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People Moving with Food from and to Northern Europe: Food, Migration and Multiculturalism

Laura Terragni and Gun Roos

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1This special issue, “People Moving with Food from and to Northern Europe: Food, Migration and Multiculturalism”, is a follow-up of the Nordic Association for Food Studies (NAFS1) 2016 interdisciplinary conference entitled “People Moving with Food” held in Oslo. Our objective is to make the discussions from this Nordic seminar available for readers of Anthropology of Food who are interested in the topics of food, migration and the cultural transformation of food. Although the NAFS seminar was held in a Nordic country, we have not limited the content to this area since the conference also attracted researchers from around the world, including contributions related to the UK and Poland.

2Food and migration is a recurring theme in Anthropology of Food. For example, this journal published a special issue on migration, food practices and social relations in 2010 (Crenn, Hassoun & Medina 2010). More recently, there was an issue related to tourism and gastronomy, which also touched on factors related to eating outside local boundaries (Medina, del Pilar Leal & Vázquez-Medina 2018).

3The recurrence of this theme should not come as a surprise in a journal focusing on food and culture. In fact, migration is fundamental to understanding the way food is used for exploring new cultures and rethinking our own (Abbots 2016; Garcia et al. 2017; Halloran 2016; Sutton 2001). Researching food in a new country involves an inexhaustible source of themes and perspectives as there is a great deal of variation in migrating populations, their food cultures, and the food cultures they meet (Kershen 2002; Ray 2004; Tuomainen 2009; Terragni 2014). Moreover, country of origin and host countries are not static entities; societies are in a continuous state of transformation—both socially and politically—and, therefore, the role of food in the context of migration is dynamic (Cleveland et al. 2009).

4When people move, they not only bring their food with them but also their representations and ideals related to foods that are “good” to eat. The memories of food from home, the ideals of good food and the food that is available in a new country shape immigrants’ food-related experiences (Diner 2001; Codesal 2010; Bailey 2017).

5Although there is a broad range of literature on food and migration, this topic has not been fully investigated in Nordic countries. Most studies have concentrated on a few immigrant groups (e.g., Pakistanis, Somalis, etc.) and on food-related health concerns (Holmboe-Ottesen & Wandel 2012), with a tendency to “problematize” immigrants’ food habits (Halkier & Jensen 2011). Therefore, there are few studies focusing on the social and political issues related to food and migration, for instance on the role food plays in shaping a sense of belonging or, conversely, in sharpening differences and social inequalities. Furthermore, very little is known about the experiences with food among European immigrants resettling in Northern countries.

6A large amount of the research on food and migration carried out in Nordic countries refers to the theory of acculturation that has been adapted to dietary changes (Satia-Abouta 2003). This theory states that after migration, immigrants gradually adopt the food habits of the host country, starting with foods or meals that have less importance (Koctürk-Runefors 1991). It has been pointed out that the theory of dietary acculturation seems to be based on the assumption of a “progressive” adaptation to the food habits of the host country (Satia-Abouta 2003). This may not always be the case as food availability and different forms of food consumption (e.g., lunch at school or work, the presence of ethnic grocery shops, etc.) may either produce more rapid changes in food habits or facilitate the maintenance of familiar forms of food consumption (Garnweidner et al. 2012). Moreover, studies adopting this theory tend to focus on changes in eating habits occurring within migrant communities. In the scientific debate on food and migration in Nordic countries, the influences of migration on the food cultures of the host community are more rarely investigated. Studies that look at food consumption as a way to be part of a new society or to express resistance towards forced assimilation are also scarce.

7Thus, the objective of “People Moving with Food from and to Northern Europe: Food, Migration and Multiculturalism” is to try to fill this gap by presenting topics, methodologies and immigrant groups that, at least in the Nordic context, are less well known. This will enrich the theoretical and methodological perspectives on the topic of food and migration in Nordic countries and stimulate new research themes.

8The five articles presented in the special issue, therefore, reflect a variety of topics, places and methodologies in their approach to food and migration. They also contribute to unwrapping the complexities of the processes and paths that people and/or food may encounter when moving across borders.

9The first two articles present examples of interesting methodologies for studying the transformation of food and eating habits: first, Notaker looks at the transformations of some foods through cookbooks; then, Juzwiak et al. follow a family’s food habits through four generations.

10Notaker’s article describes how recipes of a traditional fish dish (bacalao) travelled from Spain to Norway and how a dessert from the United States (the doughnut or smultring) was introduced into Norwegian cuisine. Through this article, we learn how food is transformed by crossing borders. Of particular interest is the manner in which a relatively simple food product—fish dried on the Norwegian coast—became enriched with ingredients and flavors through its journey to the Mediterranean regions and returned to its homeland embellished with rarities (at that time tomatoes). Also, in the case of the smultring, we see that ingredients are adapted to local tastes and that recipes become more elaborate. As indicated in other studies, different editions of popular cookbooks illustrate these processes—from the discovery of new food combinations to their crystallization into “traditional” recipes (Appadurai 1988; Notaker 2017).

11The transformation of dishes is also a main theme of the second article. In particular, it is clear that country of origin and practices related to food preparation acquire a new dimension in a world defined by the ease of mobility for both people and food. Juzwiak et al. follow a family from Poland to Brazil and back again to Europe, acting as a case study to illustrate how the everyday practices of cooking and the emotional aspects of what is “home food” do not follow a simple path. The presence or absence of a community, transformation of gender roles and the desire to recover a culinary memory emerge as important to understanding the food trajectories of this family across generations.

12The approach of following a temporal path in the study of food and migration is also found in the third article by Tuomainen, who traces the developments of Ghanaian cuisine in London over the past 50 years. This article follows up on a previous publication in Anthropology of Food by the same author (Tuomainen 2014) and gives us the opportunity to once again meet the Ghanaians, a group of immigrants investigated by very few scholars. As also noted in other studies (Sabar & Posner 2013), the research conducted by Tuomainen shows how food can become a source of income in a migration context. Immigrant families start their own small restaurants in local ethnic communities, and this allows them to make a living and to satisfy preferences for traditional food in the community. The article is particularly interesting as it shows how these types of restaurants influence the tastes of local consumers and contribute to the rise in the social status of this cuisine.

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13Swedes represent one of the largest immigrant groups in Norway2. Yet, little is known about their eating habits when they cross the border to their neighbour country. This may in part be due to the nature of this migration, which consists of young people searching for short-term work to earn money. However, it is possible to argue that the lack of interest in studying this group lies in the perceived similarity of the food cultures of these two Nordic countries. However, Tolgensbakk’s article, as well as other studies (Holm et al. 2012), shows that there are differences. Her fieldwork is based on an analysis of discussions on a Facebook group for Swedes in Oslo and a media study exploring the trajectory and perception of the kebab in Scandinavia. Young Swedes in Norway engage in Facebook debates about how they miss their “own” Swedish variety of kebab. This reminds us that despite the geographical proximity of Sweden and Norway, tastes are culturally shaped and even seemingly small differences can have an impact on how food is experienced.

14The importance of food in the context of migration emerges dramatically when migrants live in conditions of vulnerability and marginalization, for instance in the case of refugees and asylum seekers presented by Terragni et al. in the last article. In Norway, we meet people who have migrated “without food”: asylum seekers that have left their country of origin because of war, poverty and/or political persecution and live in Norwegian reception centers. This article used food to understand the processes of marginalization asylum seekers go through, in particular focusing on how food can communicate an inhospitable attitude. By exploring the food experiences of asylum seekers living in reception centers, another side of the Norwegian welfare state system is revealed, one that is less generous than what we are accustomed to in the literature (Brochmann & Hagelund 2012). As other studies have also shown, food can be a powerful lens for understanding forms of exclusion in affluent societies (Nielsen et al. 2015; Vandervood, 2017).

15The process of producing this collection has in itself been a work that involved “crossing borders” among disciplines and thematic interests. However, it has been worthwhile since this work has helped shed light on new research paths. The articles show the potential of studies that follow foods and food habits for a long period in enriching the theory of dietary acculturation. Adding a long-term perspective can broaden our understanding of how practices of food consumption and food-related identities in a migration context do not necessarily follow a linear path, but instead they may shift between adaptation and the search for one’s own roots across generations. Furthermore, the adoption of a longer timeframe can improve our comprehension of the reciprocal influence between the immigrant and the host food cultures. Another path worth following is research on the consumption of seemingly equal foods among different groups, for example the case of the kebab in this special issue. This can help us better understand the meaning of food and its use in different contexts.

16Finally, the work we have done for this special issue has given us the opportunity to reflect on the fact that, in Nordic countries (here used in its original geo-political definition), there is actually little debate on how migrant communities contribute to the formation of new food cultures. On the contrary, despite an increasing immigrant population, the last decade has been dominated (in the media and in the literature) by the development of a “New Nordic Cuisine” based on locally sourced food not contaminated by globalization and immigration (Hermansen 2012). This tendency, together with the findings we have reported on food experiences among asylum seekers, invites us to explore further aspects of inclusion and exclusion expressed through food.

17In short, food can take us to new places, encourage new encounters among people and allow us to observe societies from different perspectives. In this collection, we meet some of the people who have arrived in or left Nordic countries and some of the foods that have crossed the Nordic borders. By presenting a varied set of articles that follow people moving with food and food moving with people, we open up the complexities of food and the processes of migration, as well as learn more about the cultures across which people and food move.

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Electronic reference

Laura Terragni and Gun Roos, People Moving with Food from and to Northern Europe: Food, Migration and MulticulturalismAnthropology of food [Online], S12 | 2018, Online since 15 January 2019, connection on 30 September 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Laura Terragni

Associate Professor, Faculty of Health Sciences, Oslo Metropolitan University

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Gun Roos

Senior Researcher, Consumption Research Norway, Oslo Metropolitan University

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