Smørrebrød: The Scandinavian open sandwich

Zac O' Yeah | Updated on December 31, 2019

Top of the tops: In Denmark, the stuffing of the smørrebrød is elaborately arranged atop the bread slice   -  ZAC O’YEAH

The century-old smørrebrød, the Scandinavian open sandwich, is getting all dolled up

In Denmark, I spend a week looking for edibles distinctively Danish, and after sampling all manner of national dish pretenders such as flæskesteg (fried pork), hakkebøf (burger steak) and pølse (hotdogs), I decide that despite their yummy cholesterol extremism, they’re pretty similar to food anywhere in the world. Then there’s the quintessentially Danish pastry or the wienerbrød (“Viennese bread”) based on a 15th-century Kaisersemmel — “royal wheat bun” made in honour of an Austrian emperor. It reached Denmark when bakers specialising in viennoiserie (breakfast pastries made in the style of Vienna) migrated to the country in the mid-19th century. But it is richer and moister in Copenhagen than elsewhere, so back in Vienna, it is actually called Kopenhagener or “Copenhagen pastry”.

Whatever culinary nationalism Denmark might have, it’s certainly not pure veg. Denmark is quite unapologetic about its confirmed non-vegetarianism. You might get veggies in hippie places (Copenhagen is one of the last hippie abodes of Europe), but conforming Danes simply can’t eat greens without juicy meat. In one restaurant loo, I read a proselytising scribble on the wall: “Go vegan and love yourself”. It was followed by an aggressive diatribe in a different handwriting: “Go carnivorous and eat vegans”. A third person was being reconciliatory: “Go schizophrenic and do both”.

The one thing that keeps me intrigued is smørrebrød. What is smørrebrød? Basically, the word means “buttered bread” and, whilst that may not seem like a reason to make a culinary pilgrimage, there’s much more to this sandwich avatar than meets the eye.

It is a fact well known that the highpoint of the day for the English are those elegant tea-time triangles of bread slices stuffed with something and held together with toothpicks, made fashionable by the hard-gambling Earl of Sandwich as a practical snack for card players. A somewhat perverse Irish development (also from the gambling world) is the “bookmaker’s sandwich”: An entire tin-loaf stuffed with 1/2-inch thick steak and then pressed flat — substantial enough to see one through a day at the Derby.

This idea of a “sandwich” is one of few rare loanwords that the French accepted from their arch enemies across the Channel, to describe various flamboyant brioche or baguette rolls filled with foie gras, tartare (a spread of butter-mixed minced raw beef seasoned with chives and chilli powder), Dijon mustard and other culinary sensations. Soon it travelled to the US, where it turned into the hamburger in 1884, a quick bite among German immigrants (many came from Hamburg). The hamburger soon got crowned the US national dish in the 1900s — even presidents eat it when they want to prove their American-ness.

These all belong to the junk or fast-food category. However, in Denmark, I discovered that the effect of Noma, arguably the world’s most famous restaurant of the last decade, and its reinterpretation of “New Nordic” as a creative gastronomic movement, has taken the smørrebrød to another level. That level is culinary art for the masses, elevated from a working-class breakfast or lunch to fine dining.


The smørrebrød’s pedigree is at least a hundred years old, but it’s in the last couple of years that it’s been getting dolled up, increasingly more and more garnished with colourful slices of this and that: Smoked kippers or pickled herrings or larger-than-life slabs of cured salmon (gravlaks), or a gigantic steak crowned with bacon slivers, designer-piped creamy gravies and dollops of salty caviar. It can be further flavoured with something sweet — peaches or prunes, for instance — or something sour, such as pickled gherkins or olives. It is then elegantly topped with fresh green herbs (often dainty dill sprigs) or a few boiled shrimp and a lemon slice. It’s a sandwich that no Earl can eat with his hands; a knife and a fork are a must.

As I stand by the tomb of Kierkegaard in Copenhagen, I wonder what he would have made of it. Although not a foodie, the philosopher might point out the larger philosophical difference between the British closeted sandwich and its Danish open-faced permutation. In England, the filling is hidden as if visual impact is not a part of a culinary experience. In Denmark, the stuffing is elaborately arranged atop the bread slice — usually the dark, heavy, wholemeal, sourdough ryerugbrød. The toppings hide the bread entirely, making the smørrebrød the very opposite of an English sandwich.

Formally speaking, there are 59 varieties of smørrebrød canonised in the Danish culinary lexicon, though most restaurants specialise in approximately 15 varieties. The classic, herring with onion, is found everywhere. The stjerneskud or “shooting star” has a crispy butter-fried bread-crumby plaice side by side with another fish fillet steamed in white wine, topped by hand-peeled North Sea shrimp and bleak or lumpfish caviar. The dyrlægens natmad (“veterinarian’s night-snack”) is homemade liver pâté topped with cured beef or pork, pickled mushrooms and jellified meat juice. And the curry-pickled herring smørrebrød is, despite its Indian flavouring, as Danish as it gets.


A classic lunch offer is cryptically hidden on menus as “3 stk. uspec” — which means the waiter selects three random sandwiches for you, often one with fish, one with meat, and one with cheese (to be eaten in exactly that order), and the going rate is DKK 50-75 (₹535-800) per plate. It makes for an excellent meal as long as one doesn’t mind eating a cold lunch (statutory warning: There’s no such thing as a grilled smørrebrød).

I sampled some smørrebrød at Nyhavns Færgekro, the cheerful “ferry inn” in Nyhavn — that beloved dockside of tourists. The rates are, of course, on tourist-trap levels for the smørrebrød (DKK 80-185/₹860-2,000 per piece) but there’s also a decent value herring buffet from which one can grab multiple helpings for DKK140 (₹1,500). A better deal, without the waterside views, can be had right across the square Kongens Nytorv at Hviids Vinstue, a charming 1720s’ wine shop-turned-cosy basement pub, where the “3 stk. uspec” is sold with a pilsner for DKK 85 (₹910), making it one of the better lunch deals in the heart of old town. But I also picked up artful smørrebrød in a random workers’ café called Lillians Smørrebrød at DKK 19 (₹200) for an egg and shrimp-topped sandwich, and got it paper-wrapped to eat as I walked about people-watching. In the Vanløse suburb (15 minutes by metro from downtown) it gets even cheaper, as I find the 1920s-style Pernilles Kaffebar in Jyllingevej, the oldest-running café in the country, gives three luxurious smørrebrød topped with fish, shrimp and whatnot for DKK 50 (₹525).

Bread, butter and ale: Pernilles Kaffebar in Jyllingevej, Copenhagen, the oldest running café in the country


Like most proper smørrebrød joints, both Lillians and Pernilles shut at 2pm. If one fancies having it for dinner, other places serve the fare until 7-8pm. My best dining experience was at the 19th-century Café Sorgenfri in Brolæggerstræde alley. Because the charming dining hall is hidden around the corner from the parade street Strøget, it’s much less touristy. My out-of-this-world smørrebrød came in the form of a towering silver tray loaded with meats, fish and various condiments and pickles such as gherkins and remoulade (a Danish permutation of spiced-up mayo, somewhat similar to tartar sauce). It was well worth DKK 500 (₹5,250) as the meal also included multiple beers and schnapps.

The smørrebrød is normally had with a shot of akvavit (“water of life”), an 18th-century-style potato-based 84-proof schnapps that is strongly spiced with cumin seeds, chased down with a pilsner. Yes, booze is meant to be had with beer in Denmark.

Not for nothing is Denmark the birthplace of two world-famous lagers, Carlsberg and Tuborg. There are also interesting local brews that have chosen to not go international. I’d recommend anything darkish (of which there’s an amazing range) and a personal choice is Limfjords Porter Double Brown Stout (7.9 per cent) from Thisted Bryghus. Now for this beer alone, I’ll need to visit Denmark frequently. To have it with smørrebrød.


Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist

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Published on December 25, 2019
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