Here’s how to indulge in the best and most traditional foods Norway has to offer—from brown cheese and reindeer meat to king crab and lutefisk.
Norwegians have long lived off the land and ocean, and although Norway changed considerably with the discovery of oil in the North Sea, it still retains plenty of its older culinary traditions. You can’t truly get to know this Nordic gem without eating at least a couple of these dishes.
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Created by a milkmaid named Anne Hov in the 19th century, at a time when farmers were experiencing hardship, brunost—a sweet, caramelized goat cheese with a brownish color—is still a Norwegian staple, often used in breakfast or lunch sandwiches and afternoon waffles. Although you can find brown cheese in any Norwegian supermarket, if you visit Gudbrandsdal, where it was originally developed, stop by Heidal Ysteri, a farm dating from the 16th century where they still produce brunost using local ingredients.
Many of Norway’s indigenous Sami people still herd reindeer, and you simply can’t visit northern Norway without trying reindeer (reinsdyr) meat. It’s traditionally served with mashed potatoes and cranberry or lingonberry sauce, though on special occasions such as Sami People’s Day (February 6) or during Tromsø’s street food festival, SMAK (third week of September), you can also find it dried or prepared as kebabs and sausages. In Tromsø, try it at Emmas Drømmekjøkken if you want to splurge, or Vertshuset Skarven where you can enjoy your dinner with a view of the fjord.
Originally at home in the Bering Sea of Alaska and eastern Russia, king crabs were introduced to the Barents Sea by Soviet scientists in the 1960s, and the crustaceans quickly made their way to Norway. Now, all throughout the north, they’re a staple of Norwegian fine dining, served in soups or simply with some bread and mayonnaise. In Tromsø, a good place to sample king crab (krabbe) is the Fiskekompaniet.
You’ll find this creamy soup of vegetables and cod (fiskekrogen in Norwegian) anywhere in the country, though Norway’s second biggest city, Bergen, on the West Coast, offers its own version with salmon, halibut, or even shrimp in addition to cod. It’s a hearty wintertime staple that definitely warms you up after a day outside in the cold. In Bergen, try fish soup at Søstrene Hagelin, close to the fish market, or Enhjørningen.
Ubiquitous in roadside diners and on ferries, Norwegian fish cakes (fiskekaker) are slightly smaller and thinner than other varieties and are commonly made from cod and served with potatoes or in a bun. As they’re fried, they might not be the healthiest way to get your weekly dose of fish, but their brown crust is just too good to resist. Try them at Trollkrabben in Leirvik, halfway between Bergen and Haugesund—the restaurant has won the gold medal for its fish cakes in national seafood championships.
You can’t visit Norway in autumn without tasting fårikål, a stew of mutton and cabbage that is the unofficial national dish. The season begins around September, when the sheep are moved to the valleys from their mountainous pastures (having indulged in fresh grass all summer, their mutton is extra tasty). Commonly served with potatoes and bread on the side, the stew goes well with beer. In Oslo, try it at Lorry or Kaffistova—two exceptional restaurants in the capital that specialize in traditional Norwegian food.
A stew with vegetables, beef or pork, and potatoes, lapskaus originated in northern Germany before being adopted by Scandinavian and even English kitchens. What is now a staple of Norwegian home cooking goes exceptionally well with craft beer. Try it with a pilsner at Pingvinen in central Bergen.
Lefse is a very thin and versatile potato flatbread. The most common preparation is to spread butter, sugar, and cinnamon over it, roll it up, and cut it into pieces. Nordland County, in the country’s upper reaches, has a thicker version called møsbrømlefse that’s made with brown cheese. Head to Lefspia on Engeløya to try an authentic version of the latter.
“School buns,” which feature a custard filling and grated coconut, got their name as they were once a common lunch for schoolchildren. Today, they’re a must for anyone with a sweet tooth, so it’s a good thing that you can find them in pretty much any café. Godt Brød in Bergen, Kanelsnurren in Stavanger, and Kaffebønna in Tromsø are all good places to sample them.
Thicker and less round than their Swedish counterparts, Norwegian meatballs (kjøttkaker) are another staple of home-cooking and are generally served with mashed potatoes and brown gravy. Order a plate at Sofie’s Mat og Vinhus in Oslo, and don’t hesitate to pair it with red wine.
Stockfish is air-dried cod that’s commonly served with vegetables and potatoes. The dish originated in northern Norway, particularly the Lofoten Islands, where cod is caught each winter and then hung to dry on wooden racks throughout the spring. Although most of the fish is exported to Italy, you can still sample it in Norway. The best place to do so, of course, would be on the Lofoten Islands, perhaps at Du Verden or Bacalao in Svolvær.
Translating to “lye fish,” lutefisk is, as its name suggests, made from aged stockfish and lye. The gelatinous dish, which takes about a week to become edible after the lye treatment, isn’t for everyone. For Norwegians, however, it’s a Christmastime tradition. The dish goes well with white wine, and Det Gamle Rådhus or Lofotstua, both in Oslo, are great places to try it.
It might be easy to forego lutefisk at Christmastime, but you won’t be able to resist ribbe, another holiday favorite. This roast pork belly needs several hours in the oven, but once it’s formed its golden crust and is served on the table with potatoes, sour cabbage, and lingonberry sauce, chances are you won’t want anything else for Christmas dinner ever again. Luckily for you as a visitor to Norway, you can also get your hands on ribbe in the run-up to Christmas, perhaps at Asylet in Oslo.
On Christmas Eve, most Norwegian families serve either ribbe or pinnekjøtt, which translates to “stick meat” and which consists of lamb or mutton ribs served with potatoes. The competition between the two dishes is real. When visiting Norway in December, you can figure out whether you’re on Team Ribbe or Team Pinnekjøtt at Engebret Café in Oslo, among other places.
If you’re in rural western Norway around Christmastime, don’t be surprised if you find yourself staring at smalahove—and, possibly, having it stare back. The dish consists of boiled sheep’s head (the brain is usually removed) served with potatoes and mashed rutabaga. Lucky for you, it goes well with akevitt (aquavit), Norway’s traditional distilled spirit. Certainly, if you’ve mustered the courage to try this dish, then you’ve definitely earned a shot! A good place to have such an experience is at Smalahovetunet in Voss—the only commercial smalahove producer in all of Norway.