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Danish word of the day: Pålæg

It's hard to imagine a Danish lunch without 'pålæg' and rye bread. But what is pålæg exactly, and why does it get a whole supermarket section to itself?

What is pålæg?

Pålæg is a concept as synonymous with Scandinavian snacks as the open-topped sandwich because, well, it is part of that sandwich. Derived from på, ‘on’ and the verb at lægge, ‘to lay something (on something)’, pålæg is the food you put on top of your slice of bread.

A topping, if you will.

Unlike in countries like for example the UK or Italy, where a sandwich or a tramezzino consist of at least two slices of bread with a filling, a Danish mad (literally ‘food’ but the equivalent of a snack or sandwich) is usually an open slice of bread with some sort of pålæg. If two slices of bread are used, you will hear the term klapsammenmad, meaning ‘fold together meal’.

Many Danes eat at least one mad a day as a snack (mellemmåltid – literally “between meal”).

This could be a slice of cheese on rye bread (ostemad) or the sliced processed pork known as rullepølse (‘rolled sausage’), spegepølse, a type of of salami that comes in many variations, or even, if you’re feeling adventurous, some hummus or cottage cheese.

How do I prepare and eat it?

With about half the work of a normal sandwich, but twice the risk of making a mess. 

As a general rule, pålæg is something cold placed on a piece of bread or toast, normally rye bread, which you should then be able to lift up and eat with your hands – so scrambled eggs are not considered pålæg and beans on toast (the British staple) is generally considered an affront to culinary decency.

Cold, sliced boiled eggs are, however, pålæg, as are prawns. Danish-style smørrebrød stand out from the types seen in other Nordic countries because they are so piled high with pålæg that eating them with cutlery is acceptable.

A note of caution here, though: there’s a complicated and arcane system for the order in which various pålæg should be placed in different types of smørrebrød, and some things are not compatible with others — for example, curry dressing is okay with herring but definitely not with roast beef (I believe this is the case and am happy to be corrected on this specific example!).

Having an unconventional combination could be frowned upon, but you’ll be safe with a more simple mad which only has one or maybe two types of pålæg on it.

Carefully-constructed smørrebrød. File photo: Maria Albrechtsen Mortensen/Ritzau Scanpix

What’s this about supermarkets?

There are so many different types of pålæg and eating them on rye bread is so ubiquitous, it’s hardly surprising they get sections in supermarkets to themselves.

An alternative translation of pålæg is “spread”, which is partly correct – it can be used to mean spreads such as cream cheese or the no-frills Danish take on liver paté, leverpostej

The word pålæg also encapsulates cold cuts such as salami or ham, as well as sliced cheese or even tinned mackerel in tomato sauce.

An incongruous addition to this range of rye bread toppings is the popular pålægschokolade – thin slices of milk or dark chocolate eaten on top of rye bread, often with tandsmør, literally ‘tooth butter’, a layer of butter so thick that you can see the markings left by your teeth in it once you take a bite. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this form of pålæg is quite popular with children.

Did we miss anything? Do you disagree with any of the above? Do you have a suggestion for a future word of the day? Let us know.

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Danish expression of the day: Det ligner

It looks like an obvious choice for the word of the day. But is it?

Danish expression of the day: Det ligner

What is det ligner?

The verb at ligne is another example of a word that enables Danes to say something in fewer words than the equivalent sentence in English.

Meaning “to look like”, it normally has a straightforward use: han ligner sin mor, for example: “he looks like his mother”.

Arguably, there is an English verb directly equivalent to at ligne which would allow you to say the above sentence in neither more nor fewer words than the Danish version. “He resembles his mother” would also be an acceptable translation of han ligner sin mor. 

Despite this, I’d argue “looks like” is more accurate in most situations and contexts, because at ligne does not have the formal feel of written language that “resemble” conjures up.

Why do I need to know det ligner?

When you put the pronoun det (“it”) in front of the verb, making it “it looks like”, the use of at ligne can take on a different meaning.

In the sentence det ligner at det bliver regnvejr hele weekenden (“it looks like it will rain all weekend”), ligner drops its equivalence to “resemble” and, similar to “looks like”, can be used to make a prediction.

According to language regulator Dansk Sprognævn, this alternative use of det ligner has emerged in the last 20-25 years. That being the case, you could speculate that it has occurred as a result of an English phrase being adopted in Danish, even though it makes less sense in Danish in its original guise.

This is not necessarily true. Another way of talking about an uncertain future event in Danish is to say det ser ud til, approximately “it looks as though”. Det ser ud til at det bliver regnvejr is, in fact, probably closer to “it looks like it will rain” than any translation that uses det ligner.

Nevertheless, det ligner is a concise way of talking about something that looks likely to happen in the future. You would normally say it based on some form of evidence, rather than your own instinct: in the examples above, darkening grey clouds on the horizon would probably get people saying det ligner regnvejr.


Det lignede en sikker sejr for hjemmeholdet, men så lukkede de tre mål ind i anden halvleg.

It looked like a comfortable victory for the home team, but they conceded three goals in the second half.

Er du okay? Du ligner slet ikke dig selv.

Are you ok? You don’t look yourself at all.