The Norwegian word skjemat is composed of two words: skje + mat = skjemat. Skje means spoon – and mat means food, so in English it would be spoon food.
In some Norwegian dialects, the word is skeimat.
The first and only time I heard someone use the word skjemat – was when Kjell Martin Sandaker (1926-2013) told me about the excellent cooking skills of his older sister, Dagny Sandaker Ulsrød (1915-2007).
In her youth, Dagny spent some time at a home economics school – a husmorskole – and according to Kjell, desserts were her speciality.
Both Dagny and Kjell grew up on the Sandaker farm in Råde, Østfold, Norway. Kjell pronounced the word skjemat using a Norwegian «i»-sound – as skimat.
Some related words are:
- suppe = soup
- grøt = porridge
- velling = gruel, a soup made of cereal or flour cooked in milk or water
- forrett = appetiser
- etterrett = dessert or other food eaten after the main course
- kompott = compote, a sweet, cold dish made of fruit that has been cooked slowly with sugar
- småmat = food cut into small pieces
On the old Norwegian farm
One of the most important responsibilities of the historical farmer’s wife was to make sure that her flock got sufficient and nourishing food – all year round.
During spring, summer, and autumn, the family worked hard to fill the farm’s storehouse – stabbur – with as much food as the farm and its surroundings could provide.
Our foremothers put a lot of effort into composing every meal, making sure that they spent all available resources in the best possible way.
Today, most of us do not think about the fact that having more than one course during a meal has a specific purpose. By serving a filling porridge or soup – skjemat – before the main course, the cook can save on the more precious foods, such as meat or fish. To take this even further, she also often serves skjemat as an after-dish.
Today, we often think of the potato as the perfect stomach-filler. But this versatile vegetable did not become part of the Norwegian diet until well into the 1800s.
It has since gained a significant place in the culinary consciousness of the Norwegians – and has to some extent taken over the role of the old skjemat – to fill our bellies to save on other foods.
A couple of examples from Norwegian texts
Sigrid Holm Skaarer. Smaalensmat: glimt av gamle mattradisjoner fra Østfold 1997
→ Det var alltid skjemat til middag for å drøye hovedretten. Det var vanlig med melkevelling eller suppe.
→ There was always skjemat as part of our dinner, to save on the main course. It was common to eat a milk-based gruel or soup.
Troels Troels-Lund. Daglig liv i Norden i det sekstende århundre II 1940
→ Og ifølge gammel skikk skulde en spise grøt til slutt, mens grøten efter nyere opfatning var skjemat som var forrett.
→ According to old customs, one would eat porridge after the main course. But the more recent opinion is that the porridge should be eaten as skjemat before the meal.
Sources: Nasjonalbiblioteket nb.no | Haugen, Einar. Norwegian English dictionary. The University of Wisconsin Press 1967, 1974. | Det Norske Akademis ordbok naob.no | Ordbøkene ordbokene.no | EGP.00070