Copenhagen Is the World Capital of Weird Frankenfoods

A wanton mixing of cuisines—a single menu containing Chinese, Thai, and frikadeller (Danish meatballs)—is everywhere on Copenhagen's Amager district.

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Jun 26 2016, 8:00pm

It started, as these things often do, in desperation. I was at a friend's house on Amager, a district and island southwest of central Copenhagen, and we were hungry. It was cold and pissing rain, and there was nothing besides a hardening block of brunøst in the refrigerator. We made the only decision we could in that moment, which was to go to the nearest restaurant. It was four doors from my friend's house, and though he passed it daily, he had never actually eaten there. The name, Bistro Grill, didn't give away much. It certainly didn't suggest a place that served chop suey and pork in red curry sauce along with burgers. After that meal, I realized this wanton mixing of cuisines—a single menu containing Chinese, Thai, and frikadeller (Danish meatballs)—was everywhere on Amager. A region of the city I had previously known primarily for its cheaper housing, Hells Angels, and predilection for tanning salons, had its own cuisine. I took to calling it Amager Fusion.

Amager Fusion

All illustrations by Sofie Nørgaard Kampmark

Den Lykkelige Familie Den Lykkelige Familie was one of my first encounters. From the outside, it looks like your average Chinese restaurant, down to the gilded lions that stand guard over this grimy bit of Englandsvej, a street that runs through Amager. But inside, a bounty awaits unsuspecting first-time visitors. For 128 kroner (148 on weekends because, well, capitalism), the hungry diner gets all she can eat Chinese-style beef in broccoli, Thai red curry, Japanese nigiri, Danish tartelette, and various fried items. There is also a semi-do-it-yourself Mongolian barbecue that involves slipping a plate of raw ingredients through a window in the kitchen wall and waiting for it to reappear as a piping hot tangle of meat, noodles, and sauce. Most of this—the disturbingly viscous tartelette being the exception—is surprisingly good. And there is just so much of it. For dessert, there is even an ice cream buffet—soft serve and hard, including industrial-sized squeeze bottles of chocolate and strawberry syrup.

All this helps explain why Den Lykkelige Familie is so crowded, and attracts some of the largest Danes I have seen in Copenhagen). The veterans are easy to spot: they ignore all borders, cross-pollinate piles of fried noodles with a few rounds of salmon maki, and dip french fries in their sweet and sour shrimp. Den Lykkelige Familie's owner, Hui Juan Xu, is unbothered by the culinary miscegenation. "Danes like to mix it up," she says with a tolerant smile.

Chili's In the United States, there are more than a thousand Chili's, most of them located in strip mall parking lots and all of them serving the kind of Tex Mex cuisine that is heavy on the fajitas and jalapeño poppers. In Amager, there is only one Chili's and though it shares a logo with its American forebears (a jaunty pepper over the 'i') it is rather more broadminded in its offerings. There are nachos, it is true (made, redundantly, with nacho-flavored tortilla chips). But there is also a plank-like schnitzel, kebabs, and a not unpleasant rogan josh served with sauce that tastes deeply of Red Hots. Mostly, though, there is pizza, which is all that I see anyone else order while I am there.

At Chili's, pizza is a broad term. You can get what Chili's calls a "pizza sandwich" and others call a bad idea for a calzone: pizza dough baked around a filling of falafel and crème fraiche. That same dough daubed with butter and set naked in the oven to bake becomes naan. Pizza dough into Indian flatbread? It's genius, is what it is, and it got me wondering what other innovations Amager Fusion has wrought?

Steak House The first thing you need to know about Steak House is that there are no steaks. There used to be steaks, back when Steak House was indeed a steak house. But that was before the owner, Saki, bought back his family's restaurant from the people to whom they had sold it. He tried to change the name, but everyone kept calling it Steak House. This despite the fact that what Steak House serves, in addition to its kebabs and baked potatoes, is American pizza.

As an American myself, I had never actually heard the phrase "American pizza." But when I spied the blackened, straight-sided pans that Steak House uses, I took 'American' to mean Chicago-style deep dish. This was exciting, and I eagerly began to peruse the lengthy menu. At Steak House, the American pizzas are named after American places with what can only be considered a whimsical disregard for the places themselves. Thus, the thoroughly urban city of Manhattan gets a pizza topped, agriculturally enough, with corn and peas. The Dakotas and Montana are known as ranching states, but their Steak House corollaries, named with rapier-like irony, are vegetarian. And in a kind of apotheosis of Amager Fusion, there is a pizza topped with shawarma that is called a Las Vegas, despite the fact that Las Vegas calls to mind many, many things before its Middle Eastern cuisine. "Yeah," admits Saki. "I just liked the names."

Saki is an entrepreneur. He was born in Denmark, but his parents are from Pakistan. Together, they have built several successful businesses along Steak House's stretch of Røde Mellemvej. The restaurant is halal, so the 'ham' on its pizzas (as well as the pepperoni and the bacon) is actually made from turkey. He puts ginger on The Boston because ginger on pizza, he says, is the next big thing. In a couple of months, he plans to put steaks back on the Steak House menu.

The American pizzas were not, alas, deep dish. Saki takes a normal thin crust and presses it into the bottom of the pan, then tops it as you would any pizza. I asked him what makes this American. "That's what they called it where I learned to make it," he replies. Where was that? "In Norway."

Amager Fusion

The Power Grill The fluorescent glow emanating from its windows makes The Power Grill impossible to miss. But so too does the handwritten sign in the window: KIMONO PØLSE, 25 kr. Inside, a lone diner with greased-back hair was watching the Eurovision semifinals with rapt attention. The owner tried to explain. "Hot dog. Wrap." I imagined a hotdog wrapped in a flatbread. And thus I was utterly unprepared for the golden brown phallus that I was served. It was a hotdog, true, but it had been enrobed in an eggroll skin and deep fried. It was strangely delicious. Although I would later discover that it is is not indigenous to the Power Grill, I like to think that in its innovative blending of the Danish and the Chinese, the Kimono Pølse could only have been invented on Amager.

The Southern Grill It was with this model of creative hybridization in mind that I landed at The Southern Grill. By now, I was more or less prepared for the contents of its menu: over 70 varieties of stir-fried things; a not inconsequential number of deep-fried things; 50 types of burgers (divided among "new," "homemade," and "ordinary"); a dozen flavors of milkshakes. I was prepared for the tangential relationship that some of these dishes had to their namesakes (the Copenhagen Burger, with its jalapeños, being a prime case in point). I can't say I was surprised to learn that the milkshakes are actually just soft serve ice cream squeezed into a cup, with the appropriately flavored syrup squeezed on top.

But I have to admit, I was surprised by the sushi. Not that The Southern Grill has sushi, but by their decision to invest so much in it. After all, The Southern Grill is a Chinese/fast food take-out joint that, according to owner Thomas Lam, does its biggest business in burgers. But five years ago Lam sized up the market. He hired a sushi chef, and set him behind glass because with sushi, "people want to see what they're getting." He published a separate, lavishly illustrated 23-page sushi menu to go with the 16-page menu that lists the rest of The Southern Grill's offerings. Sushi is now the restaurant's second most popular offering.

Amager Fusion

And that is saying something, because The Southern Grill is busy—crazy busy. From the moment it opens at 4:30 pm until it closes at 10 pm, the steady stream of customers doesn't end. The staff were Chinese and Japanese and Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern and Danish. The customers were the same, with the occasional Italian, Spaniard, and Brit thrown in. It was the single most diverse place I have been in Copenhagen.

It's easy to laugh at all this, at this Amager Fusion, and indeed, I laughed a lot while I ate my way around the island. Those of us who are hipster types (though we hate to admit it) tend to see this kind of hybridization as worthy of mockery, if not outright scorn. What we value is authenticity, and Amager Fusion, with its pizza dough naan and kimono pølser and all-you-can-eat Chinese/Japanese/Thai/Mongolian/Danish buffets, seems the opposite of authentic.

But consider Lam, whose parents opened The Southern Grill 40 years ago. As emigrants from Hong Kong, they served only Chinese food at first, gradually adding burgers, he says, when "fast food became popular in Denmark." He has since added other things Danes like, including sushi and bubble tea. And he's been so successful at it that he and his family have been able to open a second restaurant. It's also on Amager.

Amager Fusion is the creation of immigrants. It mixes the cuisine of the purveyor's origins with one or more that Danes seem to like. In this, it is integration itself, not only providing those who would come here with an economic pathway into Danish society, but embodying, for everyone, the multicultural ethos that Danes say they support.

So you could look at Amager Fusion and see bastardization. Or you could look at it and remember the hamburger. In the late 19th-century, German immigrants and sailors brought the chopped meat "Hamburg steak" to the United States, where it was soon slipped between two pieces of bread by some visionary entrepreneur (many claim to have invented it) and went on to become the very icon of American cuisine.

You could, in other words, look at Amager Fusion and see the future of food.