Magnus Nilsson, proprietor of Sweden’s Faviken restaurant and author of The Nordic Cookbook, discusses meatballs, herring, and open-faced sandwiches.
Defining Nordic cooking seems like a daunting task. What was your approach?
Originally, I just wanted to do a Swedish cookbook. It felt wrong, at first, by lumping a big region into one cookbook. Most people don’t understand the difference between the Nordic region and Scandinavia, for example. Scandinavia comprises the three kingdoms (Sweden, Denmark, Norway), yet the Nordic region includes Greenland, Iceland, and Finland. Apart from being cultural regions, you can divide the Nordic regions into two parts—the western part is heavily defined by Danish culture, and the eastern part is heavily influenced by the Swedish.
Is there an ingredient or dish common to all Nordic cooking?
There are no historical dishes that are the same, but there are things that are common denominators. You can’t grow things in the winter, and because of that, two things easy to produce and easy to grow—grains and berries, which can be combined with cheese and butter and served on a slice of unleavened bread—appear across the cuisines. Therefore, grain might be the unifying Nordic ingredient, and the most common dish the open-faced sandwich.
Let’s talk meatballs.
It’s also one of those things you will find in various places. It’s interesting to see how people adjusted to their circumstances. Where I grew up, we ate moose meatballs with a little pork. We didn’t have beef. In Denmark, with an intensive agricultural history and rich, fertile soils, the meatballs are pure pork. If you go to Sweden, where there are more dairy farms, there would be beef.
In your cookbook you say that recipes are a flawed concept.
People tend to find recipes and cookbooks as if they were instructions, leaflets like what you get with a piece of Ikea furniture. You put them together to get a particular end result. Food is living and therefore depends on so many factors. If you have a piece of chicken from a butcher in New York, and I get one here, and we put them both in a frying pan, each would turn out differently.
What was your biggest challenge with the book?
Basically, finishing it. I built a website where I invited people from all the Nordic countries to fill out a questionnaire, because I was interested in how they perceived their own food. After that, I traveled and met people, collecting more books and articles. By the end I had 11,000 recipes and texts and I was nowhere near done. I then had to edit down to 700 recipes.
What’s your idea of comfort food?
It would be the open-faced sandwich, though I really like rice porridge with a little sugar cinnamon. And it is very important not to have fancy cinnamon.