Denmark knows what’s up. The Nordic country has extensive and well-used networks of bike paths, innovative living arrangements (co-housing, anyone?), and impressive architecture and design. The Danish language has introduced lykke to our vocabulary and as a testament to the feeling of happiness the word conveys, Denmark consistently ranks among the top three happiest countries in the world.
At the core of these notions of warmth, compassion, community, and comfort is the importance Danish culture gives not only to its food, but the rituals with which meals are prepared and consumed.
The good news? You don’t have to move to Europe to start adopting the practices of Danish food culture and incorporating them into your daily life. Armed with several cookbooks and the knowledge and experience of my partner’s mother, Diane, (a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from Denmark and who’s shared with me memories of summers spent with her cousins, aunts, and uncles in Læsø, an island just off the northeast coast of the Danish mainland), I took a deep-dive into how the Danes find joy and pleasure in their everyday meals (and how you can do the same).
Set The Scene
Have you ever noticed how quickly even the simplest of meals (or your DoorDash order, no judgment) can turn into a special occasion when you switch up the lighting, set out the special silverware you have stashed away for when your mom visits, and let your favorite playlist establish the ambience? Just a few quick changes to your surroundings can transform a meal, and the Danes know it.
Though the word doesn’t translate exactly into English, many of us know by now that hygge describes a feeling of coziness, with a significant element of this being the sense of safety and warmth our environment provides.
Invest in some tea lights and scatter them about your apartment. Drape a few sheepskins over the backs of your dining chairs (faux is great too!). If the weather permits, pick your favorite flowers and arrange them in a vase. The next time you’re tempted to immediately plop down in front of the TV after turning off the stove, try transitioning to the table. Trust me: being mindful about how your space is set up will positively impact your enjoyment of the meal, whether that’s a gourmet dish or leftovers for the third night in a row.
Or maybe embrace an evening spent vegging out. After all, hygge encourages you to live life to the fullest and do what makes you feel the coziest and most happy, Gilmore Girls marathons and cereal for dinner included.
Celebrate The Seasons (And Eat Accordingly)
Denmark’s summer, fall, winter, and spring each exhibit their own ephemeral customs and favored foods that shift with the seasons’ change. Quality can be found at all times of the year, with a different array of fruits and vegetables hitting peak-freshness throughout the warmer months.
The first new potatoes show up in the spring, and alongside them are fresh green stalks of asparagus. The latter benefits from the simplest preparation: leaving the stalks unpeeled, slice off the ends and boil in salted water for just under 10 minutes. The result is a vibrant green stalk that’s still crisp and best served hot with whipped butter.
Because the winter is so unforgiving, the Danes fully embrace the summer offerings. While the season is short, its produce is abundant. Chickpea salads with red onion, olives, and tomatoes are packed up for picnics and dishes of stewed red berries topped with cream are served for dessert.
When the first suggestions of a fall chill set in, fires are lit, and candles are set on every surface in the house. With the seasonal warmth slipping away, Danes rely upon the heartiness of their many meatball recipes (best accompanied by French beans in a creamy white sauce) for comfort, and traditionally, the fall signified the start of the cold-weather hunting season, when pheasant, partridge, and wild duck were most prized and most often prepared.
Christmastime is given ample observance, and the food is, of course, a central part of the festivities. Risalamande, a dessert rivaling rice pudding, is served cold alongside a cherry sauce. A bonus? When eaten as a part of the Christmas celebration, the baker may hide an almond somewhere in the batch, and whoever finds it in their dish wins a prize. Who doesn’t love a little competition served up with dessert?
Eat What Your Environment Offers
Hand in hand with seasonality is the importance of eating what is local to where you live. With miles of coastline, Denmark is well-known for its fishing culture (and sustainability at that). Though Diane hadn’t been exposed to fish much in America, her grandfather was a Danish fisherman, and what he caught would make up the bulk of what they ate during her visits.
Knowledgeable and skilled fishmongers will offer up freshly-made fish balls, an old-fashioned favorite for many Danish families. A versatile dish, they can be served at any meal, with lemon and a pickle-y remoulade sauce for dinner or on top of sliced and buttered rye bread with scrambled eggs for breakfast.
Take this as inspiration to do a little research into what can be grown or caught locally where you live. In the Pacific Northwest, I love exploring what I can do with the breadth of produce to be found at my local farmers’ markets, and foraging for mushrooms is a fun and rewarding weekend activity (when done with an expert, of course). Is your state known for its deliciously creamy cheese? Or maybe berries can be picked fresh throughout the summer. Find what is done best where you are, and let that be a guide for what you cook and how you eat.
Think Only A Few Days In Advance
While meal-prepping for the week ahead and trips to Costco for three months’ worth of groceries have become the American norm, the Danish have a different approach. When I asked Diane about this, she cited the many people who rely upon their bikes — particularly in the city — for transportation as the reason for which they only buy what’s necessary for that day and possibly the next.
While this might seem inefficient and strange to our productivity-first mindset, there’s immense benefit in the good flavor that inevitably comes with having limited options to work with in your fridge. What’s more, setting a specific plan for your abbreviated grocery list allows you to be more intentional with your purchases.
So forgo the temptation to buy in bulk and see what happens when you pick up ingredients solely for dinner tonight, and maybe breakfast in the morning. The benefit is two-fold: Your meals will likely improve in taste and you won’t spend an hour lugging in bag after bag of groceries.
Take Time For Kaffe
When was the last time you ordered coffee and actually sat down to drink it? Better yet, when did you last make coffee at home and invite friends and family over to enjoy it with you? Enter: kaffe. While the word translates to “coffee” the beverage, the feeling it evokes is more so related to the ceremony surrounding it.
Like Swedes, who take their coffee break, fika, very seriously and with an array of pastries on the side, the Danish use kaffe as a way to slow down and catch up with loved ones. Diane reflected on visits to her family’s homes in Denmark, always being greeted at the door with many hugs and warm cups of hot, milky coffee. “Whenever you came over, no matter the time of day, you would be offered coffee,” she explained. “Everyone would sit down and spend hours getting caught up. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone in America who can sit down, take slow sips of their coffee, and just talk.”
Let’s challenge that. When you’re tempted to run out to Starbucks, head down and AirPods in, ask a coworker to come along. Better yet, text a friend on Friday and invite them over for a weekend coffee chat at your place. After all, fostering community is a key part in what makes Denmark such a happy place to live.
The Danish sweet tooth is REAL. I love the many cakes that conclude celebratory meals, however, you won’t find the same sugar-laden frostings typical of the American versions. Airy, moist, and perfect in its simplicity, Danish Dream Cake, or Drømmekage, is a basic sponge cake topped with shredded coconut and brown sugar. The abundance of apple trees in Denmark make Danish Apple Cake, or Æblekage, a classic recipe, and traditionally, it was what would likely be served when visiting with family.
What surprised me to learn though, is that they don’t all crave the cloying-ly sweet candies we find stocked in movie theaters and our grocery aisles. When I first met my partner, I was shocked to learn that he loved not only black licorice, but salty black licorice (yep, you read that right).
Of course, you don’t have to force yourself to develop a love of licorice (full disclosure: I haven’t), but use it as inspiration to branch out a bit from your usual go-to sweets and to explore the flavor complexities that confectionaries can offer. In a pinch, sitting down to cinnamon buns and hot chocolate with orange syrup for breakfast (don’t question it, just try), is one of the most hygge things I can think of.