test, rather than tantalize, the taste buds.
These and other foods foraged by the Vikings and recently reinvented as New Nordic Cuisine have put Scandinavia on the gourmet’s map. Consumption of more seafood and less meat, along with in-season, locally grown produce is putting the Nordic diet on the health-conscious eater’s radar. “There is good research on it,” says Terese Scollard, regional nutrition manager for Providence Health & Services. “There are nice recipes. It makes sense.”
“The cool thing about the Nordic diet is they’re eating the smaller fish.” —nutritional therapy practitioner Tina Bango
Sharing some key elements, the Mediterranean and Nordic diets both are touted for reducing the risk of heart disease. Each emphasizing plant-based foods, the diets incorporate moderate amounts of fish, eggs and heart-healthy oils with small amounts of dairy.
Regardless of the region, traditional meals of fresh ingredients grown and raised nearby are proven sustenance for a healthy population — and planet. “I think culture is extremely important in nutrition,” says Scollard, a registered and licensed dietitian.
The Scandinavian fishing culture expands the average American’s view of obtaining omega-3 fatty acids, which aid cardiovascular and neurologic functions. Besides salmon, such species as mackerel, herring and sardines are among the highest sources of omega-3 and come with lower economic and environmental costs compared with larger fish. “The cool thing about the Nordic diet is they’re eating the smaller fish,” says Tina Bango, a registered nurse and licensed nutritional therapy practitioner in Grants Pass.
For all their attributes, however, small fish suffer an image problem. Often crammed into cans, sometimes brined, smoke or fermented, preserved fishes’ appearance and aroma can suggest pet food — or bait — instead of tasty tidbits.
The convenience of canned fish makes for a wholesome, grab-and-go snack, but many of Bango’s clients turn up their noses at the suggestion. “For some people, it’s a stretch to get them to eat canned salmon,” says Bango, who owns N Health. “It’s foreign to them.”
Just as obscure to many Americans are greens, apart from lettuce, and root vegetables beyond carrots and potatoes. Salads of seaweeds and bitter herbs are strong on iron and the variety of vitamins.
Sweet beets have received a warmer welcome, particularly in restaurants, in recent years. But many other roots that thrive in northern climates, including Scandinavia, still get the cold shoulder. “Most people don’t even know what a parsnip or turnip is,” says Bango.
Yet it’s these mineral-rich vegetables, which keep well all winter, in concert with fiber-filled whole grains — notably rye, barley and oats — along with legumes that constitute much of the Nordic diet’s calories. In lieu of the Mediterranean diet’s ubiquitous olive oil, canola oil furnishes heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. “Canola oil has a lot of healthy components,” says Scollard, adding that the oil also known as rapeseed boasts some essential fatty acids lacking in olive oil.
The omission of olive oil is notable in New Nordic Cuisine, whose founders pledged a dozen years ago to prepare ingredients endemic to their frigid countries. The philosophy prompted chefs to not only forage for plants growing wild but to raise the profile of all forms of produce. By default, the diet downplays meat and upholds widespread beliefs about healthful eating.
Recently spreading across the Atlantic, New Nordic dishes populate the Great Northern Food Hall in New York’s Grand Central Terminal. Despite Scandinavian versions of pastries and hot dogs, vegetables are prominent in the food hall’s five pavilions, which opened in June.
Cauliflower-topped rye flatbread, open-face onion sandwiches and beet-horseradish smoothies are Food Hall mainstays, not vegetarian variations on mainstream meals. Restaurant-industry experts, however, have expressed skepticism that Scandinavia’s subtle flavors can compel customers in the market for fast-casual fare. “Their taste buds are so turned off,” says Bango.
The Nordic diet, Bango and Scollard say, likely resonates more in the Pacific Northwest, where native foodstuffs and regional specialties echo such Scandinavian staples as salmon, berries, mushrooms and dairy. Even as superfoods grab all the headlines, says Scollard, the least glamorous foods are the most redeeming. “We are the breadbasket for lentils and beans,” she says, referring to the Palouse area of eastern Washington, known for its high-quality legumes. “We have lots of interesting grains.”
Abundant farmers markets also bring the Pacific Northwest’s bounty of produce directly to shoppers. The tenets of eating fresh, in-season, locally produced foods, which are gaining ground in the United States, are more ingrained in Europe, says Bango. “I would keep it seasonal.”
Keeping to sprouted grains and fermented preparations of breads and dairy also unlock nutrients in those foods and make them more digestible, says Bango. Prime examples are Scandinavia’s celebrated sourdough and cultured dairy products, as well as the wealth of sauerkrauts consumed throughout northern Europe. A “gateway” food, sauerkraut encourages enjoyment of other distinctive dishes teeming with beneficial bacteria, says Bango. “It takes time, but the taste buds do come around.”