By Helen Russell
‘Delicious’, ‘distinctive’, and ‘in demand’—all accolades applied to the gastronomic offerings of both Denmark and Japan in recent years. There’s long been a strong presence of Japanese eateries in Denmark and a stream of Scandinavian chefs have been visiting Japan lately, too. From Denmark’s Thorsten Schmidt of Malling & Schmidt cooking up a storm at Tokyo’s two-Michelin-starred Narisawa to the much-anticipated Noma residency at the Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo in January - there’s an appetite for all things Danish in Japan right now.
Despite being thousands of miles apart, there are plenty of similarities between modern Danish dining and traditional Japanese food. With a strong emphasis on minimalism and aesthetics—as well as a love of pickled fish—the two cuisines have more in common than you might expect. Pepi Anevski is a man with a foot in both culinary camps, as executive chef at Denmark’s Umami and the proud holder of the title of World Sushi Champion. Anevski fought off competition from around he globe, including Japan, to win the cup in Tokyo - so who better to explain the culinary connections between his two favourite foodie cultures?
The Raw Ingredients
“Japanese food is all about simplicity,” says Anevski, “- and there’s a big emphasis on local produce. If you’ve got great raw materials, you want to do as little with them as possible. This is something the Danes know a lot about, too.” Since Noma’s Rene Redzepi and Claus Meyer started the New Nordic Cuisine movement a decade ago, Danish chefs have been getting back to basics, focussing on local, often foraged, seasonal produce and serving it in as natural a state as possible.
“There’s obviously a lot of seafood in Japanese cooking, and in Danish cuisine too,” says Anevski: “Japan is an island nation and Denmark is made up of lots of islands—there’s water everywhere!” Denmark is made up of 406 islands (more, even, than Greece) and 7,314 km of coastline, which means that you’re never more than 50km from the sea. As well as the famous herring, Danish waters boast cod, flatfish and trout. Japan is famed for its tuna, swordfish and blue marlin, among others—but as Anevski says, “it’s really the variety of seafood that’s eaten in Japan that’s so staggering—the Japanese are adventurous eaters!”
“Japan and Denmark share the same ideals of aesthetically beautiful, yet simple food,” says Anevski: “It’s about dishes that may be small but come in many portions, all elegantly presented.” The Japanese take things further with an emphasis on food that’s enjoyable with all five (“some say, six,” says Anevski) senses. “Balance is really important in Japanese dining—from the first dish to the end, you have to think about how it will feel, look etc,” he says.
Danes have elevated the simple open-sandwich to an art form and while the traditional smörgåsbord includes countless combinations, there’s a specific preparation method and an order in which morsels must be devoured. From the herring eaten on rye bread, to the smoked salmon that should never be eaten on rye, an invitation to a smörgåsbord for the uninitiated is a cultural minefield.
In Japan, sushi is a ceremony in itself. “It’s supposed to be made in an open kitchen so you can see it being prepared,” says Anevski, “and it really is a performance. Chefs talk to guests while they’re working, so it’s very sociable.” There are rituals, too, “—like always cutting the fish with the head away from you and the tail towards you, then slicing at right angles,” Anevski adds. “Ask anyone ‘why?’ and you get the familiar response, ‘it’s tradition’.”
Drinking schnapps with your herring is an integral part of being a Viking and in Denmark, it’s customary to raise your glass, look everyone in the eye, and bid them a hearty “skål!” (cheers) before you drink. Failure to skål in Denmark is seen as a major faux pas and myth has it anyone who skips a toast is sentenced to seven years’ bad sex (you have been warned).
The Japanese famously love a beer or sake with their sushi and the rice wine is traditionally warmed in a porcelain tokkuri bottle then sipped from a small cup, or sakazuki. “Sake balances with the flavours of the different types of sushi and is thought to help you digest,” says Anevski.