Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway have been making their mark in the culinary arts over the past few decades. Even though they have a subtle approach when it comes to advertising their food, the tastes and flavors of the region have an unassuming uniqueness and raw beauty to them that has gourmands from across the world travel thousands of miles to partake in a fascinating gastronomic journey.
Due to their geographic location, there are similarities in the food cooked in these countries. However, each state has specialities that make it stand apart from the rest. Sweden has been at the forefront of experimenting with epicurean delights, focusing not just on the modern and more international concepts, but also taking pride in their traditional methods and ingredients. The idea of foraging, serving in a farm-to-table style, and making the most of nature is what food is about in Sweden, and their love for cooking is a reason for celebrations and joy.
Swedish Food History
Seasons play an essential part when it comes to food preparation in Sweden. Historically, preservation has allowed for certain foods to be available during the harsh winter months. This has led to a distinct style of cooking that is continued by the locals and include practices that have passed down from one generation to another.
When it comes to culinary preferences, there is a noticeable divide between the food eaten in the North and that consumed by the residents in the South of the country. Fish like herring and salmon along with Reindeer meat are part of everyday meals in the colder regions of the north. The south has, in comparison, dishes that include more vegetables. As a result, when looking at the food of Sweden on the whole, there is a lovely fusion of meat and vegetables along with varied cooking methods that result in tempting treats for food enthusiasts.
As a country, the preservation of food has been at the core of Sweden’s culinary heritage. Vikings started to preserve food for their continued voyages of conquest and fish was salted and cured so that it could last longer. The dull, often harsh, winters would make it arduous to grow vegetables, and before modern appliances made life easy, meat served as the primary source of nutrition during this time. Still, the cuisine in the region was influenced by that of Europe. The Vikings brought back food when they returned from far away countries and later, traders and travelers who visited Sweden always added to its food culture by bringing new ingredients.
Swedish Food Specialties
There are a few particular aspects of Swedish food that continue till this date. Spices hardly get added, one of the reasons many outsiders find local dishes to be bland, instead, attention is given to fresh herbs and other natural flavoring agents.
Soup is prevalent throughout the country. Besides the fact that it is easy to make and a testament that Swedes in general love slow cooked food, soup also remains a way to reduce wastage. Sweden is the perfect example of sustainable cooking and how we can use “food waste” to concoct basic recipes that are rich and delicious.
An integral part of Swedish cooking is potatoes. Whether being used in Jansson’s Temptation, a baked potato dish named after the famed opera singer Pelle Janzon, the drool-worthy Hasselbackspotatis, or merely adding a layer on a sandwich, you are likely to find the vegetable in many avatars being used frequently in home-cooking throughout the year.
A common find in any Swedish home is Knäckebröd, crispy bread with a 500-year-old legacy known for its preservative qualities. The bread goes well with jams, fish, cheese, or sometimes on its own with a bit of butter on it.
Sweden isn’t without its fair share of oddities and quaint consumables when it comes to culinary delicacies. Very much like any country in the world, they have their comfort food and specialties that are loved and admired by the locals. Take the Lingonberries, picked directly from the forest and eaten as a side with many dishes, often meat, in addition to being made into homemade jams.
Swedish Food Origins
Food is about rejoicing the good things in life. It is more than just a meal, rather an excuse to have a party, a way to strengthen the society. Due to the high cost of eating outside, Swedes prefer to hold get-togethers and feasts in their homes and customs play a vital role in the way food is prepared, presented, and consumed.
As an indispensable part of any gastronomic philosophy, there are often stories attached to the origins of food. In Sweden, there is a tradition of having Pea Soup on Thursday’s because in ancient times maids would get a half day off on a Thursday and soup was easy to make. Another belief is that since Friday is a day of fast for the Catholics, people preferred to fill themselves up on Thursday with soup.
Saturdays, on the other hand, are reserved for sweets because of a 1940s experiment which concluded that regular consumption of sugary delights could lead to tooth decay. Lördagsgodis is when everyone indulges in desserts, and there is no surprise that Pic ‘n’ Mix stalls are extremely popular in the country.
August is an important month in the food calendar of Sweden. Not only is it the time when new batches of Surströmming, among the smelliest foods in the world, cans are opened with excitement and élan on the last Thursday of the month, but it is also crayfish season and Kräftskiva, crayfish parties, take place throughout the country.
Another distinct practice in Sweden is that of open sandwiches. Pieces of bread loaded with different ingredients are usually preferred over the conventional form of a sandwich. Räksmörgås is a well-liked “open sandwiches” that includes shrimp or prawn along with lettuce, tomatoes, and sometimes avocado or asparagus. Visitors are likely to find Räksmörgås and other similar sandwiches on display, ready to be eaten, at various food markets and bakeries.
Just like the Danish have their pastry, for the Swedes, it is the Cinnamon Bun. The love for Kanelbulle is so ardent in the country that 4th October every year is celebrated as Cinnamon Bun Day. Very much like evenings in Britain are a time for scones with a cup of tea, the Swedes love to have coffee alongside cinnamon buns as a daily ritual.
For a somewhat royal and special occasion, there is Prinsesstårta or The Princess Cake. First made by Jenny Åkerström who cooked it for the daughters of Prince Carl, the cake is now beloved by everyone. With its green marzipan top and a soft sponge cake and cream layer inside, it has a peculiar taste and a strange “green” look.
If anyone ever doubted the country’s love for food and sharing, then the very idea of the Smörgåsbord should put that to rest. A buffet-style presentation of various dishes, this is quintessential Sweden. Tables full of sausages, meatballs, pickled herring, salmon, cheese, boiled eggs, and bread are a common sight at get-togethers, business lunches, and meets.
Another popular weekly celebration that includes food and highlights the sense of family, friendship and community are Fredagsmys. Translating into “Friday cozy” it involves families buying a lot of food on Fridays and then going home to sit together, chomp into their purchase, and watch TV while enjoying the quality family time.
Drinks always accompany good food, and even though Sweden comes under the “Vodka belt” of the north, they have opened up to wine in a big way over the last few years. Tradition though always continues as is the case with the liquor Akvavit which is drunk with friends while looking into each other’s eyes. On a more regular basis, coffee, usually black, is so typical that Sweden is among the highest coffee consumers in the world. Milk is popular too, drunk by both the young and old. A specialty of the region is Filmjölk, fermented dairy which has a slightly thick consistency and a sour taste.
Popular Swedish Resturants
Traditions are incredibly crucial for the Swedes. However, when it comes to food, they have not limited themselves to ordinary homemade cookery. More and more chefs are taking the soul of the age-old methods and fusing it with contemporary processes to present something sensational. No surprise then that Sweden has many Michelin starred restaurants throughout the country wowing food lovers with exceptional creations.
Even though Stockholm is Sweden’s Michelin central, there are restaurants in different halves of the country that have received the much-coveted culinary title. Eating at a Michelin starred restaurant is as much an experience for the diner as it is a remarkable title for the chef.
Daniel Berlin Krog – Skåne Tranås
Situated in the village of Skåne-Tranås, a meal at Daniel Berlin is an intimate affair. With only five tables catering to 14 guests and a separate dining room which can accommodate 6-12 guests, the restaurant makes the most of the 150-year-old house that it occupies. The lunch and dinner menus comprise of local and sustainably sourced ingredients. The food is exquisite and merges modern thinking with traditional values. The real magic of the Daniel Berlin experience is not just limited to the menu. Attention to the décor which changes every year as space is provided to local artists to showcase their work is extraordinary. Moreover, the restaurant has been collaborating with the Yoo-Yoo Foundation that adds an element of sound to enhance the event by adding a new dimension, resulting in a spectacular one-of-a-kind sensation for guests.
Oaxen Krog & Slip – Stockholm
A 21-year-old legacy that initially started on the island of Oaxen, the restaurant’s new waterside location in Stockholm does play a part in the two Michelin stars that it received this year. The eatery serves Nordic cuisine with a burst of intense flavors and food that is inspired by the change in seasons and the availability of fresh produce. One of the high points of a meal at Oaxen Krog is its wine collection, curated from small vineyards across Europe. The exclusiveness of the wine pairing raises the culinary bar to a much higher level. The establishment is also known for turning its food waste into bio-gas emphasizing the importance of the environment for the Swedish people.
Bhoga – Göteborg
A Michelin one-star restaurant, Bhoga, in Göteborg, is a labor of love between friends, Niclas and Gustav. Both the chefs have exhaustive prior experience in the food industry and have traveled across the world. Their dishes have an original and imaginative appeal to it which is grounded in vegetables and meats sourced from the surrounding areas. Bhoga, a Sanskrit word meaning indulgence, does precisely that via its set menus consisting of 5, 7, or 9-course meals, a true testament of the talent and passion the chefs possess.
Vollmers Gastronomi – Mälmö
Dishes with names like “Childhood Memories”, “Anticipated”, and “Forrest Flora” form the basis of Matt Vollmer’s menu at the two Michelin star restaurant in Malmö. The creativity of the chefs oozes through the 4,6, and 8-course set-menus they serve primarily consisting of Scanian cuisine that places a spotlight on Southern Sweden’s culinary heritage.
As is the case anywhere in the world, Sweden’s food industry isn’t without its problems. Recently, the EU decided to place a ban on a certain Baltic Sea herring resulting in an adverse effect on the production of Surströmming. Similarly, the year 2018 saw the closing down of two Michelin starred restaurants due to bankruptcy.
Imouto & Esperanto – Stockholm
Having good food it seems is not enough as two of Sweden’s much-loved restaurants closed doors this year. Both, situated next to each other in Stockholm, received a Michelin star each in 2018, and yet according to the owners, the sales during the previous year had not been enough for them to continue. Imouto was a small 9-seater private space which during its hay day required a minimum two-month booking. It followed the Omakase format where the food served was left to the chef’s whim guaranteeing the freshest of produce and often experimental preparations. Similarly, Esperanto took the ideas from traditional dishes but was never afraid to give them an unusual twist to present a more current version of the domestic food.
Swedish Food Future
The future of the two restaurants might be uncertain, but the world has taken notice of the purity that shines through in Swedish cooking. It is the intensity, emotion, and enthusiasm with which food forms such a fundamental part of their lives, and the celebratory way in which they reveal it, that Swedish cuisine continues to fascinate and impress those who try it.
A common thread that links all the restaurants and home cooked food in Sweden is the idea of sustainability and using neighborhood products. The ingredients are at times indigenous, but it doesn’t lead to a loss of creativity. There are simple pleasures to be had, and the contrast in characteristics and tastes brought about are some of the best, making Swedish cuisine phenomenal to savor.
Now, although the legendary Swedish Meat Balls have gone global thanks to Ikea, as the world becomes more receptive of distinct flavors and adventurous when it comes to tasting them, it is only a matter of time that more of Sweden’s culinary pleasures becoming a norm in places far and wide.