Fårikål, or “sheep in cabbage”, is popularly regarded as Norway’s national dish. Whether or not this most arid half of the Scandinavian peninsula actually requires a national dish is up for debate, but I will not spill blood to contest the claim.
To the untrained and unappreciative eye, fårikål may seem just like any other desaturated slop that emerges from kitchens across the North, which in spite of due popularity in the gourmet restaurant market, isn’t particularly famous for its traditional home cooking. A problem of marketing, certainly, but ask anyone who was ever brace enough to try. They will testify that Scandinavian comfort foods are as hearty as they are delicious. Who needs color anyway.
Fårikål’s main constituents, lamb and cabbage, are both products of the autumn season. So naturally, autumn’s return marks the season of fårikål. Unpretentious, simple, and emblematic of the landscape and its people. It demonstrates a rustic refinement unseen in most modern kitchens. Simply put: It’s great folk culture. Due to recent efforts from Norway's agro-industrial lobby, September 23rd has been widely established as the national day of fårikål. But historically, people might have been more likely to consume Fårikål six days later, on Michaelsmas (Norwegian: Mikkelsmesse), which served as the occasion for an important seasonal feast to mark the end of the harvest. Across the country, lambs were slaughtered according to custom. It is theorized that this Michaelsmas served as a successor to the pagan festival vetrnætr, one of the four seasonal sacrificial feasts of the pre-christian lunisolar calendar.
Every bowl of fårikål is in its own little way a cultural history of Norway. The country has over a million sheep, that’s one for every sixth person, and more than an equal number of lambs are slaughtered every year. For comparison our country has less than a hundred thousand pigs, which are historically challenging to raise. Sheep are more than suitable for our steep, saline shrublands, and even help fight overgrowth, doing their part in maintaining a cultural landscape slowly carved out by millennia of agriculture. As our staple livestock since the Neolithic, sheep are quite literally as old as the hills.
Sau, the Norwegian word for sheep comes from the Old Norse sauðr, and is etymologically tied to the verb sjóða, meaning “to boil, simmer”. Initially, sauðr may have meant something along the lines of “the animal we cook”. If that doesn’t speak volumes about how important these woolly critters have been to our survival, I don’t know what does. Sheep have filled the bellies and dressed the bodies of uncounted generations. Hold a leg of lamb alongside a map of Norway and you will realize that the two even look alike.
Kål (Old Norse kál), is an umbrella term reflecting both English kale, cabbage, and various other cultivars of Brassica oleracea. If not as ancient as domestic sheep, it is still an old Nordic staple crop attested in Old Norse texts. It is mentioned alongside angelica (hvǫnn) and onion or leek (laukr) in the Bjarkeyjarréttr. This is a 13th century law regulating centers of commerce, so it must have been important. But it wasn’t exactly a luxury item, as some interesting Old Norse proverbs attest to: At drepa fleski í kál - "to put bacon in the cabbage” means to turn a sorry situation into something nicer (Egils saga einhenda ch. 8). We obviously can’t live on cabbage alone, not today, and not in Norse times either.
As in later peasant culture, the most common way to prepare fresh meat was by boiling stews and broths (Old Norse soð, a more general term than later Norwegian “sodd”), and to most people it was an occasional and greatly appreciated delicacy. While no *fær í kál is mentioned in any Old Norse texts, broth of lamb is. With the seasonal overlap of slaughter and harvest, it is certainly likely that a bowl of mutton and cabbage provided warmth and comfort to a cold and tired Norseman on more than a few occasions.
The only additional and more recent ingredients, by some considered essential, are whole black peppercorns (for a nice little sting), and a side of boiled potatoes. Pepper, by the way, is probably the most popular spice of the Norwegian larder, while the potato remains an essential vegetable that has saved our starving asses through many bitter seasons.
With its ancient roots and modest selection of ingredients, fårikål is a due reminder of Norway’s humble rural past. I hold that within the Scandifuturist ethos every bowl is to be regarded at least equal in symbolic value to Tolstoy’s shirt and Heidegger’s lederhosen. Of course, this article would not have been complete without a recipe, which you will find below. Newcomers may find it surprisingly fragrant, and the smell only grows as the dish simmers. Bear in mind that it likely to linger for quite some time after. It should simmer for no less than three hours. If you have a slow cooker, that’s ideal, but it will still fill your house with its distinct bouquet. Loved by many, loathed by some. It can be cheaply and easily be scaled up and down, so why not invite some friends and make it a banquet? This is a two-stage experience meant to be drawn out over at least two days, so plan enough for leftovers. “Second-day fårikål” is widely regarded the best.
- 1.5 kg cabbage
- 1.5 kg lamb, diced in large chunks (shoulder or leg, with bones)
salt to taste
Pot with lid.
1 tbsp. whole black peppercorns
as many potatoes as you expect to eat
2 tbsp of wheat flour (I usually skip this)
1. Cut the cabbage into large pieces. Many choose to discard the core.
2. Brown the lamb pieces in butter on all sides, bone and all.
3. Starting with lamb, stack meat and cabbage in layers in the pot (add peppercorns as you go along).
4. Fill with water, but not too much: Cabbage itself contains a lot of liquid and will sink down as it simmers.
Heat it slowly, cover and let simmer on low-to-medium heat for three hours, or as long as you can stand waiting. Remember: The longer the better! Pairs well with white wine, lager beer, or a nice rustic cider. Preferably around a sturdy hardwood table with family or good friends. And always keep good salt and freshly crushed pepper close at hand.
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