I remember the first time I tasted fårikål, the national dish of Norway. I had read for a long time—years maybe—about this stew of lamb and cabbage that is Norway’s national dish. It seemed too simple, I thought—just lamb and cabbage, with water, salt and pepper, the building blocks of most stews. Most recipes I’d seen were light on details, too. It must be easy to mess up, I figured, so I stayed away. Emboldened with a deadline and a job to do, however, I set to work this past spring at tackling this dish that had previously intimidated me. With Fårikålens Festdag, Norway’s fårikål feast day, coming up in the fall (it’s always the fourth Thursday of September), I knew I’d have to write about it. As food editor of The Norwegian American, I didn’t feel right outsourcing our coverage of this annual classic yet again.
Armed with a small quantity of bone-in lamb, cabbage, and a handful of recipes, I began the traditional process of arranging the ingredients in the pot, letting it all simmer, and trusting that over the next couple of hours some sort of culinary magic would take place. The results, let me tell you, exceeded my expectations.
I knew the finished dish would be simple, but I couldn’t anticipate the way the modest list of ingredients—humble ones for that matter, as mutton and tougher cuts of meat would typically be used—would somehow yield results that were just right in their restraint. The flavors of the cabbage and lamb shone individually and yet informed by one another. The whole peppercorns added an herbal, subtle floral note that was almost imperceptible and yet accented the flavor of the lamb.
I’ve since come to appreciate the dish for not only its simplicity, but also its ease. After layering or nestling the ingredients in a pot, all you need to do is wait for a couple of hours, perhaps boiling some potatoes to serve on the side, and dinner is served. Of course, we don’t always have that amount of time for dinner to cook, but one of the wonderful things about fårikål is how easily it reheats, and some people swear that leftovers get better over time. (That served me well last week when I cooked a batch of fårikål early in the day and chilled it until dinnertime, when we had only a brief amount of time for dinner before rushing off to an event.) Still, there’s nothing saying you have to make a large batch of fårikål to enjoy it. I’ve found that I prefer small-batch fårikål, the type of dish that might serve two hungry adults or a small family.
Aside from perhaps the small quantity, the recipe I’m sharing today is typical. Many recipes call for layering the ingredients in a pot. This is a small batch, so nestling them is fine. Don’t mess with the dish as it cooks, aside from checking it every once in a while; let the cabbage retain its shape. As unattractive as the dish often is—and that’s to be expected—this is one way to thoughtfully preserve the visual integrity of the ingredients, letting the eyes as well as the mouth perceive the simplicity in which the dish’s key ingredients are allowed to shine. Serve with boiled potatoes—red-skinned ones with flecks of bright green parsley will further add visual interest when serving. Flatbread and lingonberry preserves round out the meal.
The ingredients themselves reflect foods that are integral to the region. Sheep are plentiful and a fixture of Norwegian mountains. Cabbage has a significant role in Nordic history—it’s one of the oldest vegetables in the region, writes Camilla Plum in The Scandinavian Kitchen, who adds that it was the only vegetable grown in the Viking age. Though it mutes to a nondescript color as it cooks down with the lamb, it’s flavorful and is so cozy and nourishing.
For as simple as fårikål is, the results are fantastic. The challenge for many may be the cooking time, a long time for a weeknight. If you’d like to mark Fårikålens Festdag this month with a batch of homemade fårikål but don’t have the time, feel free to make it in advance—it reheats easily and will taste just as good—perhaps even better—the next day.
Fårikål (Lamb and Cabbage Stew with Peppercorns, Norway’s National Dish)
1.5 pounds lamb (shoulder, shank, or neck) cut into 1 ½-inch pieces
1.5 pounds green cabbage, cut into wedges
1-2 teaspoons whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon salt
water to barely cover (approximately 4 cups)
In a large pot, nestle the lamb amongst the cabbage wedges. Sprinkle the peppercorns and salt over it, then add water to just barely cover. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover and simmer for about two hours, until the lamb is remarkably tender and pulls easily away from any bones.
To serve, carefully lift the cabbage out of the pot and arrange it in bowls with pieces of the lamb. Pour over the broth, and make sure to distribute peppercorns between the bowls.
Serves 2, with perhaps a little left over for the next day’s lunch.