On the hunt for authentic Norwegian food

Eating on the Edge: At Scandinavian Specialties in Ballard, the cafe is good but the true treasure is the freezer case.
Lutefisk, the notorious delicacy of cod

Lutefisk, the notorious delicacy of cod Hugo Kugiya

Scandinavian Specialties owner Anne-Lise Berger

Scandinavian Specialties owner Anne-Lise Berger Hugo Kugiya

Eating at the cafe in Scandinavian Specialties

Eating at the cafe in Scandinavian Specialties Hugo Kugiya

The Leif Erikson Lodge on NW 56th Street, home to the Sons of Norway, is next to the aptly named Viking Bank. One of its founders, Kaare Ness, is a Norwegian fisherman turned seafood industry baron. A Viking warship is part of the bank’s logo.

Seven blocks away, the Copper Gate restaurant serves cocktails and Norwegian-style appetizers on a bar fashioned after a traditional Viking boat. A short distance to the west, the Nordic Heritage Museum houses actual Nordic artifacts.

Seattle’s Norwegian heritage is well-known and evident in the names of the city’s stores, institutions, buildings, parks, streets and benefactors. Its people, whether actually Scandinavian or not, are said to possess that Fjordian personality: austere, practical, passive-aggressive, predisposed to inconspicuous behavior. If Norwegian Seattle still has a civic and emotional center, it is Ballard, host every May 17 to a parade that celebrates Constitution Day, Norway’s version of Independence Day.

But if you want to eat Norwegian food in Ballard — the Ikea cafeteria in Tukwila is a mere approximation — your options are thin and fading. Olsen’s Scandinavian Foods closed last summer like Scandie’s restaurant years before. A few weeks ago, the Scandinavian Bakery on 15th Avenue Northwest, known for its marzipan cakes and cardamom braids, also closed. The authenticity of the food at Copper Gate can be debated; it is gracefully executed and fairly true to form with dishes like pickled herring and meatballs with lingonberries, but it is intended more to entice Americans who have never eaten Norwegian food before, than to satisfy someone who grew up eating it at home.

For that audience, there is perhaps just one place left, Scandinavian Specialties, at Northwest 67th Street and 15th Avenue Northwest. Co-owner Anne-Lise Berger, 60, grew up near Oslo and moved to Seattle in 1977 because she fell in love with an American pen pal, with whom she spent five years traveling around the world. The two married, had a son, and divorced.

Her son Bjorn Ruud, 28, also works at the store. Born in Seattle, raised in Ballard, he speaks Norwegian. Trained to run the store, he is more interested in being a musician and plans to live in New York for a while.

Scandinavian Specialties (originally a sausage shop, it was started in 1962 by a Norwegian butcher) is a store and café, the last of its kind in Ballard, and maybe the last place in town you can be served traditional Norwegian food, albeit from a very limited menu. Two years ago, Berger abandoned a full menu because demand for hot food was so low. The café, which closes at 5:30 p.m., serves cakes, pastries, soup and open-faced sandwiches.

“Maybe there is room for just one Norwegian store in Seattle,” said Berger, the store’s third owner.

Most of the floor space in the converted tire shop — the original store was farther north — is devoted to selling things: books; cookware, including a canvas pastry board used to make lefse, the traditional Norwegian potato bread; gift-shop items like sweaters, clogs, joke books, hand towels, jewelry, figurines, key chains, and CDs; and a full assortment of Scandinavian groceries. There are seasonings, baking mixes, candy — Norwegians are especially fond of licorice, both sweet and salty — and an infinite variety of herring: plain, herring in mustard sauce, herring in garlic sauce or sour cream, with fish eggs or with dill. Norwegians traditionally eat substantially more seafood than meat. Fruit (apart from lingonberry) and green leafy vegetables are noticeably absent from the cuisine; cabbage and root vegetables are what thrive in the country’s short growing season.

The real treasure at Scandinavian Specialties is in the store’s freezer case, where traditional foods made on premises are kept. The store employs a Norwegian-American woman who makes various sausages (veal, pork, blood, potato), meatballs, fish cake (made with snapper and deep fried), pickled and salted herring, liver pate, head cheese (made from lamb and pork), salted lamb, potato balls, yellow pea soup (made with whole, not split peas), and a sour-cream porridge called rommegrot, a traditional Norwegian farm dish.

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Posted Thu, Mar 11, 3:38 p.m. Inappropriate

"Lutefisk? I won't allow it in my house." -- Stan Boreson


Posted Thu, Mar 11, 6:12 p.m. Inappropriate

Maybe Ikea's cafeteria food is a mere approximation of Norwegian food because it is Swedish food. I lived in Sweden, and while the Ikea offerings are not Swedish food it it's very best, there is quite a bit that brings back fond memories of eating in Sweden. Given the prices, it can't be beat.


Posted Thu, Mar 11, 9:51 p.m. Inappropriate

I still mourn the Bistro and can taste the swedish cooking of Matt and I forget his spouse's name on I think it was Roosevelt Way. And lunches at Anna Hedeen's on Fifth Avenue south of Union. Prune whip pie is the only name that comes to mind, but again I can still taste all the back-home recipes in her extensive collection. Happy memories. And don't get me started on Cambridge, Mass.


Posted Fri, Mar 12, 10:14 a.m. Inappropriate

With the exception of Scandinavian, Asian and East African communities, Seattle's immigrants were far more assimilated by the time they reached Puget Sound than the Jews, Italians, and Eastern Europeans. That said, not even Katz's Deli on New York's Lower East Side is immune from their aging and increaisngly assimilated client base. I wrote about this last year on my food & travel blog, Cornichon.

Posted Fri, Mar 12, 5:55 p.m. Inappropriate

MY Norwegian grandparents - and great-grandparents - were determined to assimilate and become AMERICAN as quickly as possible. In Everett, the congregation of Ebenezer Lutheran began offering services in English in 1908. By 1915 services were no longer held in Norwegian. The church was re-named Central Lutheran, in 1917. My grandfather was not allowed to speak Norwegian at home.

By the 1950's, Norwegian food traditions were primarily enjoyed at home- and at Christmas: Cookies, lefse, yulekake(a Christmas bread with dried fruit), aged goat cheese, flat crisp breads, pickled herring, pickled beets. Lutefisk, not so much. Most people in my family NEVER liked it. It was a food of poverty. And if you had an electric ice box, who needed dried cod?

When soldiers from Washington State marched aboard troop transports in 1917, they were serenaded ( to the tune of OVER THERE):

"And if you won't fight for your Uncle Sammy,
Why don't you go back, OVER THERE."

My Grandparents were proud of their Norwegian heritage. My grandfather, Henry Ringman, was awarded the King Olav Medal for his contributions to Norwegian culture and music.

But first, and always, he was an American.

Ross Kane (Also Ringman, Hanson, Jackson and Eide)
Warm Beach


Posted Fri, Mar 12, 8:08 p.m. Inappropriate

Great piece, Hugo. I mourned the passing of Olsen's -- where you could hear Norwegian spoken as you were assaulted by the acrid smell of herring -- as well as Scandie's. (Although their surly waitresses rivaled anything I heard about on "The News from Lake Wobegon.") But it's terrific to have Scandinavian Specialties just down the road ... Try the rommegrot. It's not health food but heavens, it's tasty.



Posted Wed, Mar 17, 11:46 a.m. Inappropriate

Did Seattle not have Swedish or Danish settlers, or have those roots been dyed a Norwegian shade of blonde? Just wondering.


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