At its best, Norwegian food can be excellent: fish is plentiful and carnivores can have a field day trying meats like reindeer and elk or even, conscience permitting, seal and whale. Admittedly it’s not inexpensive, and those on a tight budget may have problems varying their diet, but by exercising a little prudence in the face of the average menu (which is almost always in Norwegian and English), you can keep costs down to reasonable levels.
Vegetarians, however, will have slim pickings (except in Oslo), and drinkers will have to dig very deep into their pockets to maintain much of an intake. Indeed, most drinkers end up visiting the supermarkets and state off-licences (Vinmonopolet) so that they can sup away at home (in true Norwegian style) before setting out for the evening.
There are scores of great places to eat in Norway, but because of the cost many travellers exist almost entirely on a mixture of picnic food and self-catering, with the odd café meal thrown in to boost morale. Frankly, this isn’t really necessary (except on the tightest of budgets), as there are a number of ways to eat out inexpensively. To begin with, a good self-service buffet breakfast, served in almost every hostel and hotel, goes some way to solving the problem, while special lunch deals will get you a tasty hot meal for 150kr or so. Finally, alongside the regular restaurants – which are expensive – there’s the usual array of budget pizzerias, cafeterias, hot-food stands and café-bars in most towns.
Breakfast, picnics and snacks
More often than not, breakfast (frokost) in Norway is a substantial self-service affair of bread, crackers, cheese, eggs, preserves, cold meat and fresh and pickled fish, washed down with tea or ground coffee. It’s usually first-rate at HI hostels, and often memorable in hotels, filling you up for the day and almost universally included in the price of the room – where it isn’t, we have indicated in the Guide.
For picnic food, bread, cheese, yoghurt and local fruit are all relatively good value, but other staple foodstuffs – rice, pasta, meat, cereals and vegetables – can be way above the European average. Anything tinned is particularly dear (with the exception of fish), but coffee and tea are quite reasonably priced. Supermarkets are ten-a-penny.
As ever, fast food offers the best chance of a hot, bargain-basement takeaway snack. The indigenous Norwegian stuff, served up from a thousand and one street kiosks and stalls – gatekjøkken – consists mainly of rubbery hot dogs (varm pølse), while pizza slices and chicken pieces and chips are much in evidence too. A better choice, if a shade more expensive, is simply to get a sandwich, a smørbrød (pronounced “smurrbrur”), normally a slice of bread heaped with a variety of garnishes. You’ll see them groaning with meat or shrimps, salad and mayonnaise in the windows of bakeries and cafés, or in the newer, trendier sandwich bars in the cities.
A standard cup of coffee is bitter and strong and served black with cream on the side, but lots of places – especially city coffee shops – have moved up a notch, serving mochas, cappuccinos and so forth. Tea is just as popular, but the local preference is for lemon tea or a variety of flavoured infusions; if you want milk, ask for it. All the familiar soft drinks are available, too.
For the best deals, you’re often going to have to eat your main meal of the day at lunchtime, when kafeterias (often self-service restaurants) lay on daily specials, the dagens rett. This is a fish or meat dish served with potatoes and a vegetable or salad, often including a drink, sometimes bread, and occasionally coffee, too; it should go for 150–200kr. You’ll find kafeterias hidden above shops and offices and adjoining hotels in larger towns, where they might be called kaffistovas. Most close at around 6pm, and many don’t open at all on Sunday. As a general rule, the food these places serve is plain (though there are exceptions), but the same cannot be said of the much more up-to-date café-bars which abound in all of Norway’s larger towns and cities. These affordable establishments offer much tastier (and sometimes more adventurous) meals like pasta dishes, salads and vegetarian options with main courses in the region of 160–220kr. They are also open longer – usually till late at night. Restaurants are worth investigating at lunchtimes too, as it’s then that many of them cut their prices to pull in extra trade.
They may now share the gastronomic laurels with the nation’s café-bars, but there are first-class restaurants in every Norwegian city and most towns, though the villages can lose out if the local hotel(s) doesn’t cut the mustard. Apart from exotica such as reindeer and elk, the one real speciality is the seafood, simply prepared and wonderfully fresh – whatever you do, don’t go home without treating yourself at least once. Main courses begin at around 220kr, starters and desserts at around 110kr. Smoked salmon comes highly recommended, as does catfish, halibut and monkfish. The best deals are often at lunchtime, though some restaurants don’t open till the evening. In the western fjords, look out also for the help-yourself, all-you-can-eat buffets available in many of the larger hotels from around 6pm; go early to get the best choice and expect to pay around 500kr to be confronted by mounds of pickled herring, salmon (laks), cold cuts of meat, a feast of breads and crackers, and usually a few hot dishes too – meatballs, soup and scrambled eggs.
In the towns, and especially in Oslo, there is also a sprinkling of non-Scandinavian restaurants, mostly Italian with a good helping of Chinese and Indian places. Other cuisines pop up too – Japanese, Moroccan and Persian to name but three.
Most restaurants have bilingual menus (in Norwegian and English), but we have provided a menu reader.
Vegetarians are in for a hard time. Apart from a handful of specialist restaurants in the big cities, there’s little option other than to make do with salads, look out for egg dishes in kafeterias and supplement your diet from supermarkets. If you are a vegan the problem is greater: when the Norwegians are not eating meat and fish, they are attacking a fantastic selection of milks, cheeses and yoghurts. At least you’ll know what’s in every dish you eat, since everyone speaks English. If you’re self-catering, look for health food shops (helsekost), found in some of the larger towns and cities.
One of the less savoury sights in Norway – and especially common in the north – is the fall-over drunk: you can spot one at any time of the day or night zigzagging along the street, a strangely disconcerting counter to the usual stereotype of the Norwegian as a healthy, hearty figure in a wholesome woolly jumper. For reasons that remain obscure – or at least culturally complex – many Norwegians can’t just have a drink or two, but have to get absolutely wasted. The majority of their compatriots deplore such behaviour and have consequently imposed what amounts to alcoholic rationing: thus, although booze is readily available in the bars and restaurants, it’s taxed up to the eyeballs and the distribution of wines, strong ales and spirits is strictly controlled and is in the hands of a state-run monopoly, Vinmonopolet. Whether this paternalistic type of control makes matters better or worse is a moot point, but the majority of Norwegians support it.
You can get a drink at most outdoor cafés, in restaurants and obviously at bars, pubs and cocktail bars, but only in the towns and cities is there any kind of “European” bar life. Wherever you go for a drink, half a litre of beer should cost around 60kr, and a glass of wine from 50kr.
What to drink
If you decide to splash out on a few drinks, you’ll find Norwegian beer is almost universally lager-like and uninspiring; Carlsberg owns the country’s largest brewer, Ringnes. That said, recent modifications to the alcohol laws have tried to stir the microbrewery pot and although this has made little headway so far, things may pick up. One notable star-turn is the Ægir microbrewery at the Flåmsbrygga in Flåm. There has also been a minor boom in farmhouse cider-making across the western fjords: Ulvik, for example, has several producers. As regards wine, there’s no domestic production to speak of and most spirits are imported too, with the principal exception being aquavit (akevitt), a bitter concoction served ice-cold in little glasses and, at forty percent proof or more, real head-banging material; it’s more palatable with beer chasers. Linie aquavit, made in Norway from potatoes, is one of the more popular brands.
Where to buy alcohol
Weaker beers (below 4.75% ABV) are sold in supermarkets and shops all over Norway, though generally (for all but the weakest) not after 8pm on weekdays and 6pm on Saturday, and some local communities, particularly in the west, have their own rules and restrictions. Stronger beers, along with wines and spirits, can only be purchased from state-run Vinmonopolet stores (
vinmonopolet.no). There’s generally one branch in each medium-sized town and many more in each of Norway’s cities. Characteristically, these stores are open Monday to Friday 10am–4/6pm and Saturday 10am–1/3pm, but they all close on public holidays. At Vinmonopolet stores, wine is quite a bargain, from 80kr a bottle, and there’s generally a wide choice.
gravy served with most meats, rissoles, fishcakes and sausages.
marinated mutton that is smoked, sliced, salted, dried and served with crispbread, scrambled egg and beer.
fish balls, served under a white sauce or on open sandwiches.
shrimps, fish and vegetables in aspic.
a flat unleavened cracker, half barley, half wheat.
a hard, strong smelling, yellow-brown cheese with veins.
goat’s cheese, slightly sweet and fudge-coloured. Similar cheeses have different ratios of goat’s milk to cow’s milk.
salmon marinated in salt, sugar, dill and brandy.
marinated boiled ham, served at Christmas.
home-made burgers with surkål cabbage and a sweet and sour sauce.
a midday buffet with cold meats, herrings, salads, bread and perhaps soup, eggs or hot meats.
pork, venison (or other meats) and vegetable stew, common in the south and east, using salted or fresh meat, or leftovers, in a thick brown gravy.
fish (usually cod) preserved in an alkali solution and seasoned; an acquired taste; For more information, see Stokfisk, klippfisk and lutefisk.
cloudberries – wild berries mostly found north of the Arctic Circle and served with cream (med krem).
brown whey cheese, made from cow’s milk.
western Norwegian Christmas dish of smoked mutton steamed over shredded birch bark, served with cabbage; or accompanied by boiled potatoes and mashed swedes (kålrabistappe).
reindeer steak, usually served with boiled potatoes and cranberry sauce.
shrimp salad in mayonnaise.
eastern Norwegian Christmas dish of pork ribs, sausage and dumplings.
various types of smoked, dried meat.
cream cake with fruit
pancakes made with cream, served with sugar and jam
oatmeal biscuits, eaten with goat’s cheese
cake made from almonds, sugar and eggs, served at celebrations
rice pudding with whipped cream and sugar, usually served with frukt saus, a slighly thickened fruit sauce
stewed apples and breadcrumbs, served with cream
kind of milk broth with raisins, rice, cinnamon and sugar.
beaten egg whites (or whipped cream) and sugar mixed with cloudberries (or cranberries)
The Vikings were able to sail long distances without starving to death because they had learnt how to dry white fish (mostly cod) in the open air. This dried fish, stokfisk, remained edible for years and was eaten either raw or after soaking in water – chewy and smelly no doubt, but very nutritious. In time, stokfisk became the staple diet of western Norway and remained so until the early twentieth century, with every fishing port festooned with massive wooden A-frames holding hundreds of drying white fish, headless and paired for size. Only in the 1690s did the Dutch introduce the idea of salting and drying white fish, again usually cod, to the Norwegians. The fish was decapitated, cleaned and split, then heavily salted and left for several weeks before being dried by being left outside on rocky drying grounds, klipper in Norwegian, hence klippfisk – or bacalao in Spanish. The Norwegians never really took to eating klippfisk, but their merchants made fortunes exporting it to Spain, Portugal, Africa and the Caribbean. The Norwegians did, however, take to eating lutefisk, in which either stokfisk or klippfisk is soaked in cold water and, at certain stages, lye, to create a jelly-like substance that many Norwegians regard as a real delicacy, though it is very much an acquired taste. The American storyteller and humourist Garrison Keillor would have none of it, suggesting in Pontoon: A Lake Wobegon Novel that “Most lutefisk is not edible by normal people.” Most will find it hard to disagree.