It’s a weekday morning, in the dimly lit hour when you meander into your kitchen, blink blearily into the light of the refrigerator, and try to decide what to pack for lunch. You could take leftovers or pile together odds and ends between two slices of bread and call it a sandwich, or, now that you think of it, you have been wanting to try that hummus place around the corner from your office, and — oh, would you look at the time? Your five minutes are up.
If you were in Norway, this would probably never happen: You’d have matpakke. Meaning “packed lunch” in Norwegian, the word refers to a specific, minimalist style of open-faced sandwich that’s easily assembled and eaten every single day by much of the country’s inhabitants.
“Norway doesn’t have a warm lunch tradition,” explains Andreas Viestad, food writer and host of the public television series New Scandinavian Cooking. With the exception of employees at some large companies that offer hot lunches, he adds, traditionally everyone from the lowest-level worker to upper management would eat their own individually wrapped, brought-from-home matpakke.
So what exactly is it? To borrow from the architect Louis Sullivan, matpakke’s form follows its function: The point of these open-faced sandwiches is to provide a quick, easy, somewhat nutritious lunch-time meal that provides sustenance without leaving you too full. They typically consist of two or three slices of bread, smeared lightly with butter, each topped with a single slice of cheese or meat, or perhaps a thin layer of jam, liver paste, or tubed caviar.
And that’s ... basically it.
The tradition evolved from the 1930s Oslo Breakfast, a government program that provided a free meal of bread, cheese, milk, half an apple and half an orange to school children at a time when Norway was a poor country. “It’s become a symbol of frugality and egality, but for those who are not big fans, it’s a terrible thing,” says Viestad. “It has many good things to be said about it, but there’s also this element of something a little bit gray and boring.”
“It can be very plain,” confirms food writer Nevada Berg, an American who has traveled to and lived in Norway for the past 15 years (and married a Norwegian). “For outsiders, it can look kind of sad — in the States we’re kind of used to a sandwich that is full. Here it’s the bread, and one little thing. It’s very simple, nothing extravagant at all.”
In this instructional video, Ronald Sagatun, who runs a YouTube channel explaining Norwegian culture with a friend, describes in careful, exacting, hilarious detail how to make a traditional matpakke. “It’s not supposed to taste like anything,” he says while putting a single slice of cheese on buttered bread. “It should be a disappointment when you eat it. You’re not supposed to look forward to your lunch in Norway.” (Do watch the video: While slightly exaggerated for comedic effect, it captures just how plain the matpakke can be.)
Matpakke may seem like the original sad desk lunch, but on the other hand, why must everything we consume be happy and exciting? Surely there is some feeling of stability and comfort that comes from knowing that your lunch will be cheap, simple, and not leave you in need of a nap during working hours. Plus, it might help cut down on the dreaded decision fatigue faced by workers every time lunch rolls around during the week. As Ece Aybike Ala wrote on her experience eating matpakkes, “Maybe then you realize how simply eliminating the decisions on your weekly lunches gives you more mental clarity during the day, the week, the month.”
Here are a few tips for you to make your own Norwegian-style open-faced sandwiches:
Choose a textured bread
You don’t have to spring for the highest-quality artisanal loaf, but do choose bread that has a little flavor and texture from whole wheat or seeds. Berg suggests using knekkebrød, or crispbreads, a.k.a. crackers; she has a recipe on her website, but various types of Scandinavian crackers are widely available for purchase — think Wasa brand — often near packages of the small, dense loaves of German rye bread, made by Mestemacher, which would also do the trick. A loaf of whole-wheat or oatmeal bread from a grocery store’s packaged bread aisle would also work, but avoid the super-processed stuff that reminds you of cardboard. You’ll pack two or maybe three slices of bread, if you anticipate being very hungry.
Take it very easy on the toppings
There is one word in Norwegian that means all the toppings (other than butter) that can go on bread: pålegg. The word applies to sliced meat, cheese, liver spread, jam, caviar — anything that is eaten on a slice of bread. When assembling matpakke, choose one pålegg per slice of bread. “We think the Danish sandwiches are too fancy, a bit too much,” says Sagatun, referring to smørrebrød, or the beautifully composed style of open-faced sandwich that you probably thought this article was going to be about. “The principle is the same,” he says, “but their toppings are too far off. We’d make it more modest.”
To go the traditional route, spread each slice of bread with a thin layer of butter (or whichever butter-like substance you prefer). Then, top each with one slice of meat or one slice of cheese, not both. Brunost, which is a brown cheese sold in blocks as well as pre-sliced, matpakke-sized packages, is a classic. But if you can’t find it, use a slice of your favorite mild cheese.
Cheese from a tube, caviar from a tube, and mackerel with tomato (from a tube or a can) are also popular choices in Norway, along with jam or leverpostei (liver paste), which comes in a can adorned by a smiling child (because in Norway, children eat liver too). You can add some freshness with a piece of lettuce, a slice of tomato, or a little cucumber or sliced bell pepper. “But not too much of it,” says Sagatun, and “not on all of them. But maybe on one.”
If this sounds like a lot of processed food, well, it is. Although it is a land of plentiful fish, moose, deer, wild berries, and foraged foods, Norwegian stores also carry plenty of processed and ready-to-eat foods like frozen pizza and hot dogs. You might consider borrowing the minimal toppings idea and adapting it to include fresher options such as slices of a hard-boiled egg or a few slices of bell pepper.
Whatever you choose to top your bread, it shouldn’t be excessively saucy or heavy. You don’t want the bread to be a soggy mess by the time you eat.
Pack it up with sheets of paper
The topped bread slices are traditionally stacked in between small layers of paper, called mellomleggspapir, that are manufactured for just this purpose. These papers are perhaps the most important component of a traditional matpakke. They allow you to stack the open-faced sandwiches on top of each other while keeping their toppings more or less intact. They also prevent the toppings from mingling with the bottom of the next layer. (Open-faced sandwiches are more common throughout Scandinavia than two slices of bread enclosing various fillings.)
Unless you have a stash of these papers, you can cut pieces of parchment paper to act as buffers between your sandwiches or use small pieces of reusable beeswax food wraps. Then, wrap the stack of topped bread in a large piece of parchment paper, folding it all up like a package to keep the whole thing enclosed. You could also use something like a bento box, good old-fashioned Tupperware, or a large beeswax food wrap.
Eat your lunch without enjoyment, and get back to it
The typical Norwegian workday lunch break is only about 30 minutes. But in general, says Sagatun, Norwegians don’t spend a lot of time eating, often taking only about 10 minutes to eat lunch and even dinner. (This varies and depends on the occasion too, of course.) “My grandmother from the north always said you had to work,” says Sagatun. “So you eat fast, so you can work more, in a way. I think that’s kind of the philosophy behind a lot of our cooking.”
To that end, matpakke are quite practical: Since you eat it every day, you always have the ingredients on hand to make it. You don’t have to spend time meal-prepping, planning or deciding what to make for lunch. Simply unwrap, eat, clean up, and keep working. Their high functionality — and people’s habitual nature — has kept the matpakke tradition thriving.
Perhaps the best part of matpakke is the fact that it is over with so quickly. This sounds like a backhanded compliment, but it’s really a celebration of food as sustenance, pure and simple. It’s not quite so extreme as meal replacers such as Soylent, but these open sandwiches do have a utilitarian flair to them. And in our current culture of hyper-curated, beautiful, and often fussy food, it’s good to be reminded that it’s okay for something to exist purely for function.
Even if it is a bit boring.
Kara Elder writes about food and cooking. Her work appears in the Washington Post, Eaten: The Food History Magazine, and more.