Culinary Kinship, From the Fjords to Mt. Fuji

Sink your teeth into the surprising and sumptuous similarities of Japanese and Scandinavian cuisines

In the culinary world, the meeting of cultures often yields fascinating, palate-pleasing discoveries. While Japanese and Scandinavian cuisines may seem not only oceans but also palates apart, upon initial consideration, there are, in fact, a number of intriguing similarities that highlight the universality of food culture. From the emphasis on simplicity and purity of flavors to a shared reverence for seasonal ingredients, the culinary traditions of these two regions offer a delectable foray into customary culture and popular palate preferences.

Spotlight on simplicity and seasonality

One of the most striking parallels between Japanese and Scandinavian cuisine is their shared philosophies of simplicity and seasonality. Both cultures prioritize the use of fresh, locally sourced ingredients, allowing the natural flavors of the ingredients to shine through in each dish. In Japan, the concept of Shun emphasizes the peak season for ingredients, ensuring that dishes are prepared using the freshest produce available at food markets. Shun focuses on “eating in season” — essentially, it is the Japanese philosophy that food, especially seasonal produce, should be eaten only in its proper season, at the peak of its flavor. This not only makes for tastier dishes, but also for more sustainably-farmed local ingredients. Similarly, Scandinavian cuisine embraces the New Nordic movement, which celebrates the use of seasonal and sustainable ingredients, as well, reflecting the region’s commitment to upholding environmental consciousness and to supporting its local farmers. The New Nordic Food Manifesto, conceived and formulated in 2004, underscores the major points of the movement: purity, season, ethics, health, sustainability, and quality.

A shared palate for fine, fresh seafood

Examples of commonalities abound across both culinary traditions.  For instance, Japan and the Scandinavian countries share a mutual love for seafood, with both cultures incorporating a wide variety of fish and shellfish into their cuisine. Additionally, both regions experience distinct seasonal changes that influence the availability of ingredients and shape the culinary landscape, as aforementioned.

In Japan, dishes like sashimi, which typically feature the freshest raw fish and seafood, highlight the bounty of the sea. In like manner, Scandinavian gravlax showcases the straightforward taste of cured salmon, accented with dill and other herbs to complement the fish’s natural taste. Both cuisines also highlight a variety of pickled vegetables, such as Japanese tsukemono and Scandinavian pickled herring, which add a vibrant burst of flavor and tangy acidity to meals.

Umami-rich flavors, anyone?

Another noteworthy similarity between Japanese and Scandinavian cuisines is the appreciation for umami, often referred to as the fifth taste sensation. Umami — typically described as a full savory flavor and mouthfeel — plays a central role in Japanese and Scandinavian culinary traditions, adding depth and complexity to even the simplest of dishes. In Japan, ingredients like dashi (a stock made from kombu seaweed and bonito flakes) and miso paste are staples in the kitchen for their umami-rich qualities, enhancing the flavor of soups, stews, and sauces. Similarly, Scandinavian cuisine calls for ingredients like fermented fish, such as Swedish surströmming, and aged cheeses to achieve umami-laden flavors in dishes like smørrebrød (open-faced sandwiches) and hearty stews.

Tradition meets innovation in the kitchen

While Japanese and Scandinavian cuisines are rooted in tradition, both cultures also embrace innovation and experimentation in the kitchen. In Japan, the art of sushi-making has evolved over centuries, with more modern variations like sushi rolls (maki) and sushi bowls (chirashi) offering new twists on classic recipes. Ingredient combinations have become more adventurous and unexpected, such as pairing a variety of cheeses with fruits or veggies and seafood. Likewise, Scandinavian chefs have embraced contemporary techniques to elevate traditional dishes, resulting in creations such as Nordic-inspired tapas and tartare served with Swedish lingonberry compote. The intersection of tradition and innovation in both culinary traditions exemplifies the dynamic nature of food culture, as well as the endless possibilities for culinary creativity, to the delight of gastronomes, worldwide.

That said, the similarities between Japanese and Scandinavian cuisine offer a fascinating glimpse into the universal principles that guide culinary traditions, across the globe. From their shared emphasis on simplicity and seasonality to a mutual appreciation for umami-rich flavors, these two culinary identities converge to create an epicurean experience that is as diverse as it is delicious. Whether savoring a platter of luscious sashimi in Tokyo or enjoying a hearty bowl of Swedish fish stew in Stockholm, the culinary connections between Japan and the Scandinavian region remind us that food has the power to transcend borders and unite cultures in a shared celebration of taste and tradition.

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