I read some years ago in The New Yorker about an elderly woman who attributed her longevity to eating herring. I’d like to think she was onto something. Nordic cooking was the underdog of fine dining until restaurants like Noma and Fäviken started popping up throughout the region, but those who had tasted its wealth of flavors knew that the rest of the world was missing out.
I interviewed a Nordic cookbook author last week for an article I am writing. She pointed out something I’ve long known and have tried to articulate, that Nordic food is not the bland cuisine that so many people think it to be. We talked about the stereotypes, and how many people associate the food with the mild flavors of potatoes and lutefisk. I’ll be honest, I had that misconception for a long time, too, despite growing up tasted some amazingly flavorful Scandinavian dishes and foods, including smoked and cured fish, pickled vegetables and herring, and an array of spices present in Scandinavian cooking thanks to the trading of centuries past. Biff à la Lindström features the bright, punchy flavors of capers and pickled beets. The Swedish meat-and-potatoes stew known as sjömansbiff gets a lively pickup from those same beets and some pats of whole-grain mustard. Showers of fresh dill brighten many dishes. And then there’s pickled herring.
Even as a child I appreciated the bold flavor of pickled herring, plucking little oily bites of herring out of smorgasbord bowls with toothpicks, savoring them like fish candy. (Come to think of it, that doesn’t necessarily sound appealing, though you may understand what I mean if you also have a taste for pickled herring.)
But while the punch of salt-and-vinegar may be pleasing, Scandinavians also value balance and restraint, as demonstrated in this smørrebrød. As the sun began to fade one recent afternoon, I hurriedly mixed up a simple egg salad and carefully mounded it on slices of buttered rye bread. Even in Seattle, where we don’t truly experience the mørketid, I find myself craving the sunlight and celebrating the longer days that come in the spring. Arranging bite-sized herring pieces on top, I finished the sandwiches with paper-thin slices of radishes and feathery sprigs of dill. I had just enough time to capture the last of the afternoon light through my camera lens and then take a bite. The intense flavor of pickled herring was there, as bold as ever, but softened, more refined, on the bed of soft eggs. Fresh radish and dill pointed to the changing seasons and offered a contrast–not only in texture and color, but also in fresh versus preserved, a signal that winter is transitioning to spring, a time in which nature relaxes and unfurls, allowing even the more delicate of plants to flourish and thrive.
I’m not sure if there’s anything to that elderly woman’s story of herring granting her longevity, aide from the fish’s healthy oils, but I’ll keep eating it–with hopes for health and long life, of course, but mostly because I love it.
Pickled Herring, Egg, and Radish Smørrebrød
Adapted from Simon Bajada’s lovely book, The New Nordic: Recipes from a Scandinavian Kitchen (Hardie Grant Books, 2015)
6 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and finely chopped
3 Tablespoons mayonnaise
Salt, to taste
2 Tablespoons butter
4 slices rye bread
8 ounces pickled herring fillets, cut into 1- to 1 1/2-inch pieces, onions reserved if possible
4 radishes, sliced paper thin
Fresh dill, for garnish
In a small bowl, mix the chopped eggs and mayonnaise together with a fork. Give it a taste and add a little salt if necessary. Spread butter on the slices of bread. Spoon the egg salad evenly over them, then top with the pickled herring, including some of the sliced onion from the jar if you have them. Arrange the radish slices over the top, and garnish with dill.