the cuisines and foods of Sweden
- 1. GEOGRAPHIC SETTING AND ENVIRONMENT
- 2. HISTORY AND FOOD
- 3. FOODS OF THE SWEDES
- 4. FOOD FOR RELIGIOUS AND HOLIDAY CELEBRATIONS
- 5. MEALTIME CUSTOMS
- 6. POLITICS, ECONOMICS, AND NUTRITION
- 7. FURTHER STUDY
1. GEOGRAPHIC SETTING AND ENVIRONMENT
Sweden is the fourth-largest country in Europe. It is the largest Scandinavian country (the other countries in Scandinavia are Denmark, Finland, and Norway). About 15 percent of Sweden’s total area lies north of the Arctic Circle. Because of the effect of warm ocean winds, Sweden has higher temperatures than its northerly latitude would suggest.
Sweden’s relatively slow population growth and strong conservation policies have preserved the country’s extensive forests. However, air and water pollution are both serious problems. Airborne sulfur pollutants have made more than 16,000 lakes so acidic that fish can no longer breed in them.
2. HISTORY AND FOOD
Sweden’s climate and location are largely responsible for the development of its cuisine. Early inhabitants stocked food supplies to prepare for the start of the country’s long, cold winters by preserving meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables.
The Vikings, who inhabited all of Scandinavia more than one thousand years ago, were some of the first to develop a method for preserving foods. In preparation for long voyages, foods were salted, dehydrated, and cured. Though modern-day technology (such as the refrigerator and freezer) has eliminated the need for such preserving methods, Swedes continue to salt, dehydrate, and cure many of their foods, particularly fish.
During the Viking era, a.d. 800 to 1050, these ruthless crusaders embarked on raids all across Europe, invading lands possibly as far south as the Mediterranean Sea. The British Isles and France were in close proximity to Scandinavia, and therefore endured continuous Viking invasions.
Over time, various foods such as tea from England, French sauces and soups, and honey cakes from Germany were brought back to Scandinavian territory and incorporated into the diet. Swedes still find soups a great way to use leftover food.
Historically, Swedish cuisine has not been as popular as other European fare. (Even modern-day restaurants in Sweden tend to serve more foreign dishes than their own.) It has, however, been influential. The Russian nation is said to have been established by Scandinavian traders and warriors (called Varangians), and Sweden may be responsible for introducing fruit soups, smoked meats, cream sauces, and herring to early Russians.
2.1 Rose Hip Soup
- 1½ to 2 cups dried rose hips (fruit of a rose plant; available at health food stores)
- 1½ quarts (6 cups) water
- ¼ to ½ cup sugar
- 1 Tablespoon potato starch (cornstarch may be substituted)
- Rinse the rose hips and put them in a large kettle. Crush them lightly against the pan, using a wooden spoon.
- Add the water and heat to boiling. Reduce heat and simmer until the rose hips are tender.
- Transfer to a blender or food processor and purée. (There should be about 5 cups of liquid; if there is less, add water.)
- Pour the puréed rose hips back into the saucepan and add the sugar.
- Stir and cook over medium heat. Dissolve the potato or cornstarch in a small amount of cold water and stir into the soup slowly.
- Remove from heat when it begins to boil.
- Chill before serving. Serve cold with ice cream or whipped cream.
- Top with slivered almonds or corn flakes.
Serves 5 to 6.
2.2 Creamy Dipping Sauce
This tastes delicious with all fish, and vegetables such as boiled artichokes and broccoli, served as separate dishes.
- ¾ cup butter
- 4 egg yolks
- 1½ cups cream
- Lemon juice, to taste
- Melt the butter in top of a double boiler. Have water underneath simmering, not boiling.
- Separate the egg yolks from the egg whites one at a time and discard the egg whites.
- Beat the yolks with the cream until stiff. Add the cream and eggs and beat constantly.
- Continue until the sauce is foamy and slightly thick.
- Remove from the stove and add the lemon juice, to taste.
2.3 Glazed Carrots
- 12 small carrots
- 2 Tablespoons butter
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- Rinse the carrots and boil them in salted water until tender.
- Drain and peel while the carrots are still hot.
- Melt the butter and sugar in a saucepan and add carrots, leaving them until they are well covered with glaze. This goes best with roasted meat.
3. FOODS OF THE SWEDES
Traditional Swedish home cooking (called husmanskost ) is simple in comparison with other European cuisines, but it is anything but ordinary. Husmanskost , once referring to tasteless porridge and other gruel, has come to represent savory stews, roasts, and various seafood.
The ultimate in husmanskost is the Swedish smörgåsbord (SMUR-gawssboord), which is a number of small hot and cold dishes served buffet-style. The literal meaning of the word is “bread and butter table.” The term has become world famous, representing a collection of various foods, presented all at once.
The traditional Swedish smörgåsbord commonly includes herring (fish); smoked eel; roast beef; jellied fish; boiled potatoes; lingonsylt (LING-onnseelt; lingonberry jam); Janssons frestelse (YAHN-sons FREH-stehl-seh; “Jansson’s temptation”), a layered potato dish containing onions and cream, topped with anchovies (fish); and köttbulla (CHURT-boolar; Swedish meatballs), which have also won worldwide acclaim. It is easy to see why the literal meaning of smörgåsbord, “bread and butter table,” does the feast little justice.
Surrounded by water on almost all sides, it is no surprise that Swedes love seafood, especially salmon, which is typically smoked, marinated, or cured with dill and salt. (No other country seems to surpass Sweden in the number of ways fish is prepared.) Herring, another popular catch, is prepared in just as many ways, and is often eaten alongside breads, cheese, and eggs for breakfast. Crayfish and eel are also enjoyed.
The method of pickling and preserving food is one way Swedish cuisine sets itself apart from other countries. Fresh, home-grown ingredients, rich and creamy sauces (a French trait), and seasonal fresh fruits, such as the country’s native lingonberries, also contribute to Sweden’s growing culinary reputation around the world. Aside from international differences, Swedish cuisine also has regional distinctions.
Pitepalt (pork-filled potato dumplings) are popular in the far north, pytt i panna (a fried dish made from diced potatoes and meat or ham, served with eggs) is favored in the southern region, while the east coast’s most important food is strömming , a small, silvery Baltic herring. In any of the three locations, no meal is complete without the accompaniment of Swedish rye bread.
3.1 Jansson’s Frestelse (“Jansson’s Temptation”)
- 2 medium onions, sliced
- 3 Tablespoons butter or margarine, divided
- 4 to 5 medium potatoes
- 2 cans (2 ounces each) anchovy fillets (optional)
- 1½ cups whipping cream
- Preheat oven to 400°F.
- Sauté the onions in 1 Tablespoon butter or margarine until soft.
- Peel potatoes and slice lengthwise thinly.
- Butter a baking dish and layer the potatoes, onions, and anchovies, finishing with another layer of potatoes. Spread remaining butter on top.
- Bake the dish, adding half of the cream after 10 minutes. Add the remainder of the cream after another 10 minutes.
- After 30 minutes reduce the heat to 300°F and bake for another 30 minutes.
- Casserole is ready when potatoes are soft. Serve immediately.
Serves at least 10 as an appetizer. To reheat, add a little more cream if dry.
3.2 Köttbulla (Swedish Meatballs)
- 1½ pounds ground beef
- ½ pound ground lean pork
- 2 cups water
- 2 eggs
- ½ cup breadcrumbs
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- 2 Tablespoons salt
- 2 Tablespoons onion, chopped
- Butter, for frying
- Combine ground beef and ground pork in a large mixing bowl.
- Melt butter in a saucepan, add chopped onion, and cook until onion is golden (do not burn).
- Add cooked onions and all the other ingredients to the ground meat and mix thoroughly by hand until smooth.
- Shape the mixture into balls with a spoon dipped in hot water or using your hands.
- Place the balls in the remaining butter in the same saucepan used to prepare the onions, and brown evenly.
3.3 Klimp (Dumplings)
2 Tablespoons butter or margarine
- 5 Tablespoons flour
- 1¾ cups milk
- 2 egg yolks
- Salt and pepper
- Parsley, finely chopped, for garnish
- Melt butter in a saucepan. Add the flour and stir well.
- Add the milk and bring to a boil while stirring. Continue to boil for a few minutes, then remove the saucepan from the burner.
- Beat in egg yolks and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes.
- Season with salt and pepper.
- Place dough into a bowl that has been rinsed in water. Allow the dough to cool.
- Tip the bowl to slide the dough onto a plate. Form the dough into little balls, using a spoon dipped in water.
- Sprinkle with parsley to garnish.
Makes 4 servings.
3.4 Blandad Fruktsoppa (Swedish Fruit Soup)
- 1 package (11-ounce) mixed dried fruits (1¾ cups)
- ½ cup golden seedless raisins
- Cinnamon sticks, 3 to 4 inches long
- 4 cups water
- 1 medium orange cut in ¼-inch slices
- 2¼ cups unsweetened pineapple juice
- ½ cup currant jelly
- ¼ cup sugar
- 2 Tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- Combine mixed dried fruits, raisins, cinnamon, and water in a large pot.
- Bring to a boil, then simmer uncovered until fruits are tender, about 30 minutes.
- Add the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil again and cover, cooking over low heat 15 more minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Serve warm or chilled.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.
4. FOOD FOR RELIGIOUS AND HOLIDAY CELEBRATIONS
Lutheranism is Sweden’s state religion, with approximately ninety percent of Swedes belonging to the Church of Sweden. The Christian holiday of Christmas ( Jul ) is uniquely celebrated in Sweden. Lasting for an entire month, Christmas commences on December 13, Saint Lucia Day, named for Lucia of Sicily who was murdered for her Christian faith. (According to legend, Lucia brought food to Sweden during a famine, centuries after her death.)
The eldest daughter of each household, dressed in a white gown, a red sash, and a halo of brightly lit candles (modern-day halos feature battery-operated candles with light bulbs) adorning her head, plays the role of Lucia each year. Before dawn, she wakens her parents and serves them hot coffee and saffron buns.
The largest feast of the year takes place on Christmas Eve, when either a juicy ham, or lutfisk (sometimes spelled lutefisk, dried fish cured with a lye mixture) with creamy dipping sauce, is served as the main dish. Julgröt , porridge similar to rice pudding, is also traditionally served. A lucky almond, often hidden in one of the porridges, is believed to grant good fortune to the person who finds it.
After a full month of feasting on ginger cookies, cardamom (a type of spice) breads, and egg coffee, Tjugondag Knut (Saint Knut’s Day), January 13, ends the Christmas season.
The Swedes feast on traditional foods that are unique to the Easter season. Halibut or salmon are the typical entrées of choice on Good Friday, with the main meal on Easter Sunday being lamb and hard-boiled eggs, often decorated with food coloring and designs. Shrove Tuesday, the last day before Lent, is traditionally observed by eating semlor , a cream- and almond-filled bun floating in a bowl of warm milk.
The Feast of Valborg (also known as Walpurgis Night, April 30) and the summer solstice (Midsummer Day) are two of the most important secular holidays in Sweden. Both days celebrate the blessings of the sun. With every day that follows Walpurgis Night, the sun shines brighter and longer until the summer solstice arrives, when potatoes and fresh strawberries with whipped cream are commonly eaten.
4.1 A Typical Christmas Eve Menu
Baked lutfisk with cream sauce
An assortment of Christmas cookies
4.2 Pepparkakor (Ginger Cookies)
- 1 cup butter
- 1½ cups sugar, sifted
- 1 Tablespoon corn syrup
- 1 large egg
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons ginger
- 1 teaspoon cloves
- 2½ cups flour, sifted
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Mix together the butter, sugar, and syrup until smooth and creamy.
- Add the egg and beat well.
- Stir in the baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves.
- Slowly add the flour to make a stiff dough. Add enough flour to make dough easy to handle without sticking to fingers or cookie press.
- Using the bar design of a cookie press, press out several long strips of dough on ungreased cookie sheets.
- If no cookie press is available, shape dough into rectangles with your hands.
- Bake for 7 minutes until cookies are medium brown.
- Remove them from the oven and let rest for 1 minute before cutting them into 2-inch pieces.
- Remove cookies from cookie sheets when cool. Store in an airtight container.
Makes 7 to 8 dozen.
4.3 Lussekatter (St. Lucia Saffron Buns)
- 2 packages active dry yeast
- ½ cup warm water
- ⅔ cup lukewarm milk
- ½ cup sugar
- ½ cup margarine, softened
- 2 eggs
- ½ teaspoon cardamom, ground
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon powdered saffron
- 5 to 5½ cups flour
- ½ cup raisins
- Margarine, softened
- 1 egg, slightly beaten
- 1 Tablespoon water
- 2 Tablespoons sugar
- Dissolve the yeast in warm water.
- Stir in the milk, ½ cup sugar, ½ cup margarine, 2 eggs, cardamom, salt, saffron, and 3 cups of the flour. Beat until smooth.
- Stir in enough of remaining flour to make dough easy to handle.
- Turn dough onto lightly floured surface; knead until smooth (about 8 minutes).
- Place in a greased bowl, cover, and let rise until doubled (about 1 hour).
- Punch down on dough; divide into 24 parts.
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Shape each piece into rope, and form an S-shape, tucking the ends into a coil.
- Place a raisin in the center of each end coil. Place rolls on greased cookie sheet.
- Brush the tops lightly with margarine and let rise until doubled (about 30 minutes).
- Mix 1 egg and 1 Tablespoon water and brush the buns lightly. Sprinkle with 2 Tablespoons of sugar.
- Bake for 15–20 minutes.
Makes 24 buns.
4.4 Julgröt (Swedish Christmas Porridge)
- 1 cup rice
- 4 cups water
- ½ cup butter
- ½ pint light cream
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 Tablespoon sugar
- Rinse the rice in a sieve or colander. Measure the water into a saucepan and heat it to boiling.
- Add the rice and simmer on low heat until soft, about 1 hour.
- Measure the cream into a bowl, and whip it, using an electric mixer, until soft peaks form.
- When the rice is soft, remove from heat and cool slightly (about 10 minutes). Add cold butter and whipped cream; mix well.
- Return pan to low heat and heat the porridge thoroughly, being careful not to let it boil.
- Add the salt and sugar and mix well. Serve with cold milk.
4.5 Svart Vinbärsglögg (Black Currant Glögg)
- ¾ cup apple juice
- 1½ cups black currant fruit syrup (may substitute other berry syrup if black currant is not available)
- 1½ cups water
- 1 teaspoon cardamom seeds
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 4 whole cloves
- ½ cup blanched sweet almonds and ½ cup raisins, as accompaniments
- Stir the ingredients together in a large saucepan and bring to a boil.
- Remove from heat and let stand in a cool place overnight.
- Strain the spices and reheat the glögg.
- Serve in mugs together with almonds and raisins.
Makes about 1 quart, serving 4 to 6.
5. MEALTIME CUSTOMS
The Swedish smörgåsbord, perhaps Sweden’s best known culinary tradition, has specific customs to follow. Despite the meal’s pick-and-choose display, dishes should be eaten in a specific order. It is most appropriate to begin with herring and other fish, followed by cold meats, salads, and egg dishes. Next, hot dishes such as Swedish meatballs and cooked vegetables should be selected. Fruit salad or ostkaka (cheese-cake) may be eaten last.
A clean plate should be used with each new trip to the food table, but diners take only small portions, since wasted food is considered impolite. Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) began offering a small smörgåsbord at the gate before boarding the aircraft in the late 1990s, including sandwiches, yogurt, fruit, candy, and juice, and continued this tradition into the early twenty-first century.
Guests in a Swedish home should observe certain customs. In many households, wearing shoes beyond the front door is discouraged. Hosts will often walk around in socks (and will expect their guests to do the same). A small gift of appreciation given to the host is often appropriate, particularly if a visit is unexpected. In addition, guests should not be surprised to see pancakes for dinner, and coffee only offered black. When a popular alcoholic beverage, aquavit, is served, everyone at the table makes eye contact and takes the first sip simultaneously.
5.1 Plättar (Swedish Pancakes)
- 3 eggs
- 1¼ cups milk
- ¾ cup flour, sifted
- 1 Tablespoon sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Lingonberry sauce (raspberry sauce may be substituted)
- Beat the 3 eggs until thick.
- Stir in the milk, flour, sugar, and salt, mixing until smooth.
- Drop a small amount of batter (about 1 Tablespoon for a 3-inch pancake) onto a moderately hot, buttered griddle.
- Spread the batter evenly to make thin cakes.
- Turn the cakes over when the underside is lightly browned.
- Keep finished pancakes on towel-covered baking sheet in a warm oven.
- Before serving, spoon melted butter over the pancakes and sprinkle them with sugar.
- Serve with lingonberry sauce for dessert after pea soup on Thursdays.
Makes about 42 pancakes.
Children find sandwiches tasty and easy to prepare; however, schools provide free lunches, typically consisting of meatballs, gravy, potatoes, pickles, and milk.
Authentic Swedish cuisine can be found in abundance throughout the country. Frukost (breakfast) is likely to be fairly large, serving coffee, juice, or tea, followed by bröd (breads), ost (cheese), ägg (eggs), and strömming (herring). Äta (lunch), normally served between noon and 1 P.M. , may be an open-face meat sandwich, kaldolmar (stuffed cabbage), or even a hamburger from one of the many local fast food restaurants.
Middag (dinner) immediately follows the end of the workday and consists of a variety of hot and cold dishes. Formerly, Swedish Catholics observed the tradition of not eating meat on Fridays, so the traditional Thursday night supper was hearty artsoppa (pea soup with ham) and plättar (pancakes). Although many have given up the meatless Friday tradition, artsoppa and plättar are still commonly served on Thursdays in Swedish homes and restaurants.
5.2 Artsoppa (Pea Soup)
- 2 cups split peas
- 8 cups cold water
- Ham bone, scraps of baked ham
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 carrot, grated
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ⅛ teaspoon pepper
- 1 teaspoon ginger (optional)
- 1 teaspoon marjoram (optional)
- Croutons (optional)
- Rinse the peas and discard any that are shriveled or discolored.
- In a large saucepan or soup kettle, place the peas, water, ham bone and scraps, onion, carrot, and seasonings.
- Simmer on low heat for 2 to 3 hours, covered, stirring occasionally. Remove the ham bone and discard it.
- Serve, with croutons floating in each bowl, if desired.
5.3 Rågbröd (Swedish Rye Bread)
- 1 cup milk
- 1 cup water
- 2½ Tablespoons shortening
- ½ cup molasses
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon anise, ground
- 2 packages active dry yeast
- 1 Tablespoon sugar
- ¼ cup warm water
- 2 cups rye flour
- 4 to 5 cups white flour
- Scald (heat just to boiling) the milk in a saucepan. Remove from heat, and add the water, shortening, molasses, ½ cup sugar, salt, and anise. Cool to lukewarm.
- Dissolve the yeast and 1 Tablespoon sugar in the ¼ cup of warm water.
- When the milk mixture is lukewarm, add the yeast mixture and rye flour and mix until smooth.
- Add the white flour, one cup at a time, until the dough is easy to handle. Knead the dough for 8 minutes.
- Clean the mixing bowl, and butter it thoroughly. Place the dough into the greased bowl, turning the dough to coat it with butter on all sides.
- Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and allow it to sit in a warm place until the dough is about doubled in size. (About 1 hour.)
- Divide dough into 3 balls. Cover the balls with plastic wrap and let them “rest” for 15 minutes.
- Form the balls into loaves and place them in well-greased tins. Cover the pans with plastic wrap, and let the dough rise until double in size. (30 minutes to 1 hour.)
- Preheat oven to 375°F.
- Bake for 35 to 40 minutes.
- After removing loaves from the oven, brush with melted butter. Remove from pans and allow to cool on wire racks.
5.4 Hasselbackspotatis (Roasted Potatoes)
- 8 medium potatoes
- 4 Tablespoons butter, melted and divided
- 3 Tablespoons breadcrumbs
- Preheat oven to 425°F.
- Peel the potatoes and slice down through each at ⅛-inch intervals, but do not slice completely through.
- Pat potatoes dry with a paper towel.
- Generously butter a baking dish and place the potatoes in it, cut side up.
- Baste the potatoes with 2 Tablespoons of the melted butter and sprinkle them with salt. Bake for 30 minutes.
- Baste the potatoes with the remaining butter and sprinkle with breadcrumbs.
- Bake for another 15 minutes or until done.
5.5 Smörgås med ost och päron (Cheese and Pear Sandwich)
- 1 Tablespoon butter or margarine
- 5 slices white bread
- 5 small lettuce leaves
- ¼ pound blue cheese
- 2 ripe pears
- ½ lemon
- 1 red pepper, finely sliced
- Butter the bread and trim off the crusts.
- Slice the bread diagonally, making triangles.
- Top each slice with a lettuce leaf.
- Mash the blue cheese with a fork.
- Slice the unpeeled pears lengthwise into slices about ¼-inch thick.
- Rub them with the lemon half and put a slice of pear on each bread triangle.
- Top the pears with a spoonful of mashed blue cheese.
- Garnish with a thin slice of red pepper.
Makes 10 portions.
6. POLITICS, ECONOMICS, AND NUTRITION
Sweden has been called the model welfare state because every citizen is guaranteed medical care. In the 1990s, health care reform issues such as universal and equal access to medical services, as well as equal funding of health care were addressed. Sweden’s deep concern for equal human rights has helped lead to a healthier population.
Infant mortality has been sharply reduced in recent years, and remains one of the lowest rates in the world, much in part to the country’s excellent prenatal services for unborn children. In addition, children and teens receive free dental care until the age of 20. Most health problems are associated with the environment and lifestyle choices, such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and overeating.
7. FURTHER STUDY
Ingeborg, Helen. How to Make a Swedish Christmas! Sedro-Woolley, WA: The Tailor’s Daughter Pinstripe Publishing, 1991.
Norberg, Inga. Good Food from Sweden . New York: Sweden House, Inc., 1996.
Ojakangas, Beatrice. Scandinavian Cooking . Tucson, AZ: HPBooks, 1983.
Thompson, Martha Wiberg, ed. Superbly Swedish Recipes and Traditions . Iowa City, IA: Penfield Press, 1983.
Visson, Lynn. The Russian Heritage Cookbook . Dana Point, CA: Ardis Publishers, 1998.
7.2 Web Sites
City Guide: Sweden. [Online] Available http://cityguide.se/inbrief/gourmet.phtml (accessed March 12, 2001).
GoSweden. [Online] Available http://www.gosweden.org (accessed March 12, 2001).
Svensk Hyllningsfest 2001. [Online] Available http://www.svenskhyllningsfest.org/ (accessed March 12, 2001).
Sweden Information Smorgasbord. [Online] Available http://www.sverigeturism.se/smorgasbord/smorgasbord/culture/lifestyle/food.html (accessed March 12, 2001).
Swedish Chef Too. [Online] Available http://www.martin-enterprises.co.uk/swedishchef.html (accessed March 12, 2001).
Swedish Kitchen. [Online] Available http://www.swedishkitchen.com (accessed March 13, 2001).