Danish cuisine features the products suited to its cool and moist northern climate: barley, potatoes, rye, beetroot, greens, berries, and mushrooms are locally grown, and dairy products are one of its specialities. Since it shares its climate and agricultural practices with the other Scandinavian countries, and some of Eastern Europe, Danish cuisine has much in common with other Scandinavian countries. Nevertheless, it has its own distinguishing features, which were formed by a variety of influences during the country's long and difficult history.
Before the widespread industrialisation of Denmark (ca. 1860), small family-based agriculture formed the vast majority of Danish society. As in most agrarian societies, people lived practically self-sufficiently, and made do with the food they could produce themselves, or what could be purchased locally. This meant reliance on locally available food products, which form the basis of the traditional diet: cereal products, dairy products, pork, seafood, apples, plums, carrots, potatoes, onions, beer, and bread.
Agriculture still plays a large role in Denmark's economy, and Danish agricultural products are generally preferred over imported items, although products from Germany, The Netherlands and the rest of Europe are gaining increasingly larger market shares in Danish supermarkets.
As in most pre-industrial societies, long winters and a lack of refrigeration meant that foods which could be stored for a long time came to predominate. This helps to explain the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in many traditional recipes, and the emphasis placed on seasonally available foods. It also helps explain some of the traditional food preparation processes which favored smoking, pickling, and other food preservation techniques that prolong the storage life of products. Moreover, Denmark's geography, which comprises many islands meant that before industrialization and concommitant advances in transportation it was difficult, time-consuming, and costly to travel great distances, or to ship products. These factors have thus helped mold the traditional eating habits of the Danish people.
During the second half of the 20th century, Denmark entered into a new modern age of affluence after World War II. Farming cooperatives continued to grow and develop, leading to a move towards bigger agricultural business, and away from the small family farm. This has been compounded by migration to the cities, and suburban sprawl around the cities.
The stove, refrigerator, freezer and other modern kitchen major appliances changed the way one prepared food. Improvements in marketing, the growth of the supermarket and improvements in transportation and refrigeration provided new possibilities. Women were increasingly working out of the house. Traditional sex roles were changing.
All these influences and conditions, and more common to the modern way of life, have led to new demands on the national cuisine, as well as new possibilities.
Good food is an important ingredient in the Danish concept of hygge, a word that can be best translated as a "warm, fuzzy, cozy, comfortable feeling of well-being" and may be seen as analogous to the German Gemütlichkeit. While the attainment of hygge is a near-universal goal in Danish culture, hygge itself is a highly personal concept, and varies significantly according to circumstances, region, and individual family traditions. Generally speaking, however, good food, good company, wine, comfortable furniture, soft easy lighting (candle lights in particular), music, etc., all contribute to the feeling of "hygge."
Although famously liberal with respect to social values, some older Danes are fairly conservative when it comes to food. They thus appreciate traditional cooking, and are hesitant to embrace new "different" types of food.
In the new Danish cooking style, dishes are sometimes lighter, smaller, more nutritious and generally offer more focus on fresh vegetables. This mode of cooking is increasingly international, highly influenced by French, American and Asian cuisine, especially the cuisine of Thailand. Despite this, the buttery traditional cuisine is still very popular, especially in the young generations.
Germany's proximity has also provided a long-term influence. The area now making up northern Germany was at times throughout history under Danish rule, and there are still many Danish people living in this part of Germany (Schleswig), as well as Germans living in southern Denmark (South Jutland).
Although historically the average Danish person did not travel widely, in more recent years this has begun to change. Danes are travelling more now, and to further, more distant, and exotic destinations. The food cultures of southern European countries such as France, Spain, Italy and Greece, have become well known. Another influence that brings greater focus on exotic cooking has been the growing availability of exotic food products in the supermarket, and aggressive marketing efforts to make these more acceptable in the average home. These products have become more available primarily because of the growing immigrant population (Turkish, Pakistani, Chinese, Thai, African) in Denmark.
Danes do not eat out very often, although this is also changing in recent times, especially in the bigger cities, and among younger and more affluent people, who also spend more time with immigrants. Eating out in restaurants is rather expensive. The expense is due in part to the country's high taxes, which are included in the cost of restaurant meals. Also included in the price are service tips and the good wages paid to staff, who are well-educated in their jobs. Because service tips are included, and wages paid to staff are good, it is not expected that one leaves an extra tip at the table, unless service is exceptionally noteworthy.
Therefore the average Dane saves eating out at restaurants for special occasions. When one does go out to a restaurant it is usually a lengthy, relaxed affair, consisting of many courses and drinks. Danish people will come typically to a restaurant at 6.00 p.m., and stay until 11.00 p.m. or later.
There can be found many fine restaurants in the larger cities, such as Copenhagen and Århus. In addition some of Denmark's finest restaurants can be found throughout the country, as well as throughout the countryside, in hotels and lodges (kro). The kro (roughly equivalent to an inn, but held in higher social regard) provides lodging as well as meals and drinks, and has a long role in Denmark, especially the royal privileged lodges.
In the big cities, and in shopping districts, there are many more reasonably priced eating places, including such chain fast food possibilities as McDonald's, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and 7-Eleven.
The most common quick food restaurant is the "burger bar" or "grill bar" which typically features hamburgers, pizza, hot dogs and a wide variety of other fast food staples. These can be found in every town in the country, large or small. In the larger cities, Turkish people often own these restaurants. Among the other fast food items can be found Turkish and Middle East food specialties such as falafel, shish-kabob and spit-roasted meat (most often shawarma) with salad in pita bread.
Another common quick food alternative, the "original" fast food outlet in Denmark, is the pølsevogn (sausage wagon), where one can cheaply eat a variety of different sausages, including Denmark's very famous red sausages, røde pølser. These hot dog-like sausages are long (ca. 12 inch long), thin (about the diameter of an index finger) and bright red. They are traditionally served on a small, rectangular paper plate along with a side order of bread (similar to a hot dog bun, but without a slice in it), and a serving of both ketchup, Danish remoulade sauce and mustard. The sausage is hand held, dipped into the sauce and eaten. The bread is eaten alternately, also dipped into the sauce.
When the sausage is served in a traditional hot dog bun, it is called a "hot dog". It is commonly served with remoulade, ketchup, mustard, onion (either raw or toasted, i.e. ristede) and thin sliced pickles on top. Ristede onions are similar in taste to French-fried onion rings. Another variety is the French hot dog (Fransk hotdog) which is a sausage stuffed into a special long roll. The roll has a hole in the end, in which the hot dog is slipped into, after the requested accompaniment has been squirted in (ketchup, mustard, different kinds of dressing).
The simplest sausage wagons are portable and very temporary, but most are more permanent. They are typically a metal wagon with an open window to the street, and a counter where one can stand and eat the sausage. More advanced wagons may be built in and include limited seating, usually both inside and outside.
Another reasonable place to eat is at a café. These are plentiful, especially in the bigger cities, and usually offer soups, sandwiches, salads, cakes, pastries, and other light foods, in addition to the expected coffee, tea, beer and other beverages. Increasingly international café chains have become dominant in the capital Copenhagen these include currently two Starbucks at the International Airport and several of UK Caffè Ritazza, which can be found at Copenhagen Airport, Magasin Torv by the Magasin Du Nord department store, and at Copenhagen Central Station. The Danish coffee bar Baresso Coffee, which serves mainy coffee and tea related products like Starbucks, is present Copenhagen, Odense, Aarhus, Aalborg, Hellerup, and the Faroe Islands as well as Copenhagen Airport and MS crown of Scandinavia.
Bread takes many forms: at breakfast it is most often a white bread known as franskbrød (French bread), rolls (boller, birkes, rundstykker) or croissants. The "Danish pastry", which is also eaten at breakfast (although mainly in the weekends and at corporate breakfasts on Fridays), is called wienerbrød (Viennese bread) and it comes in many varieties. A festive breakfast calls for a shot or two of Gammel Dansk, a Danish stomach bitter.
Eating breakfast out of the house is not common, although hotel restaurants serve breakfast for their guests. In the cities it is becoming more common to eat brunch out in restaurants during weekends.
It is rather common to invite guests to a morgenbord (literally: morning table) on special occasions. The types of occasions would include, but are not limited to: wedding anniversaries, confirmations and 'round' birthdays. Such a celebration typically features more of the sweet Wienerbrød, "brunsviger" (a soft dough with thick brown sugar topping) and lighter breads, foregoing the heartier breads (rugbrød) of the day-to-day breakfast.
Smørrebrød (originally smør og brød, meaning "butter and bread") usually consists of a piece of buttered rye bread (rugbrød), a dense, dark brown bread. Pålæg (meaning put-on), the topping, then among others can refer to commercial or homemade cold cuts, pieces of meat or fish, cheese or spreads.
This is essentially the base on which the art of the famous Danish open sandwich, smørrebrød is created: A slice or two of pålæg is placed on the buttered bread, and then pyntet (decorated) with the right accompaniments, to create a tasty and visually appealing food item.
Some traditional examples include:
As a first course (or first visit to the buffet table) one will in all likelihood eat pickled herring (marinerede sild), or another herring dish. The most common herring is marinated either in a clear sweet, peppery vinegar sauce (white herring), or in a red seasoned vinegar (red herring). It may also come in a variety of sour cream-based sauces, including a curry sauce which is very popular. The white herring is typically served on buttered, black rye bread, topped with white onion rings and curry salad (a sour-cream based sauce, flavored with curry and chopped pickles), and served with hard boiled eggs and tomato slices. Herring can also be found which is first fried, and then marinated this is called "stegte sild i eddike" (lit.: Fried herring in vinegar). On extra festive occasions a prepared silderet (herring dish) might be served in which the herring pieces are placed in a serving dish along with other ingredients. Examples might be herring, sliced potato, onions and capers topped with a dill sour cream/mayonnaise sauce, or herring, apple pieces, and horseradish topped with a curry sour-cream/mayonnaise sauce.
Herring is usually served with ice cold snaps, which according to Danish tradition, helps the fish swim down to the stomach. Also the high alcohol content of snaps helps dissolve the fat left in the oral cavity after eating the fish, this allows the lunch participant to more readily taste the different dishes.
As a second course one will in all likelihood eat warm foods (lune retter) served on rye bread with accompaniments. Some typical warm foods would be:
Beer (in particular the Danish brands— Tuborg, Carlsberg or more local brands such as Faxe, Albani, Thy Pilsner and Ceres) is the preferred beverage during this meal, especially with lune retter, and through the rest of the cold table meal. It is also quite acceptable to have another shot or two of the Akvavit along the way. Children sometimes drink soft drinks instead.
Next comes a selection of cold cuts (pålæg) and salads, as might be found on prepared smørrebrød.
A special variation on det kolde bord is the Christmas lunch, a festive holiday cold table or smorgasbord, served during the holiday season. A traditional julefrokost is a family event on Christmas day or shortly after. However, during the whole of December all groups of people (coworkers, members of clubs and organizations) generally hold their own annual julefrokost on a Friday or Saturday evening. The "lunch" may include music and dancing, and usually continues into the very early hours of the morning with plentiful drinking either on the premises or in after-hour bar tours. All over Denmark trains and buses run all night during the julefrokost season and the police are on a special lookout for drunk drivers.
A very special part of, not only the julefrokost but of most festive, celebratory meals is the selskabssang (party song). These songs are very special to Denmark. They are sung to traditional tunes, and have specially written words that fit the occasion.
Similar to the julefrokost is the påskefrokost (Easter lunch) which is also widely celebrated, however not as widely as the julefrokost.
Danes enjoy inviting people over for dinner. These are often elaborate affairs with many courses. Special events are often celebrated with family and friends at home, and such a celebration is not complete without a sit-down dinner.
Guests are generally invited to come at 6:00 p.m. for a welcome drink before dinner. Danes can be punctual, as they expect their invited guests to arrived around the time of agreement. If they are delayed, they are also expected to call and say so.
Cocktails are becoming increasingly more popular, especially among the young.
Fish consumption is still high, although it has dropped in recent years. The most commonly eaten fish and seafood are:
Fish from Bornholm, Iceland and Greenland also has a special place in the Danish cuisine. The island of Bornholm, a part of Denmark located in the Baltic Sea, to the east of Denmark, the south of Sweden, and the north of Poland, is noted for its smoked fish items. Iceland and Greenland have long shared histories with Denmark, and the fish from these North Atlantic lands is a sign of quality.
As regards meat-eating, the Danes primarily eat pork, rather than beef: salted and smoked pork, hams, pork roasts, pork tenderloin, pork cutlets and chops are all popular. Ground pork meat is used in many traditional recipes requiring ground meat. Danish Bacon is generally of good quality (in Denmark; exported Danish bacon is of exceptional quality), and available in both the striped and back varieties. While still in first place, pork has lost ground to turkey, beef and veal in recent years. The most eaten pork is the ham, which is used mainly as pålæg after being boiled.
Steaks are commonly eaten out at restaurants, although good steaks are now available in supermarkets.
Chicken is also popular. A tray of frozen chicken pieces ready to put into the oven, Lørdagskylling (translated, Saturday chicken) is a quick and cheap way to feed a family.
The potato is considered an essential side dish to every warm meal. A common expression is "Jeg er en heldig kartoffel!" (I am a lucky potato!). This gives an indication of the exalted and well-loved position that the potato takes in the life of the Danish people.
Especially prized are the season's early potatoes, such as those from Samsø.
The potato's flexibility is almost limitless.
Another strong cheese is Gammel Ole ("Old Ole"- Ole is a man's name), a pungent aged cheese that has matured for a longer period of time. It can be bitingly strong. It is often served in combination with sliced onion and aspic (sky) on Danish ryebread slathered with fat.
Strong cheeses are not to everyone's taste. Danes who find the smell offensive might joke about Gammel Ole's smelling up a whole house, just by being in a sealed plastic container in the refrigerator. One might also refer to Gammel Ole's pungency when talking about things that are not quite right, i.e. "they stink". Here one might say that something stinks or smells of Gammel Ole.
Havarti is semi-soft Danish cow's milk cheese named after the experimental farm on which it was first made in the mid 1800s.
Denmark lost a long legal battle with Greece, to use the term "feta" for a Danish cheese produced using artificially blanched cow's milk. Since July 2002, feta has been a protected designation of origin (PDO), which limits the term within the European Union to feta made exclusively of sheep's/goat's milk in Greece.
Fruit that is traditionally associated with Danish cuisine:
A combination of strawberries, red currants, black currants, blueberries and mulberries is known as "forest fruits" (skovbær) and is a common component in tarts and marmalades. A popular dessert is made from boiling down one or more berries (and/or rhubarbs) into 'rødgrød (red porridge) med fløde (with cream)'. The cream, which is poured on top, is often substituted by milk.
Rødgrød med fløde is often jokingly used by danes as an expression that is ridiculously difficult to pronounce by people with another native language than Danish.
Bread is a very important part of the Scandinavian table. It is usually enjoyed at home, in the workplace or in Danish restaurants and is usually based primarily on rugbrød, which is sour-dough rye bread. It is a dark, heavy bread which is sometimes bought pre-sliced, in varieties from light-coloured rye, to very dark, and refined to whole grain. It forms the basis of smørrebrød, which is closely related to the Swedish smörgås, literally 'spread bread' (smør is butter). Traditional toppings include sild, which are pickled herrings (marinerede - plain, krydder - spiced, or karry - curried), slightly sweeter than Dutch or German herrings; thinly-sliced cheese in many varieties; sliced cucumber, tomato and boiled eggs; leverpostej, which is pork liver-paste; dozens of types of cured or processed meat in thin slices, or smoked fish such as salmon; mackerel in tomato sauce; pickled cucumber; boiled egg, and rings of red onion. Mayonnaise mixed with peas, sliced boiled asparagus and diced carrot, called italiensk salat (lit. Italian salad), remoulade or other thick sauces often top the layered open sandwich, which is usually eaten with utensils. It is custom to pass the dish of sliced breads around the table, and then to pass around each dish of toppings, and people help themselves. Hundreds of combinations and varieties of smørrebord are available.
A famous and very old restaurant in Copenhagen's historic Nyhavn harbour, Ida Davidsen, serves up many imaginative combinations, and the fridge in a typical Danish home will often be stocked with toppings for rugbrødsmad, or "rye bread meal", which is a way of saying "a plain normal lunch". Denmark has strong traditions of special types of food eaten at particular times of the year, such as smoked eel with slices of a sort of scrambled-egg loaf eaten on rye bread at New Year, accompanied by beer. Other types of bread are sold in supermarkets and in bakeries, which are important shops in every town and shopping centre. Many people still bake at home, particularly boller, which are small bread rolls, and often the traditional kringle, which is a long cooked dough with currants and a brown sugar and butter paste. Home-baked bread uses moist yeast, the major brand Malteserkors being a division of Carlsberg Brewery. In the great trucking strikes of 1998, yeast was one of the first products to be sold out in shops, indicating the importance of home baking in Denmark. Sliced white bread is known in Denmark as franskbrød, literally "French bread", and is not as common as it is in many other western countries. People often eat jam with cheese on crusty white bread for breakfast, and also very thin slices of chocolate, called pålægschokolade.
Another popular way of consuming bread in Denmark is as tiny buns for long hotdogs, made out of white bread, which are available in small kiosks everywhere and in pølsevogne ("sausage-vans") that move about in the cities.
There also exists a vast amount of other types of sweets and candy, ranging from gum drops and drageé to mints and caramel sweets. Bland selv slik (lit: mix yourself candy) is common in Danish supermarkets and kiosks, and consists of an amount of plastic boxes, usually between 20 and 50, each containing a different type of candy, which is then put into a paper bag with a small shovel-like object. The paper bag is then weighed, and paid for. Both Danish and imported candy are found in these box assortments, and the shape, texture and flavor differences are often extremely creative. Candy have been manufactured resembling a vast amount of objects, such as flying saucers, tennis raquets, soccer balls, butterflies, and even more strange, also teeth and toothbrushes.
Danish cuisine has also looked inwards at the rich possibilities inherent in Danish traditional cooking, and in this way attempted to redefine itself, using local products and cooking techniques that have in the past been used in limited ways.
Older Danish food-lovers, however, stick to their old traditions, and cook as described above. It is also exceedingly common in families that mothers and fathers cook together and teach their children how to cook, as food and eating is a very important subject in family life, and a central element in the pursuit of hygge.