Real Danish Food: Nørrebro’s Little Smørrebrød Shop

Rita's Smørrebrød - Copenhagen

Authentic Danish food is the Sasquatch of the Euro-Scandinavian culinary scene.  There’s Noma of course, as well as a small army of Michelin Star restaurants but talking about them as authentic outlets for Danish food is a bit like talking about a brand new Bentley as a solid, reliable, every-day car for the average Joe.  For the typical traveler, resident, and student battling the grumblings of an empty stomach dropping $300 on a meal – even if it is allegedly the best meal in the world – isn’t an option or real interest for most of us.

I enjoy a fancy meal as much as the next guy, but my definition of a real, authentic meal?  A small hole-in-the-wall with barely enough room to eat your meal, hearty portions and a dirt cheap price that comes with an over abundance of character and flavor.  My favorite types of eateries are the ones that are good enough, and priced reasonably enough that you go back time and time again. The best places? The type you go back to so often that the staff starts to recognize you and knows your order by heart.

While Copenhagen has a lot of great hole-in-the-wall eateries most are small salad, kebab, or burger shops. When I first arrived in Denmark I was eager to figure out A) what Danish food was and B) where I could get it.   I posed what I thought was a straightforward question to the Danes I met:  What do I order and where do I get it?  Their answer:  Smørrebrød. Invariably what followed was a soft silence. I’d look on, waiting, expecting a long list of local delicacies and unique Scandinavian seafoods and meat dishes. The silence would stretch from natural pause to slightly awkward before I’d take the hint and accept that smørrebrød was the totality of their answer.

Ask a Dane where to find smørrebrød and you’ll usually see the shadow of a thoughtful frown flash across their face followed by an “ohhhh, hmmm”. It turns out that while smørrebrød may be the most Danish dish out there, Danes don’t usually buy it.  Instead they make it in their homes or eat it in cafeterias at work. Outside of semi-authentic, over priced smørrebrød served up in tourist cafes along Nyhavn, chasing down authentic smørrebrød is a difficult challenge.

Slightly vexed, I’d press my Danish friends for other suggestions. After all, Denmark has to have more than just smørrebrød to offer, right?

Perhaps you can imagine the slapping sound of my facepalm at what inevitably came next. When pressed, I’ve had many-a-Dane tell me hot dogs. Yes. Hot dogs. To be fair, Denmark does have a prolific number of hot dog stands with a wide assortment of hot dogs, sausages, and bøfsandwiches.  They’re also quite good as far as hot dogs go.  Not Washington D.C.’s Ben’s Chili Bowl good mind you, but still, better than your average dog.   Now, perhaps i’m putting words into your mouth, but I’m going to guess that no matter how good the hot dog, most of us didn’t travel hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles for a slightly sexed up hot dog.

So, this leaves us with what…Noma, hot dogs, and smørrebrød?

Rita's Smørrebrød - Copenhagen

What is smørrebrød?

Smørrebrød is a mixture between a salad, a sandwich, and what an OCD person would assemble at an all-you-can-eat buffet.  While inaccurately called open-faced sandwiches, smørrebrød consists of a piece of dark rugbrød (another Danish specialty) with a mixture of artfully layered toppings.  These vary widely and can include everything from fish eggs and fish fillets, to sliced lunch meat, to pickled beets and even curried herring. Most include some sort of sauce, with the delicious Danish specialty remoulade being a regular favorite.  Each is then topped by a fresh garnish which ranges from thin lemon and bell pepper slices to tomatoes,  shrimp or green onions.    A meal typically consists of several pieces of smørrebrød at once.  I find that four to six is about right for me depending on my appetite.

Rita's Smørrebrød - Copenhagen

Smørrebrød is good.  Not just good. It is delicious. It’s also incredibly diverse. My favorite smørrebrød shop offers more than 80 different types of smørrebrød on its menu and for those who decide to make their own…the variations are limited only by your creativity, your taste buds and the size of your rugbrød.

Rita's Smørrebrød - Copenhagen

Where to get authentic Smørrebrød in Copenhagen

For budget and authenticity minded visitors to Copenhagen, one of the best and most convenient locations for smørrebrød is Rita’s Smørrebrød (Ritas.dk), which is situated at #11, Fælledvej in Nørrebro. The shop is just north of the lakes and about an 8 minute walk from Norreport station.  It’s closed on weekends, and is open between 7AM and 2PM.

Rita's Smørrebrød - Copenhagen

Rita’s is authentic.  It is intelligently priced. It is hugely popular with locals. It is a small hole in the wall.  It is also one of the best spots in central Copenhagen for finding Danish food.

Rita's Smørrebrød - Copenhagen

As I write this post I just got back from snagging lunch at Rita’s.  By the time I got there it was already 12:30PM and as you can see, most of the day’s standard offerings were already snatched up. Rita’s offers a basic menu which includes some 40 or so “regular” smørrebrød offerings.  They’re made fresh every day and displayed in an easy to view refrigerated counter so you don’t have to worry about braving obscure Danish words while ordering blindly from the menu.  Just pick, point, eat and enjoy.

Rita's Smørrebrød - Copenhagen

Smørrebrød on the regular menu cost 12 DKK a piece, or about $2.25 USD.  To put that into context, a large Big Mac meal at McDonalds will run you ~60 DKK. They also have a “deluxe smørrebrød” menu which ranges in cost and has specialties such as their #86 which includes fried fish fillets, small shrimp, caviar, and asparagus on rugbrød.  The folks at the counter speak English and have always been incredibly friendly, helpful, and happy to explain what I’m ordering.

Rita's Smørrebrød - Copenhagen

Perhaps one reason Danes have such a hard time identifying and talking about traditional and authentic Danish foods is because most of the traditional Danish eats get incorporated into smørrebrød.  You can find smørrebrød with leverpostej (liver pate), fried fish, herring, and what is in effect the Danish national dish – Frikadelle. Rita’s also offers a mixture of other traditional meats by themselves including friend fish fillets, traditional roast pork, frikadelle, and krebinet.

Rita's Smørrebrød - Copenhagen

Today’s meal cost 48 DKK for four pieces of regular smørrebrød and another 14 DKK for a bottle of water.  It was fresh, packed with flavor, mostly healthy, and extremely convenient.  I decided to use one of the small shop’s two stools and ate there, but I usually grab my smørrebrød to go.  With Rita’s close proximity to the lakes, it is the perfect place to pick up a little picnic lunch. They have their full menu online and a full English translation available so feel free to check it out – Ritas.dk.

I’ve also had Danish friends recommend Lene’s smørrebrød at Nordre Frihavnsgade 63 in Østerbro but have yet to try it. If you find you way to Rita’s during your next visit to Copenhagen, make sure to let me know what you think of the experience!

Happy eating!

Three Fantastic Places To Eat in Istanbul

Turkey-2187

Istanbul is a vibrant city full of surprises. One of those surprises is the food. With a decent exchange rate for most North Americans and Europeans it is possible to eat like a king in Turkey on a relatively reasonable budget. As a budget traveler visiting from Denmark where food is ridiculously expensive I decided to splurge a bit. Luckily for me, I was able to connect with a good friend who had already scouted out the city. He introduced me to three restauraunts which were absolutely delightful!  Prices for these meals averaged between 20 Turkish lira ($11 USD) and 30 Turkish lira ($17 USD) with a drink. While far more expensive than the 3 lira ($1.70 USD) kebabs which were available, for what we got, the price was a bargain compared to other European destinations.

Ciya - Great Eats

Ciya Restaurant – Asian Side

Pronounced Chia, this delightful restaurant is located on the Asian side of Istanbul about five minutes from the main ferry dock.  A series of several restaurants, Ciya‘s claim to fame is its amazing regional delicacies from throughout Turkey.  Concerned that traditional foods were being lost, or were unavailable outside their native region, the founder of the restaurant set out to catalog and share Turkey’s rich (and incredibly diverse) culinary palate with Istanbul’s natives and visitors alike.  The relatively small restaurant’s walls are decorated with articles from many of the world’s top food columns offering high praise for the freshness, variety and flair of the Turkish food the restaurant offers.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

Despite displaying food in a semi-buffet style format it is all extremely fresh and cooked on the spot in an open kitchen located right as you enter the eating area. Situated across from the stoves and a wide variety of warm foods the staff has set up a cold food buffet with a wonderful mixture of fresh greens and rich Turkish deserts.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

In addition to being fresh, all of the food is awash in color and well presented. Eager to dive in we cast off our jackets, scarves, gloves, hats, and gear (It had been snowing all day) and started to make the difficult decisions about what to eat. The way this restaurant works is based on weight. You pick what you want to sample from the wide variety of choices available, and then a waiter or waitress will weigh it before delivering it to your table.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

As our selections arrived at our table Galen and I quickly realized we had run out of room. The only solution? To dive in and start eating! Despite the time of year (February) ingredients were fresh, the veggies were crisp, and each dish offered distinct flavor and a wide variety of tastes from the sharp sweet-tartness of pomegranate seeds mixed with green olives to the smoother taste of stuffed eggplant. The restaurant boasted a great mixture of local business people and tourists which maintained its relaxed and enjoyable ambiance.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

We rounded out our meal with a complimentary spiced tea with crushed almonds.  It had a rich sweet flavor and absolutely intoxicating aroma. Drinking it was a little bit of a challenge as is usually the case when drinking something with a bit of a crunch – but it served as the perfect preparation before we suited back up and dove into the arms of the waiting snow flurries.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

Istanbul Culinary Institute

Located just around the corner from Galata Tower, Istanbul’s Culinary Institute is an absolute delight.  With a very clean/modern design and layout it has a fun but quirky ambiance.  We ducked in for dinner and despite my initial apprehension over what I expected to be expensive food and tiny portions, I was pleasantly surprised.  Be forewarned that the restaurant has limited seating so grabbing a table in high season may be difficult. While the individual plates were reasonably priced, the wine tended to be expensive by city standards.  They also offered a set menu which looked fantastic, but was also more on par with the pricing you would expect in this style and genre of restaurant.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

Did I mention that the decorations were entertaining?  Perhaps I should have said slightly disturbing.  While we got a good laugh and solid head tilt out of the artwork on the walls, it may be a bit over the top for some diners.  Especially those who lean towards a vegan disposition. As an interesting side note, all of the diners in the restaurant appeared to be American.  I heard the gentlemen at the table next to us (what appeared to be a group of American politicos from Washington DC) declare that he had been told the trip to Istanbul was worth it for the food at the Institute alone.  High praise indeed!

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

I honestly don’t recall what exactly I ordered.   If memory serves, it was a mixed stew that combined lamb and chicken.This is what arrived and I can tell you that it was delicious, if not earth shattering.  The broth was delicious, the potatoes wonderful, the onions sweet as candy.  The chicken was tender and flavorful, however the lamb was nowhere to be found.  Given it was one of the specials they were offering that evening I’m unsure if it just didn’t make it onto the plate or I misunderstood and the offering was lamb OR chicken stew. Regardless, I obviously was happy enough with what arrived that I couldn’t be bothered to seek clarification.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

This was one of the evening’s other specials.  It was an interesting mixture of tortilla, fresh fruit and meats. The combination was the type you would never expect to work well when read aloud on paper, but which makes for a delicious combination in practice.  As an interesting and random side note – I tried putting a banana in a stew once (similarly inspired), unfortunately that didn’t turn out anywhere near as well as the succulent treat the Culinary Institute prepared for us. Perhaps that’s why I’m a travel blogger and not a world class chef.   But to get back on topic – portions are as shown in the pictures so plan accordingly.  For those looking for a fun and tasty evening on the town – definitely consider Istanbul’s Culinary Institute as an option.  That said, I don’t think I’d fly all the way from D.C. just to try it out – the hole in the walls around Istanbul have much more enticing culinary surprises for those with the time and energy to ferret them out.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

Ficcin – Istiklal Avenue

Located on one of the many side streets that splinters off of Istiklal Avenue, Ficcin is an interesting restaurant that occupies a series of small store spaces along the street. Waiters duck in and out moving from one restaurant location to another.  As you can see in the photo below the small location we were in only had room for three tables and a small bar.  The kitchen was located just around the corner. This added quirk definitely ads to Ficcin’s charm.  As far as I can tell there’s no real difference from room (location?) to room, so find one that has a free table and have at it!

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

The food was largely traditional Istanbul cuisine. The menu was in Turkish so deciphering just what exactly was offered was a bit of a challenge, but there seemed to be a wide assortment of options conveniently priced so that you could easily combine several  into a meal that perfectly suited your mood.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

One of the things I absolutely love about Mediterranean countries is their usage of rice.  While plain rice with a touch of salt and butter is great, mixed rice or flavored rice served as a stuffing is something I can eat until I lapse into a food coma.  I opted for a mixture of stuffed vegetables, though which vegetables I ended up with I’m not exactly sure.  I believe one was a tomato, two were eggplant, and as for the third? No idea.  They were delicious and every bite was loaded with flavor.  The biggest problem I ran into was forcing myself to take small bites.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

For a bit of added substance I accompanied my stuffed surprises with a bowl of beans and lamb.  Apparently beans are one of the things that Istanbul is famous for.  As a result, you’ll find varied been dishes on many of the menus around the city.  It is even possible to find restaurants that specialize specifically in bean dishes.  A bit unusual as a flagship food, but after sampling a variety of different bean plates, one I’ll happily look forward to on my next visit.  This particular dish had a slight kick to it which spiced up the flavor of the beans and highlighted the lamb chunks which were tender and melted apart at the light touch of my fork.

Istanbul is a wonderful culinary city with a wide variety of ethnic foods and flavors.  The prices are reasonable, the food is almost always brilliantly presented and awash in flavor. It is also an extremely lactose-intolerant friendly city.  So, if like me, you have trouble with moderate-high levels of dairy don’t fret!  You’ll find lots to eat!  I hope you enjoy your visit, and that this post has ignited your curiosity – or dare I say hunger – for Turkish cuisine.

Have a favorite place or dish you discovered during a visit to Istanbul?  I’d love to hear about it!