When I arrived in Oslo as a third year university student, having lugged every jumper I owned across the Atlantic, the first thing I wanted to know about was the food. What would I be eating on my year abroad at the University of Oslo? Would I return a total convert to the Nordic meal? Is that cured salmon thing Norwegian, or have I just generalised the entirety of Scandinavian cuisine?
“On Fridays, we have tacos and on Saturdays, we have pizza,” my new Norwegian housemate told me matter-of-factly across our kitchen table. “Norwegians really love pizza.”
Four years later, and I can still hear these words perfectly in my mind. And boy, was Niall right. In 2006, it was estimated that Norwegians consumed the most frozen pizza per capita of any country in the world—they even have a name for the ritual: Lørdagspizza, meaning “Friday pizza.” The most popular pizza brand is Grandiosa, a spongy and overpriced pie that 20 percent of the population considers a national dish. A Norwegian band dropped a single in 2006 called “Respekt for Grandiosa,” and it was number one in the charts for eight weeks. Eight weeks.
Norway might have Maeemo—a globally renowned, three-Michelin star restaurant—but I soon came to realise that in 2014 Oslo, gastronomical virtuosity didn’t quite extend to food you grab under the glowing strip-lights of a supermarket.
Considering Norway has never been renowned for its brilliant pizza or authentic tacos, I wasn’t overly enthused by my housemate’s answer on our first evening together. After some culinary digging, I realised that Norway only became wealthy enough to expand its food culture beyond more traditional peasant foods in 1959, when it hit oil in the North Sea. Before that, it was a poor country with little means to produce a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, due to the cold climate.
Historically, Norwegian food involves a lot of boiled mutton (no offence to boiled mutton) and turnips (huge offence to turnips, you suck). But as the country became richer and globalisation spread, in came the American food imports like tacos and pizza.
While money doesn’t necessitate a good food culture, having a strong economy means the ability to import fruit and veg that can’t be grown locally, as well as an attractive economy for immigrants who will diversify the food culture. Though arguably, Norway could do a little better when it comes to that last part.
Still, I was sure that there was more to Norway’s food than shitty frozen pizza and watery ground beef tacos. And of course, there was, but it would take me awhile to find it. Especially since I had just moved to a country with a population smaller than the city I’d grown up in; I was lonely all the time; and had no money. Norway is unbelievably expensive, and I couldn’t afford £7 frozen pizzas or do any of the things I’d usually do to distract myself from my boring existence.
However, there was one way I could work around my lack of money and learn more about Norwegian food: I decided to start selling late-night hot dogs to my fellow university students. Retrospectively, a clear sign of madness induced by lack of human contact … but at the time, a great idea! Norwegians eat their hot dogs (pølse) in roti-like wraps called lompe. I decided to start a business called "Ruby’s Pølse" and advertised with posters across the university halls, including the number for a burner phone I'd bought for people to ring in their orders. I'd then deliver each hot dog, wrapped in foil, by hand to the lucky recipient. Simple!
I’m not entirely sure why I thought this would be a great idea. What Ruby’s Pølse mainly involved, in the end, was me sitting in on a Friday and Saturday night, alone, in my grotty student kitchen, staring at my cheap Nokia phone. I had one order the entire three weekends I did it.
In the end, dear reader, I consumed most of the 30 pølse myself. Perhaps the Norwegian students simply weren’t ready for my neo-capitalist fast food solution.
Of course, I did manage to eat more than just processed meats and carbs during my year in Oslo. I picked chanterelle mushrooms in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, I learned to make grød—a creamy Norwegian rice pudding—and ate various boiled and braised meats, and reindeer (fine). I ate out rarely, and only when I could find men on a Norwegian wage naive and hopeful enough to buy me dinner. I discovered the university English school’s cafe, where I first tried Norway’s greatest dish, vaffler or waffles in a flower shape (very different to American or Belgian waffles). For a few kroner, I could get a freshly made waffle, cover it in butter and brunost (brown cheese—it’s weird, idk, kinda sweet but also cheese), and shove it into my mouth before taking a sip of black coffee. I’d make these waffles every Sunday, often alone, in my student halls because every household in Norway seems to come equipped with a waffle maker. I started a cynical coffee blog, where I wrote about everything except coffee, because of Norway’s obsession with the stuff.
It’s been four years since I studied in Norway and while I’m sure the country’s food scene has since progressed, I really hope my ex-housemates are eating something other than frozen pizza on a Friday night.