As far back as the Book of Ecclesiastes, people have grasped that there’s nothing new under the sun. Perhaps nobody appreciates this better than Hollywood, with their endless sequels and cycles. So it is with albertnet. Based on the popularity of The Food of London and The Food of Scotland Parts I and II, and now The Food of Norway Part I, I’m doing another cheap ‘n’ easy retread: Part II of The Food of Norway. (For Part I, click here.) Herein I’ll cover Cheap Eats; Fails; Things We Didn’t Eat; Weirdness; and Adventures in Norwegian World Cuisine.
“Cheap Norwegian food” is essentially an oxymoron. I’ve never seen such uniformly overpriced fare. Walking by a 7-Eleven in Oslo (these are common, oddly), I saw an ad for disgusting vulcanized plastic nachos, with a price of “only” 80 NOK. That’s like $9.50 US. I searched on “cheapest restaurants Bergen” and found Zen Café, my favorite capsule review of which was “crap and good.” (I think that was supposed to be “cheap and good.”) TripAdvisor rates this place with one dollar sign ($), as in “cheapest category.” Lunch for four—meaning a single entrée apiece, no drinks, no appetizers, and no dessert—ran us about $90 US. Although that lunch was a highlight (see below), I cannot call it cheap.
That being said, we did manage, ultimately, to find some fairly reasonable places. One was called Sostrene Hagelin and was a fish-themed fast food joint. For “only” $40 we had a take-out lunch of fiskesuppe, fiskewraps, and fiskekake. The soup was pretty rich and creamy and included a seemingly infinite number of strangely uniform reconstituted fish balls. The first few bites—because we were starving—tasted pretty good. Then it got tiresome, and finally uncanny … you’re peering into this Styrofoam cup at all these little white spheres thinking, “What is this stuff?” The fiskewraps were pretty good: basically wraps with (albeit farmed) salmon or trout. The fiskekake (fish cakes) were, again, reconstituted and a bit rubbery, but highly filling. By the end of the meal I was quite satisfied … in fact, I kind of never wanted to eat again. But good! (Alas, I don’t have any photos of that food … we literally had our hands full carrying it all out.)
The next cheap find was the Kebab Huset, a little shack near the college campus run by a guy from Kurdistan. He was one of the few people we encountered in Norway with really poor English language skills (not that I can speak a word of Norwegian, so I’m not complaining). Normally you can guess your way through menus and such because, near as I can figure, Norwegian is just poorly spelled English. But we guessed totally wrong on the two entrees we bought. I wanted something wrapped up in pita, so I chose the “pita brød, lam.” My wife didn’t want any pita, so after a long, confusing, grinding-of-gears consultation with the proprietor, she settled on the “rullekebab lam.” What I got ended up being folded in one of those weird square tortilla-like things, and hers—you guessed it—was wrapped up in pita. They were 90 NOK (a little under $11, which is a still a lot) but they were huge. Check it out (the “pitabrød, lam” is on the left):
They were pretty tasty. The lamb was just lean enough, and not too greasy. There was the matter of sauces, though. There were big, opaque squeeze bottles up on the counter colored yellow, white, and red. I assumed mustard, mayonnaise, and ketchup, and had him hold the red. My wife had another long, convoluted, ships-passing-in-the-night discussion that got her nowhere, following which the helpful proprietor gave her a sample of each—squirted on her hand. Half a dozen paper napkins later, she announced the sauces were curry, something mayo-ish but also a bit ranch-ish, and hot sauce, all of which she likes. So her rullekebab was pretty much drenched in condiments. I’d give this food about a 7 for quality, a 10 for quantity, and about a 9 for economy (by Norwegian standards). “Crap and good!”
But can you get even cheaper? Why, as a matter of fact, you can. Check out this frozen pizza, which had the shockingly low price of 20 NOK (about $2.50 US) at the corner grocery:
“First Price,” not to be confused with “Fisher Price” (“this pizza is not a toy!”) is the grocery store house brand. The variety, “med paprika dypfryst,” literally translates “with deep-frozen peppers.” At least they’re honest. I should point out that most of the cheese you see on there we added (driving up the price). In fact, the “cheese” it came with was probably non-dairy. The most interesting thing about this pizza was the box. Look at this closely:
On the upper left, you have the standard product description, designed to lure the consumer into buying and/or to prevent buyer’s remorse later (“The tasty pizza pleasure for yourself or to share”). We get this description in German and Spanish as well. Below that, we have the baking instructions in no fewer than eight languages—but English is not among them! I guess they figure English speakers are a tough sell, but that once we’ve ponied up our money, we’re perfectly happy winging it on the preparation (or eating the pizza raw). I randomly baked the pizza at 200 degrees Celsius, whatever that is, until it looked done. I ended up really enjoying it, but then I love all pizza. I could probably rifle through the pockets of a passed-out homeless guy, retrieve a smushed slice, eat it cold, and enjoy it.
Does Norwegian food get even cheaper than that? Yes it does! In Bergen we stayed at a hostel, where lots of travelers leave behind food, which gets tossed in a “free” bin. After an egregiously expensive Italian dinner in town, we came back to the hostel, my appetite only teased, and I found a box of pasta, a jar of goulash, half a jar of pesto, some random bits of cheese, a bit of butter, and some milk—almost all of it from the free bins—and made a scrumptious and almost entirely free meal. I felt mighty vindicated after the restaurant rip-off.
We didn’t have any epic fails—that is, anything that gave us food poisoning, or was totally inedible like the plaice we had in Bath. But we had some pretty lame fare for giant sums of money. Consider this calzone:
I couldn’t quite figure it out. It was supposed to be pesto, and looked like pesto, but didn’t taste like much of anything. And what was that goo inside it? Thousand-island dressing? Fortunately this was my daughter’s entrée and I only “had” to have a bite (i.e., the mandatory parental tariff). I asked her how she liked it. “It’s pretty good,” she said, fighting not to sound lugubrious, in the spirit of a good sport who knows you just shelled out major bucks for her lunch.
At the same place—a “we’ve got you trapped” cafeteria near the ferry landing in the tiny town of Voss—my other daughter shared this big stupid sausage with me.
I guess it could have been worse, but it really needed to be hot. It wasn’t. (You know those oily rollers that 7-Eleven hot dogs get slowly rotated on, like some crazy torture rack, throughout the day? Well, maybe there’s a benefit to that after all.)
Here was a fail from a pretty pricey Italian place:
Can you imagine paying like $15 for that, and then sharing it with three other people? It’s fricking tiny! And what the hell is it? Other than the nice tomatoes, it looks like a pile of curds and compost that a goat was eating before suddenly taking ill and throwing up. Or maybe the goat had just eaten the foam rubber stuffing out of a cheap armchair and that’s why he barfed.
This apple cake looked pretty good, and was from a fancy place where we did have some pretty good food. The problem was, it was insipid and overly sweet … so much so that even my kids didn’t want it. In my family I’m known as “the closer” and ended up eating it. Laboriously chewing my way through it (because I hate to waste food), I found myself wondering, “Why am I doing this? How did I get here?”
Things we didn’t eat
Norwegians are really into fish and bread. They have historically specialized in dried cod. They have a process for drying cod by hanging it in a salty marine wind, and once it’s as dry as jerky, they can store it unrefrigerated for thirty years. Here’s what it looks like:
Full disclosure: the above is actually a dried King Cod, which is hung from a ceiling to give good luck. I don’t have the story completely straight because this was an hour into a museum tour and I was getting pretty tired out.
Here’s a place we didn’t eat at:
Look closely: “pimp your hot dog.” Talk about lost-in-translation. But that’s not what turned us off. It was those giant udder-like condiment dispensers. Utterly unappetizing. (Full disclosure: this was not in Norway, but the airport in Frankfurt en route.)
We did not eat at this place because it had permanently closed:
Probably a taqueria in Bergen was a quixotic endeavor to begin with. The fact is, Norwegians don’t eat a single thing that is spicy. We encountered nothing with even a hint of spice, not even black pepper. What a bunch of pansies.
We did not buy one of these fish at the famous open-air fish market:
What a crazy, huge, ugly creature. When we first examined it, its mouth was closed—but then suddenly it gaped open! I about had a heart attack, and the fishmonger laughed with great mirth. She has a little fishing line attached there that she can yank on to frighten the tourists. Probably spends half her day doing that … and I would too.
We did not eat any of these:
I always thought “cheeze doodles” was a playful nickname for Cheetos, but it’s actually a brand. Again, I’m bending the rules here; it’s a Swedish product, from the company Old London Wasa.
We also didn’t eat at McDonald’s, even though we encountered quite possibly the fanciest McDonald’s ever:
They wanted just 20 NOK (about $2.50) for a “Chili Mayo Cheese” burger, which I have to admit is cheap, but then you get what you pay for. I’d rather not participate in the cultural imperialism those Europeans quite rightly complain about.
Yeah, we had some weird food. First, we got these crabs at a high-end grocery; all the meat had been pulled out of the shells (which is a lot of work) and then stuffed into the main shell. Seems like a great service to the consumer, eh?
What made this weird is that the tomalley and other innards (kind of the entrails of the animal) had been shredded up and stuffed in there along with the tasty white crabmeat. It was kind of a lower layer, no doubt there to plump up the overall offering. The first few bites were great, but then we got into murky territory. The tomalley tastes really bad, an intense, putrid sea-stink kind of flavor. What were these grocers thinking?
Then there was this so-called “fish pudding,” which was kind of like tofu except tougher, and of course instead of soybean cake it was reconstituted fish.
The large brick of it did last a long time. Every time my wife would bring it out, the rest of us would groan. “It’s good!” she would say, unconvincingly even to herself, very much in the spirit of fake news. It did fill us up, though (or at least end our interest in eating). Note the 2.4% ABV “Lettøl” (i.e., light) beer in the background—purchased solely to wash down the fish pudding.
Speaking of weird, check out the strange spelling here:
If you saw “appelsinjuicen” on a menu, would you ever dream it was orange juice? That’s just plain mischievous.
Adventures in Norwegian world cuisine
Here’s a pretty nice Italian appetizer:
I mentioned a Vietnamese place earlier, which I couldn’t bring myself to call “cheap” despite its “$” rating. But it was good. Was it authentic? Well, the Asian waiter didn’t speak a word of English, which left him out of the mainstream among Norwegians, so perhaps it was. I’ve never been to Vietnam, but the food didn’t taste Norwegian, anyway. Check out these noodles:
The sauce was a tiny bit grainy, but good. Here’s a soup:
I could never make that at home so I’m going to call it authentic. And this curry was as good as what I’ve had in San Francisco:
Moving on to other world cuisine, I’ll remind you of the very exotic kebab place. And then we encountered this treat, in the free food bin at the hostel, which is bona-fide Russian:
In case you can’t read the label, it says “каша бананоьа.” Hmmm, I guess that’s not so helpful. Phonetically that reads “kasha bananova,” which you can probably guess is banana kasha (porridge). We didn’t actually eat this; my older daughter brought it home as a souvenir for a friend whose ‘rents are from Russia.
If I were a natural born promoter, I would always be sure to finish on a high note, but I guess I’m not. Think back to my first Norway post, though … we did have some darn fine meals in Norway, especially the salmon. And guess what? I have more to say about farmed Norwegian salmon, so check back next week!
For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.