With almost 800 pages of recipes and striking photography, Magnus Nilsson's The Nordic Cookbook is the definitive work on the food cultures of his native land. He spoke with Melissa Clark about the impact winter has on the Nordic countries, the common source of everyone's family herring recipe, and the enduring popularity of taco quiche.
Melissa Clark: This book that you've written, it's enormous. It's basically The Joy of Cooking of the Nordic world. What made you take it on?
Magnus Nilsson (Photo: Erik Olsson)
Magnus Nilsson: At first, I didn't want to take that on. I was kind of offended when I was asked by Phaidon, the publisher, to do it because I thought it was a bit rude to lump all of these varied and different food cultures together in one, and labeling them as “Nordic cooking.”
But I kind of went back and forth with them. I also realized that was actually the reason why the book has merit.
MC: Were you highlighting the differences as much as bringing all the cuisines together?
MN: To me, this whole project has been completely documentary, and I tried to remove myself as much as possible from sharing my opinions on the content, really, but rather make it as representative as possible for as many parts of the region as possible. At the same time, I tried to explain how we are all similar, as we are very different from each other as well.
MC: Talk about some of the similarities. What are some of the landmark flavors and ingredients that are used all across the region in all the countries?
MN: Well, there are none of those. And that's the thing: People often ask for a pan-Nordic dish, and they don't exist. There are many other cultural factors that we do share, but one thing that really defines the way people eat that is the same for every country in the whole Nordic region, is that we have a winter where you can't really harvest any plant materials for food.
The degree of winter is always different in different parts of the Nordics, but it's a common denominator. In the old days, before modern refrigeration and before modern transportation, people had to think ahead and produce an excess in summer to keep them going through winter.
MC: So preserving and things like that.
MN: Planning, and that's still evident in our food culture today, you know?
MC: What are some examples?
MN: Our use of dairy and grains. Basically, a grain is like a little battery for solar energy, accumulated through summer, right? It's like a chemical battery, and it's a great way of storing solar energy. It's the same for dairy as well, so those are really good examples.
We have a very rich bread culture and a very rich dairy culture. Both of those things, they come from the fact that, in the old days, people had to produce as much calories as possible per whatever unit of farm land they had, to sustain them through winter.
MC: When you started writing the book, you did an open call for recipes. What made you do that?
MN: I thought it was interesting to see how people looked at their own food culture. I realized two things. The first was that the way people perceive their own food culture is actually very different from how it really is.
MC: Oh, that's interesting.
MN: Yeah, so we have this idea, which I think probably corresponds more with what we want the food culture to be than what it actually is. The other thing is that people in general believe the things that they are eating are really unique to them and their family, while they are not.
A good example of that is pickled herring. The classic kind, pickled with onions and allspice and vinegar. I think I got about two hundred recipes for that, and everyone said, “This is my grandma's recipe. This is our family recipe. It's fantastic. It's the best. It's totally ours,” and then it turns out that they're all the same.
MC: So one grandmother made everybody’s pickled herring.
MN: No. Not even the grandmother. Like you can see which publication they came from and most of them come from the first edition of some cookbook published in the sixties. So they're not even that old, those recipes.
MC: Here's a question. How did a recipe for tacos make it into the book?
MN: The taco was brought to Sweden in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s by spice companies, and their goal was to sell seasoning kits, like little bags of taco seasoning. This became an instant hit. People loved it. The idea of the Friday night family taco in Sweden was kind of popularized, and what happens when something is really popular is that people grow bored with it, because they over-consume.
That's when the interesting parts really start to happen, because that's when you lose all respect for the origins, and you start adapting to better suit your circumstances, to better suit your palate, and so on. And that has led to dishes like the taco quiche, for example.
MC: Right. I don't even think we have that here. That's great.
MN: No, it's a totally unique, Swedish dish. It's really something that, when you start to think about what defines a regional specialty, it's something that's a very difficult question. Look at a taco quiche: It originated in Sweden. You can see when it was invented, when it was first published. It's made with all Swedish produce. When I grew up, we made our taco quiche with moose, for example. Moose mince.
You can also judge the cultural importance of food simply by looking at how often people consume it. If you compare taco quiche with a very iconic Swedish dish like sour herring, if you line up a hundred Swedes and ask them all whether they eat sour herring, I think about half of the are going to say, “Yes.”
From that half, perhaps 10 percent eat it more or less once a year; it's a very occasional thing. If you line up the same hundred Swedes and ask the about the taco quiche, there is definitely going to be more than 50 of them that say they eat it. You know, at least once a year or more often.
So, then you can pose the question, “What is actually the most Swedish dish?”
MC: Let's talk about the photos for your book because you took them all, which is also extraordinary.
MN: Except the recipe photos, because I don't like photographing food.
MC: So it's the landscapes, the process shots, and the people?
MN: Yeah. All the documentary photos are mine.
MC: Talk about that process. What was that like for you?
MN: I think it gave an interesting touch to the book, because it would be impossible to commission a photographer, for financial reasons, to spend 3 1/2 years just traveling around the Nordics, taking photos. I had my camera with me and I did all of the research anyway. I got countless opportunities to take snapshots of things that just kind of unfolded around me, so the things that I photographed are in the book. They're not staged; they're not produced specifically to illustrate a part of the book. They're just things that happened.
(Photo: Magnus Nilsson)