In Scandinavia countries, there is a concept called hygge [Ed. Note: pronounced in English: HOO-guh]. Actually, it’s more of a lifestyle, influencing everything from interior design to the cuisine of these countries. The word generally gets translated as “cozy.” Danish food writer Trine Hahnemann likes to translate it as “lived in” and “intimate.” She is a chef in Copenhagen, Denmark, and author of the book Scandinavian Comfort Food. Contributor Shauna Sever talked with Hahnemann about what it means to create hygge in your home, kitchen and dining room table. Try these comfy recipes that she mentions for Classic Potato Salad and Mormor’s Birthday Dinner of Roast Chicken, Sweet and Sour Cucumber and Separated Gravy.
Shauna Severs: The concept of hygge has become a buzzword. It seems to be a “you know it when you see it or feel it” type of thing. Can you tell us how the word is used in Denmark and how important it is to Scandinavian culture?
Trina Hahnemann: It’s a word we use all the time like you, in America, use “nice.” But we describe things we do as hygge or hyggeligt all the time; it's embedded in our culture and everyday life in a profound way. It goes for all of Scandinavia, but the Danes are probably the ones who use the word the most. We aim to have it hyggeligt all the time; the more, the better.
Trine Hahnemann, author of Scandinavian Comfort Food
Photo: Lars Ranek
SS: How do you do that at home?
TH: First of all, our home is very important to us, so we try to make it hyggeligt. You can say it's the biggest compliment anybody can give you is if they say your home is hyggeligt. And it's not about expensive furniture or paintings. It's about an atmosphere that it feels like somebody lived there: candles, flowers, cushions, all the little things that makes a house look lived in. It’s a bit in contrast to the modern Danish design where it's very clean. That is not always hyggeligt, which is an interesting paradox.
SS: How does food fit in to creating the perfect hygge experience?
TH: Food is important because this is the way we greet each other in Scandinavia. We don't say to each other like you do in America,"How are you?" And then respond, "I'm fine." If somebody asks you in Scandinavia how you are, you actually answer – and it can be long. First of all, we will offer people something to drink and eat right away before we ask them anything else. "Would you like coffee, wine, tea? Can I give you anything to eat?” That's how we start any conversation. You’ve already created a moment where you can have a good time together. Hygge is about creating atmospheres and breaks with these little moments all through the day; it’s not only in the evening and on the weekend. It’s about finding the little pores here and there where you can create some intimacy.
SS: You mentioned that hygge is for all seasons. How does hygge fit into the spring and summer months in Scandinavia – as the days grow longer?
TH: With seasons, we don't only think about produce, but also the weather and the light. When the day starts not to be so dark but lighter, we will move outside. For dinner, you’d eat a lot of spring things. You'll still light the candles – we do that all year-round. You set the table in lighter colors, and a lot of wonderful vegetables have arrived. You’ve been eating root vegetables and cabbage for months, so you're so looking forward to the spring vegetables like radishes and asparagus.
Then we move into later spring/early summer, and new potatoes come. New potatoes are one of the best things in Scandinavia; we have some of the best potatoes in the world. That is like a celebration! You can cook and serve them with butter or dill. Or, in the book there is a wonderful potato salad; it is a kind of traditional salad, but I might have changed it a little bit where you put vinegar and oil on the warm potatoes, and they suck up all the flavors from the dressing.
In Danish, grandmother is mormor. One of my favorite things is my mormor's chicken recipe. It's a chicken stuffed with parsley and roasted; it has a crispy skin. You serve it with a sweet and sour cucumber salad and new potatoes. My grandmother would always do it in a big black pot, like a roasting pot. She’d have a bit of juice and a bit of fat; she would pour that into another little pot with cream, salt and pepper. We called it a separated sauce because it doesn't always stick together; the fat will always be a little bit on top. For me, that’s the perfect Scandinavian summer dinner.
Scandivanian Comfort Food
by Trine Hahnemann
SS: Let’s say we want to bring this concept of hygge into our homes more regularly and we want to build a pantry to support it. What are your go-to staples?
TH: Salt and pepper, of course. Good pepper: I'm talking about really tasty black pepper and a very nice grinder, because you always finish Scandinavian dishes with a little bit of black pepper. You have to have a little tree with bay leaves because there's a lot of dishes with bay leaves. Vinegars; the more different flavored vinegars you have, the more exciting dressings you can make. Good olive oil, even though olive oil doesn't grow in Scandinavia, we've gotten used to it and we can't live without it anymore.
You've got to have butter. It's very important, especially for when you have all these summer cabbages, to fry some of them in a little bit of butter and then salt and pepper and a little nutmeg on top. With new potatoes, I don't need much more than that on a June night.
We also use spices like cardamom, coriander and juniper berries, but we use them all one at a time. We do a lot of pickles in June, July and August, and we use the spices for that. Nutmeg is a very important spice in the Scandinavian kitchen, but also in a lot of sauces to finish it off.
SS: Well that all sounds delicious. I'm ready to book a ticket to Denmark right now.
Shauna Sever blogs at The Next Door Baker.