In Danish, smørrebrød means butter and bread, but these open sandwiches are a lot more than that.
They first became popular in the 1800s among factory workers who would bring slices of rye bread and leftovers to make quick open sandwiches for lunch. By the end of that century, families were making them at home and dedicated smørrebrød restaurants had opened up around Denmark.
Karin Monk, who grew up north of Copenhagen and is now the vice-president of Melbourne's Danish Club at Denmark House, tells SBS Food, "It was the first Danish food to be exported, that became famous abroad.
"A lot of younger Danes might think it's old-fashioned, but they still would have grown up eating it. It's probably the most quintessential Danish food."
How to build and eat a smørrebrød
"In Denmark, there is a host of rules to do this right," says Monk.
The most common toppings are traditional Danish ingredients like pickled and smoked fish, cured meat, eggs and fermented vegetables. There are some popular combinations, while others should be avoided. For example, shrimps and certain types of salmon are among the few toppings usually served on white bread rather than rugbrød.
"The world of the classic Danish open sandwich can be a confusing one at times, with dozens of separate toppings and hundreds of different varieties of sandwiches with names like ‘The Veterinarian’s Supper’ and the ‘Shooting star’. My version takes the flavours of a Chinese ‘siu mai’ dumpling and gives them a Danish makeover." Adam Liaw, Destination Flavour Scandinavia
However, don't pick up a smørrebrød with your hands, especially while at a restaurant; they're meant to be eaten with a knife and a fork.
There's also an order in which to eat them. "It's very typical to start with pickled herring, then moved to other fish like cured salmon, mackerel and trout. After, you can have smørrebrød with meat like meatball and liver paste, and then cheese," explains Monk.
"There's an awful lot of meat involved in traditional smørrebrød, but my daughter is vegetarian so she might have sliced boiled potatoes with mayonnaise and fried shallots on top. In a sense, you can put anything you like."
"It's probably the most quintessential Danish food."
While many Danes stick to the rules and etiquette around smørrebrød, new ingredients are gaining in popularity.
"Twenty years ago, things like avocado wouldn’t have been eaten because we couldn't get it, but now, a lot of people would use avocado, cherry tomatoes and cucumber," says Monk.
When you order smørrebrød at a restaurant, you'll most likely be given a paper slip where you can mark which ones you want. In Denmark, some restaurants have hundreds of options.
At Melbourne's Denmark House, you get around 20 choices from goat's cheese with pickled pear and toasted walnut, to shrimp salad with crispy chips and cucumber, to pork belly with crackling and pickled fennel.
And just like Denmark is known for its love of sleek design, you can expect all smørrebrød to be perfectly layered, looking like little artworks.
Smørrebrød at home
Eating smørrebrød at home is even more fun and interactive. All the ingredients are put on a table for guests to make their own sandwiches.
"In Denmark, my parents would put the herring in a beautiful little fish-shaped bowl, the mayo in a nice bowl, the salami on a big platter with cold cuts. Here, we're a bit lazier so we'll cut the bread as we go because it feels fresher, and we put all the stuff out as well, but maybe not on silverware, and people will assemble them together,” explains Monk.
But while she's happy to follow the proper etiquette from time to time, Monk likes to keep things casual at home.
"That's why my children love it so much. Having grown up here, they find some of the Danish food more challenging so with smørrebrød, they can have whatever they like," says Monk.
"The tradition behind them is very strict, but there's something for everyone and it can be flexible."
The vet's midnight snack (dyrlægens natmad)
Rumour has it that the vet of Danish King Christian IV's horses often enjoyed this midnight snack by himself while looking at the unobstructed view of Denmark's capital of Copenhagen.
- Sourdough rye bread
- Butter or rendered bacon fat (optional)
- Liver paste
- Raw onion slices (white or red)
- Neat aspic
- Lettuce leaf or similar
1. Cut four slices of sourdough rye bread. You can either buy one or bake one yourself.
2. Butter each slice, or use bacon fat, or nothing as the liver paste/pate functions as a spread.
3. Add a lettuce leaf or similar green.
4. Add one or two slices of corned beef/silverside, then some freshly cut onion rings and the aspic.
5. Add salt and pepper as per your preference.
These simple custard pies are truly divine. Vanilla-infused custard is encased in a shortbread-like pastry and then dusted liberally with a flurry of cinnamon-scented icing sugar. The perfect accompaniment to a cuppa for afternoon tea.
"These spherical Danish doughnuts are one of my favourite sweets, and they’re much easier to make than they look. You do need an aebleskiver pan, but if you can’t find one you can use an electric Dutch pancake maker or Japanese takoyaki pan." Adam Liaw, Destination Flavour Scandinavia