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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Now, turning to a completely different story. If lingonberries in reindeer blood or white asparagus with poached egg yolk and woodruff sauce sound appealing, you can thank the acclaimed Copenhagen restaurant called Noma. It's widely considered to be one of the best restaurants in the world, at the cutting edge of what's called new Nordic cuisine.

And reporter Sidsel Overgaard went to the Copenhagen Cooking Festival to find out how a region better known for pickled herring and meatballs became an epicurean destination.

SIDSEL OVERGAARD, BYLINE: To me, Scandinavia has always tasted like meatballs, potatoes, pickled red cabbage, hot dogs and butter, lots of butter. Here at the old Carlsberg brewery where some of Denmark and Sweden's top restaurants are handing out samples, there are hints of those things, but this is not Grandma's kitchen.

DAVID JOHANSEN: My name is David Johansen. I'm the head chef at Kokkeriet in Copenhagen, a one-star Michelin restaurant. This is a classic Danish traditional dish called braendende kaerlighed, means, like, burning love.

OVERGAARD: Burning Love. In my grandmother's kitchen, this would have been a heavy pile of mashed potatoes smothered in bacon, onions and pickled beets.

JOHANSEN: It's caramelized onion and pickled onion. On top of that, a potato compote with rapeseed oil and buttermilk, a crumble of potato peelings and almonds and a bit of malt.

OVERGAARD: And he tops this dainty dish with a foamy, fuchsia-colored chiffon made of pickled beet juice. Copenhagen resident Susana Mostrand(ph) has just visited a different booth where the arctic pizza comes topped with salmon, potatoes, smoked cheese and cress and explains why, for her, this is quintessential New Nordic.

SUSANA MOSTRAND: There was all these sort of components to the dish that made it very sort of like tasting, taking a bite out of Denmark, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

MOSTRAND: It had both the sea and the fields and the herbs and the green and then the dairy products with the cows and everything.

OVERGAARD: If she sounds a little giddy, it's because until recently, Scandinavians haven't had much to crow about in the upscale kitchen. That started to change in the late '90s and reached a tipping point in 2004 when a group of chefs drafted the manifesto of the New Nordic kitchen which can be summarized as: keep it local, keep it healthy.

You might think adhering to a locavore philosophy in such a cold climate would be daunting. No black pepper, no citrus, no vanilla. But it's almost as if these days, Scandinavians are opening the curtains and looking outside for the first time. And maybe it would be a challenge if they weren't so delighted by what they were finding.

Nowhere is that creative energy more apparent than on this houseboat docked in a nearby part of the city. The Nordic Food Lab is a culinary playground with a mandate to explore local ingredients and share the results with anyone who's interested. It's staffed by a handful of young cooks and academics who spend their days experimenting with things like seaweed, pine needles, lichen and even mealworms. Mark Emil Hermansen is the anthropologist here.

MARK EMIL HERMANSEN: These are two boxes, and one of them is - says verbena, and the other one says pine. And basically, what we did is we took mealworms, and then we fed them different things because we wanted to find out about these insects, how they would taste, because mealworms don't taste very well. So then they - we dried them and tasted them, and it turns out, it didn't make a difference.

(LAUGHTER)

OVERGAARD: A more successful experiment resulted in a tasty garum, a kind of ancient fish sauce but made of grasshoppers. New Nordic is sometimes talked about as a looking back. But here, as cooks test the boundaries of what's edible, they are just as happy to make use of a high-tech centrifuge as a traditional wooden vinegar barrel. Head of research and development Ben Reade.

BEN READE: It's a mentality right now. It's a mentality of discovery. It's a mentality of sort of scientific and creative exploration.

OVERGAARD: But if you're still a little confused about what New Nordic actually tastes like, you're in good company.

RENE REDZEPI: The ultimate big challenge that we are nowhere near the goal line with is what is the flavor, then, of this region?

OVERGAARD: Noma's head chef, Rene Redzepi.

REDZEPI: How do you define that? How do you even talk about it? And we're nowhere near the end. And hopefully, we will never actually get to the end because the process is what's interesting, not the end results, so to speak.

OVERGAARD: But Redzepi assures me my grandmother's meatballs are in there somewhere. For NPR, I'm Sidsel Overgaard, Copenhagen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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