Wholesome yet sophisticated – Danish cuisine may have grown lighter and healthier in its contemporary form, but it still fondly remembers a time when root vegetables ruled.
“It’s very much about eating in season, the best way to eat,” says Nicolai Ruge, Danish Ambassador to Malaysia, as comfortable in the kitchen as he no doubt is navigating the hallways of diplomacy.
“For the root vegetables, the Danish season begins in autumn, while spring brings with it new potatoes and asparagus – and all year round, Danes enjoy eating both seasonally and locally.
“Danish food has grown lighter over the years because of the general boom of health consciousness that began in the 1980s, which brought with it the increased awareness of eating right,” Ruge adds.
“And while root vegetables fell into disfavour for a while, being considered a bit ‘un-stylish’, they’re back now and often the focus of the plate rather than just a side dish.”
Danish cuisine has become very associated with the New Nordic cuisine birthed by the 2003 opening of Rene Redzepi’s iconic Noma, and often features plants like havtorn (sea buckthorn) and skovsyre (wood sorrel) even in everyday food.
But the everyday also has a different profile, down to earth and accessible even here in Malaysia. To give us a little taste of Danish home cooking, the gentle, affable and very tall Ruge spent a morning in the kitchen of the Arla Foods HQ, with the even taller Jesper Colding, head of Arla’s Business Unit Asia.
Arla Foods is a farmer-owned cooperative based in Viby, Denmark, and the largest Scandinavian dairy producer.
The cooking session is a perfect illustration of how, for many Danes, cooking isn’t just a matter of sustenance – it’s a social activity and hobby.
More and more kitchen spaces in Danish homes reflect this, says Catherine Sondergaard Clausen, commercial assistant at the Danish embassy in Kuala Lumpur. “It’s connected to the concept of ‘hygge’, very characteristic for Denmark,” she says.
She pronounces it as “hue-guh”, this word that attempts to encapsulate the elusive – a cosy, charming moment. It’s about being present to the world, and to the people around you … perhaps enjoying a glass of wine and an aromatic panful of shrimp cooked in olive oil, butter and smoked paprika.
“This dish, we would just serve at the table, in the pan,” says Colding, indicating the aforementioned shrimp, glistening almost cheekily in a cast-iron pan. Aromas of garlic, butter and paprika waft above it – definitely one for sharing with people you love, or at least, like very much.
“Everyone just breaks off chunks of crusty bread to dip into the sauce. When I cook this at home, it’s almost as if I don’t need to wash the pan – they clean it that well!” he adds, demonstrating.
Cooking methods have also changed over the years.
“Everything used to have the taste and vitamins boiled out of them before, but now we apply new ways to old produce,” says Colding, popping a vacuum-sealed bag of Danish cod – long central to Denmark’s fishing industry – into hot water, to be cooked sous-vide. Nowadays, there is a definite focus on preserving nutrients and exploring the nutritional value of indigenous ingredients.
According to Clausen, food clubs are also growing in popularity in Denmark – groups of friends rotating among each other’s homes to cook up a feast. The concept grew from a way to save money to a much-anticipated social event – and sometimes, a competition of sorts.
And since social activism and civic consciousness also seems ingrained within the Danish psyche, they also nuance the identity of Danish food.
“We are very concerned about food wastage in Denmark,” says Ruge.
The country is one of the foremost leaders in the European food waste revolution, and has more initiatives to tackle the issue than any other country.
“There are specialised shops that collect and sell food with damaged packaging or nearing its use-by date, at cheaper prices,” says Ruge. There are also food banks and soup kitchens which use and serve such food items, and even a food waste supermarket called Wefood. The result? Starting from 2010, Denmark cut its food waste down by 25% in just five years.
Along with its national focus on celebrating the local and the native, that is truly a food legacy to aspire to.
BUTTER GARLIC SHRIMP WITH RUSTIQUE BREAD
for the bread
1/2 cup cracked rye kernels
1/2 cup cracked wheat
1/2 cup flaxseeds or linseeds
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
300g Italian tipo 00 flour
400g wheat flour (Olands Wheat)
2 tbsp salt
olive oil, for sprinkling
assorted herbs, chopped
for the shrimp
700g medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
100g Lurpak unsalted butter, divided
1/2 cup olive oil
5 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste
1 tbsp smoked paprika
3 lemon slices
2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander leaves
To make bread
Place the cracked rye kernels, cracked wheat, flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, sourdough and water into a large mixing bowl. Combine and let the mixture soak for at least 8 hours.
Add the rest of the ingredients, combine well, and let the dough rise overnight in the fridge.
Preheat the oven to 250°C.
Place the dough in a stoneware dish with a lid and bake for 30 minutes, covered. Then remove the lid and reduce the oven temperature to 160°C.
Sprinkle the loaf with olive oil and herbs, and bake for 15 minutes more.
Remove from oven, and lift the loaf out of the dish, allowing it to cool on a wire rack. When completely cool, keep in an air-tight container.
To prepare shrimp
Place the shrimp in salted water, for 20 minutes. Remove and pat dry with a paper towel.
Place the butter and olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add 4 cloves of the sliced garlic and saute until light brown.
Add shrimp, remaining garlic, salt and pepper, to taste. Cook, stirring occasionally, until shrimp turn pink, about 2 to 3 minutes.
Remove the pan from heat, and stir in the paprika. Add the lemon slices and sprinkle with coriander leaves.
VERY SINFUL BROWNIE
300g Lurpak unsalted butter, chopped
400g dark chocolate (70%), chopped
550g white sugar
200g plain flour
60g Dutch cocoa powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
pinch of salt
yoghurt ice cream
3 cups non-fat Greek yoghurt
3 cups Arla whipping cream
1 cup white sugar
seeds from 2 vanilla pods
1 tsp vanilla extract
balsamic berry compote
2 cups mixed berries
1/2 cup sugar
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
To make brownie
Preheat oven to 170°C. Grease a 20cm square cake pan and line with baking paper.
Place butter and chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water (don’t let the bowl touch the water). Stir with a metal spoon, until melted, then remove from heat.
Mix in the rest of the ingredients with a spatula, gently turning until just combined. Pour into prepared pan.
Bake for 40 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the centre of the caket comes out with moist crumbs clinging to it.
Remove from oven and set aside to cool completely.
To make yoghurt ice cream
Place the yoghurt, whipping cream, sugar, vanilla seeds and extract in a mixing bowl and whisk until the sugar has dissolved. Cover and chill for 1 hour.
Pour the mixture into an ice cream maker and churn according to manufacturer’s directions, until it has the consistency of a soft serve. Transfer to a plastic container with a lid; cover the surface with plastic wrap and seal. Freeze for at least 2 hours, or overnight.
To make compote
Place all the ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir until sugar is dissolved, then remove from heat and allow to cool.
COD WITH CASTELLO WHITE CHEESE, POTATO, LEEK AND PUMPKIN GRATIN
for the cod
2 x 115g cod fillets
salt and sugar, for rubbing the fish
1½ tsp Lurpak butter, melted
lemon slices, according to your preference
2 tbsp Lurpak unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the pan
2 large leeks, trimmed and halved lengthwise
780g potatoes, peeled
780g pumpkin, peeled
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
2 sprigs thyme
1 cup heavy Arla cooking cream
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
1/4 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
3/4 cup Castello creamy white cheese, grated or chopped
To prepare the cod
Gently coat the cod fillets with salt and sugar, and set aside for 20 minutes until firm, then rinse with ice water.
Place into a vacuum bag with butter and lemon. Seal and cook sous-vide at 55°C for 30 minutes.
To prepare gratin
Heat oven to 180°C and grease a gratin dish with butter. Wash the leeks to remove any grit and slice thinly crosswise.
Using a mandoline or sharp knife, slice the potatoes and pumpkin into circles. Toss with 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Layer the potato and pumpkin in the gratin dish.
Melt the 2 tablespoons of Lurpak butter in a large skillet over medium heat.
Add leeks, remaining salt and pepper, and thyme. Cook, stirring, until leeks are tender and golden, 5 to 7 minutes. Discard thyme and scatter the leeks over the potatoes and pumpkin.
Add Arla cooking cream, garlic and bay leaf to the skillet, scraping up browned bits of leek from the bottom of the pan. Simmer gently for 5 minutes, then stir in nutmeg.
Pour the cream mixture over the layered leeks, pumpkin and potato and top with the cheese.
Cover with aluminium foil and transfer to the oven. Bake for 45 minutes, then uncover and bake until the cheese is bubbling and golden, 15 to 20 minutes more. Allow to cool slightly before serving.
Plate a cod fillet with some of the butter it was cooked in, with gratinated root vegetables on the side and a lightly-cooked vegetable such as broccolini.