In 'The Nordic Cookbook,' An In-Depth Take On Region's Diverse Cuisine

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Magnus Nilsson's "The Nordic Cookbook" looks more like an encyclopedia, more like an SUV, in fact, with a fjord on the cover. The Swedish chef and food writers put together a compendium of 700 recipes from a region the fine food world now treats as some kind of discovery. There's lots of versions of various pickled fishes in the book but also puffin stuffed with cake, fresh eel cooked on straw and Sami blood pancakes with smoked reindeer fat.

You pour maple syrup over those?

MAGNUS NILSSON: (Laughter) I guess you could.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Well, chef Magnus Nilsson joins us now. He's, by the way, head chef at a famous restaurant 400 miles north of Stockholm, which is pretty dark at this time of year. Welcome to the sun, chef Nilsson.

NILSSON: Thank you so much.

SIMON: I gather - at first, you thought this might be a short book. Why?

NILSSON: I thought, and actually, at first, I didn't want to do it when it was proposed to me. And I was even a little bit offended by the fact that someone wants to kind of lump this very, very large region into one book. You know, the Nordics is a geographical region. It's not really a cultural region.

SIMON: Now, our research team tells us split pea soup is a dish that reaches across the region we're talking about.

NILSSON: It is. One thing that ties the whole region together is the fact that you'll have four very distinctive seasons, and at least one of them, regardless where in the region you are, is going to be a season where you can't really harvest any plant materials for food. So a lot of those dishes that are based on something that can be stored really well through winter like, for example, the dried peas for the split pea soup, they are actually dishes that you can find, if not in the whole region, at least in parts of it.

SIMON: You know, I can't delay asking you about the blood pancakes with smoked reindeer fat.

NILSSON: So that particular recipe - it's one that comes from the semi-nomadic Sami culture, but blood used in food is quite common.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, I - forgive me. Reindeer blood, you don't get off a shelf, I'm guessing.

NILSSON: No. And the thing is that this book, to me, it was very important that it's not just a bunch of recipes put in a nice book. It's also really a document of food culture. And I think that out of those 700 or something recipes that are in the book, there are probably at least 50 of them that I doubt that anyone is actually going to cook. But they're still really important because they explain something about food culture, you know.

SIMON: Yeah. And, I mean, I'm just guessing - blood pancakes with smoked reindeer fat makes the point that the Sami people, living in arduous circumstances, have to make use of every part of the reindeer.

NILSSON: It does, you know. It tells that story in a really, really clear and very good way.

SIMON: If we were to say - chef, could you make us one recipe from this book, what might you try?

NILSSON: I think I would go for an open sandwich, actually because that's something that's very - it's as close to a pan-Nordic dish that you'll get. And it says a lot about the place where it's prepared and eaten in the way it's shaped, you know.

Like, for example, in Denmark, they have these open sandwiches that they're very famous for. And they really say a lot about, you know, Denmark as a country, being a very rich agriculture region, and you see this on these sandwiches. You know, they're fully laden with a huge spectrum of different toppings, very sort of rich and opulent sandwiches that you can't even - you know, you have to eat them from a plate with knife and a fork, right?

SIMON: Yeah.

NILSSON: And then if you go up to where I grew up, a sandwich there would probably be more of a, you know, a piece of flatbread with a layer of butter and a layer of cheese on it that you would eat standing up. And I think it's a very interesting thing, you know, those things that, you know, are kind of a broader concept exist in a big geographic region but that vary a lot depending on where you are.

SIMON: Chef Magnus Nilsson of "The Nordic Cookbook." Thank you, chef.

NILSSON: Thank you.

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