Understanding Swedish Food

Understanding Swedish Food

To understand Swedish food, John Duxbury who runs Swedishfood.com says it is important to reflect upon the nature of the country, its geography, climate and its people. 

All photos by Lola A. Åkerström

As a retired physics teacher leaving in the UK, I visit Sweden regularly and have enjoyed Swedish food so much I decided to try cooking some at home.

But I found it hard to find recipes in English to follow so I decided it would be fun and an interesting challenge to learn some Swedish and use Swedish recipe books.

Once I retired, I set up SwedishFood.com to share my recipes with other English speakers around the world. To understand traditional Swedish food, I think it is important to reflect upon the nature of the country, its geography, climate and its people.

Sweden is a very long narrow country stretching from deep into the Arctic Circle to the relatively mild south near Denmark.  Seasons are very pronounced, much more so than in the UK and so Swedish cuisine tends to reflect the changing seasons.  Nettle soup is must in the spring, strawberries in late June and crayfish is enjoyed in August.

Swedes were great sailors and traders.  From their adventures, they brought back many spices which were used to enliven preserved food and make disgusting wine and vodka acceptable. Popular spices such as cinnamon and cardamom (used in buns), vanilla (in much loved vanilla sauce), licorice, saffron (especially popular in buns in December) are just a few examples.

Sweden’s unusual geography and climate has given it ingredients not usually found in the UK such as lingonberries and cloudberries, Arctic char, elk and reindeer, to name a few

Swedes have one important right: the right to roam and forage virtually anywhere.

This means that Swedes learnt what they could help themselves to freely: nettles, bilberries (wild blueberries) and rosehip being three good examples.  Nettles were a sign of spring around the corner, 17% of Sweden is said to be covered with bilberries which are easy to preserve, and rosehip is packed full of vitamin C and helps keep children healthy through the winter.  Many Swedes to this day take great delight in spending an autumnal day foraging for wild mushrooms.

As Swedes are never far away from water, fish has played an important part of their diet.  Herring still takes center stage at most celebrations, crayfish parties are legendary and traditionally, many Swedes eat as much freshwater fish as sea fish.  Who else holds eel parties?!

I love Swedish salads.

Instead of limp lettuce and tasteless out-of-season tomatoes, they make cauliflower, kale carrots and broccoli into tasty salads.  Why bother cooking veggies when they are so good thinly sliced, lightly pickled or massaged?

For a nation with a reputation for being sensible and cautious (think driving with headlamps on during the day), Swedes are unable to resist the allure of the disgusting.

I’m not quite sure why Swedes enjoy some things most people with ordinary taste buds find unpalatable. Perhaps there is a machismo side or perhaps it is just fun to escape the sensibleness once in a while.  Whatever the reason, many Swedes are very proud of this quirky aspect of Swedish food. They love to offer foreigners some really salty licorice and then laugh as they spit it out in disgust.

I too have grown to like salty licorice. By the way, they are meant to be sucked slowly, rather than being chewed and swallowed quickly.

Surströmming is sold in cans and the fermentation continues in the can, releasing various acids and disgusting gases as it does so.  Most people find the smell so bad that it is normally only opened outside.

To be fair, most Swedes don’t like it either, but a minority really enjoy it and look forward to surströmmingsskiva (a fermented herring party) in August when a new batch of surströmming is released. Lutfisk is another example. American author Garrison Keillor famously described it as resembling squirrels’ insides run over by trucks!

Fika is a distinctively Swedish tradition.  Fika is often translated as “a coffee and cake break”, which is kind of correct, but really it is much more than that.  Fika is a concept, a state of mind, an attitude and an important part of Swedish culture. Many Swedes consider that it is almost essential to make time for fika every day. It means making time for friends and colleagues to share a cup of coffee (or tea) and a little something to eat.  Fika cannot be experienced at your desk by yourself. That would just be taking coffee and cake.  Fika is a ritual.

Even the mighty Volvo plant stops for fika.

All Swedes consider it important to make time to stop and socialise: to take a pause.  It refreshes the brain and strengthens relationships. And it makes good business sense: firms have better teams and are more productive where fika is institutionalised.

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Author: John Duxbury

John Duxbury runs the site SwedishFood.com which is dedicated to bringing tried and tasted Swedish recipes to English speakers around the world.

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