Viking Food: Scandinavian Cuisine

Viking foodClimate, lifestyle and isolation: these three factors largely shaped Viking food. Lengthy, dark and cold winter has always been and still is one of the basic facts of life in the Nordic countries that have to be dealt with seriously. Surviving through the winter depended on food supplies stored during the short growing season. Lack of plants due to specific climate is the reason why traditional Scandinavian cuisine still includes only small amount of vegetables. Viking lifestyle was another reason that made Norsemen to learn early how to preserve their meats and fish. Ship was a Viking’s home, and smoked, dried and salted foods were usual supplies of Norse warriors during their prolonged raids. Finally, isolation was one of the major factors that influenced the cuisine of Scandinavia. Industrialization was late, and the conservative traditions of rural population have little changed since the Viking Age in many places.

Several modern Scandinavian dishes are basically the same Viking food yielded by sea, fresh-water lake and earth. Norwegians still eat marinated and broiled whale steak. Swedes may like thinly sliced smoked horseflesh. However, Iceland perhaps preserved the largest amount of Viking food traditions, since isolation of this country in history has been next to exceptional.

Hákarl, fermented shark, is hardcore Norse food that continued from the settlement of Iceland in the 9th century. It is prepared by gutting and beheading a Greenland or basking shark. The shark itself is poisonous when fresh, but may be consumed after complex processing. They put it into a shallow hole, and cover with sand and gravel. They put stones on top of sand, and the stones press away the fluids from the shark, which ferments there for 6 to 12 weeks. Then the shark is cut into strips and hung to dry for a few months more. Brown crust, which develops during this period, is removed before the dish is cut into small pieces and served. Hákarl has a very strong ammonia smell, similar to some cleaning products. People who are new to it often vomit involuntarily when they taste it for the first time.

Another characteristic Viking food product is skyr. It was brought to Iceland from Norway by the first settlers but has survived only in Iceland. Skyr is a cultured dairy poduct, somewhat similar to strained yoghurt. Traditionally, it is served cold with sugar and cream. The whey left after making skyr was made to go sour and used to store meat. It is interesting that one of Icelandic Yule Lads is named Skyrgámur (Skyr-glutton).

In Viking longhouses meat was cooked in the holes dug in the floor, which were used as earth ovens. In the center of the house there was a long fire. They placed meat in holes with hot embers and covered the holes tightly. For boiling, wooden churns were used. Hot stones were placed into the liquid and made it boil. Vikings ate their food from their lap, sitting on their beds that lined the wall of the longhouse.
To cook traditional Viking food is to re-create the glorious past of the Norsemen. Even though Scandinavian cuisine is relatively unknown, it is unique and worth discovering.

Photo courtesy henribergius. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Licence.

21 comments… add one
  • Pam

    I’d like to hear more about Viking risotto. Is this risotto as we know it, made with rice or does it just refer to the cooking method and using other grains such as barley.

    • Viking Rune

      I am not sure if Vikings knew any such thing as risotto.

      • Rod Glen

        You can make a risotto using pearl barley. And very good it is, too.
        Whether it would be authentic to the period, I have no idea.

    • Monique

      If you refer to the recipe found in the book An Early Meal, then it looks like risotto but that is where the resemblance ends. But the Vikings had no rice. The recipe is made with barley. And the cooking method also has nothing to do with making risotto.

  • Avishek

    I think its time food entrepreneurs brought Norse cuisine to the forefront. I would love to try the shark meat and the cultured dairy.
    the best way to experience a culture is through the local food

    • Viking Rune

      Be careful with the shark meat, Avishek. They say its smell is unsupportable.

      • YlvaEriksd0ttir_64

        Fermented shark meat is an acquired taste/smell. Smelled it in Iceland and this turned me off shark meat.

    • Rod Glen

      Hákarl is truly vile.
      Skyr is delicious.

  • Ane

    This is fun, you just described my lunch!
    Not the shark-part, though.. The dish Hákarl is actually named after the shark, which is called håkjerring in Norwegian. It can grow to be up to 7 meters long ;)
    It is also true that the Norse traded with spices, a lot. Their most important export was dried fish, and they traded this in Europe long before 1000 AD. We still export dried and salted fish for billions of Norwegian kroner, and most of it to Italy and Spain, because they need it to make bacalao. :)

    • Viking Rune

      So bacalhau is the basis for Norwegian economic power :)

  • Brian

    Stews were common in the viking times. They used caldrans like the ones witches use over a open fire and cook the food low and slow what ever the family did not finish was eaten the next morning and then they started the stew again. It is like this you eat something because it is in season then without notice you are eating something else. So next the Viking Might have had roast or smoked goat beef or cow depending on season how much food they had and how many people were eating. Lets thing about sea food most was eaten by Vikings so Lobster, clams, fish, oysters ect wild berrys for desert. Mead honey wines to drink.
    The Vikings usually had two sit down meals a day with some dried meat or bread to eat while working.

    Vikings ate cheese if they had a cow or the money to buy milk or cheese. N VegetablesWere wild, grown or payed for.

    Alcohol like ale and cider was considered safer to drink on ships than water.

    The surplus meat and fish would be smoked or salted to prevent it from rotting. Pulses like peas and beans could be dried. Grain was stored for grinding into flour to make flat unleavened bread.

    • Viking Rune

      Thanks for the comment, Brian.

  • Jesse

    Odin told them of course…

    • Viking Rune

      About Hákarl? Great theory :)

  • Vanessa

    Does anyone know the main reason or have a viable theory for why and how Hákarl developed? Is it the only shark available around Iceland? I’m really curious as to how the Norse figured out that the meat became less poisonous if it fermented. It seems like the tendency would be to stay away from rotten food but, like with most delicacies, I’m sure there is an interesting story behind Hákarl.

    • Steven

      Vanessa – that’s always a good question. The theory I’ve heard for this has to do with human populations watching what other animals eat. Probably at some point in history, the Norse watched a shark rot on the beach without being molested by scavenging birds until a certain ripeness was reached. A very hungy/crazy/desparate individual was then emboldened to try it, and a sort of recipe evolved from there.

  • Michael

    To Christine. Quote: “No. One may call Irish, English, and Scottish traditional cuisine (the worst in the world) “isolated”. But traditional Scandinavian is as sophisticated as any French or Chinese.” British and Scandanavian food of the time were pretty much the same and to call our cuisine the worst in the world and isolated when we had just as many influences as Scandinavian is ignorant. The myth of British food being the worst came from the last century as industrialisation was replacing traditional methods of food gathering and cooking, especially during the 2 world wars. Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and medieval British cuisine was influenced from the same trade routes, as well as Mediterranean and Middle East.

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Michael. No one calls British cuisine the worst in the world. At least in this blog :)

  • Christine

    I have a problem with this article using the word “isolation” to describe Nordic cuisine. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Speaking as one whose Norwegian mother cooked and baked native dishes, the wealth of middle eastern spices and ingredients is overwhelming. Cinnimon and cardamom are two examples which define Scandinavian baking, yet are never grown regionally.
    My theory is that the sophisticated Scandinavian cuisine is a result of the fact that these nations have NOT been isolated. Viking raiders/traders regularly visited the Meditteranean area. They were hired to guard the Byzantine Emperor (Verangian Guards). They settled/explored Russia. They regularly brought back exotic spices and ingredients to their wives. Even a look at traditional Norwegian jewelry will show the Middle eastern influence.The Nordic cuisine is based on the “jet setters” of the Dark and Middle ages.
    No. One may call Irish, English, and Scottish traditional cuisine (the worst in the world) “isolated”. But traditional Scandinavian is as sophisticated as any French or Chinese.

    • DeeBee

      Christine, if you do research you will see Irish, English and Scottish traditional cuisine has many similarities to Scandinavian cuisine. Your ignorance towards other cultures is pretty evident.

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Christine. Isolation is not the opposite of sophistication. Islation is just a fact of geography. To begin with, Scandinavian countries do not all have the same degree of isolation. As it seems, Iceland is a much more isolated place than, say Denmark. Yes, during the Viking Age Scandinavians travelled as far as Athens and Baghdad, but in the Middle Ages Scandinavia was at a distance from the main trade routes.

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