Swedish food is much more than just iconic meatballs and chewy fish-shaped sweets. If you want to know a herring from a crayfish and a kanelbulle from a prinsesstårta, here are ten vital facts about Swedish food traditions.
#1 Lingonberries go with anything
Just like ketchup and mustard, lingonberry jam is widely used to accompany a variety of dishes, from meatballs and pancakes to porridge and black pudding (blodpudding). But despite its sweetness, it is rarely used on bread. Thanks to the Right of Public Access (Allemansrätten), which gives everyone the freedom to roam and enjoy nature, many Swedes grow up picking lingonberries in the forest, and using these tiny tart red fruits to make a jam-like preserve.
#2 Pickled herring – centre of the smorgasbord
You might swap meatballs (köttbullar) for mini sausages (prinskorvar) or pick cured salmon (gravad lax) rather than smoked, but your smorgasbord wouldn’t be complete without pickled herring (sill). This fishy favourite remains the basis of every typical Swedish buffet. With an abundance of herring in both the North and Baltic Seas, Swedes have been pickling since the Middle Ages, mainly as a way of preserving the fish for storage and transportation. Pickled herring comes in a variety of flavours – mustard, onion, garlic and dill, to name a few – and is often eaten with boiled potatoes, sour cream, chopped chives, sharp hard cheese, sometimes boiled eggs and, of course, crispbread.
#3 Crispbread – what’s your favourite topping?
In addition to bread and butter, you’ll often find a type of crispbread (knäckebröd) served alongside your main meal. This is what the Swedes tend to reach for. Once considered poor man’s food, crispbread has been baked in Sweden for over 500 years, can last for at least a year if stored properly, and remains among the most versatile edible products. The Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare (Socialstyrelsen) ran a campaign in the 1970s suggesting Swedes should eat six to eight slices of bread a day, including crispbread. This comes in various shapes, thicknesses and flavours, with entire store shelves devoted to it. Crispbread can be topped with anything from sliced boiled eggs and caviar squeezed from a tube for breakfast; to ham, cheese and cucumber slices for lunch; to just plain butter along with your dinner.
#4 Räksmörgås and other open sandwiches
When you order a sandwich, don’t be surprised if it involves just a single slice of bread, the typical Swedish smörgås. The Swedish concept of open sandwiches dates back to the 1400s when thick slabs of bread were used as plates. In Sweden, the shrimp sandwich (räksmörgås or räkmacka) remains the option fit for a king. Piled high with a mix of boiled egg slices, lettuce, tomato and cucumber, this seafood snack is often topped with creamy romsås – crème fraîche blended with dill sprigs and roe. Shrimp sandwiches are such an integral part of Swedish culture, they have inspired a popular saying: ‘glida in på en räkmacka’ (literally ‘glide in on a shrimp sandwich,’ but roughly corresponding to the expression ‘get a free ride’), meaning to get an advantage without having done anything to deserve it.
#5 Pea soup and pancakes
Many Swedes grow up eating pea soup and pancakes (ärtsoppa och pannkakor) every Thursday. This tradition has been upheld by the Swedish Armed Forces since World War II. While its true origins are widely debated – from Catholics not eating meat on Fridays, thus filling up on pea soup on Thursdays, to pea soup being very easy to prepare by maid servants who would work half-days on Thursdays – the tradition has well and truly stuck. Most traditional lunch restaurants serve pea soup and pancakes with lingonberry jam or any kind of jam (sylt) on Thursdays.
#6 Prinsesstårta – a royal indulgence
Colouring the window displays of bakeries throughout Sweden is the all-time favourite green princess cake (prinsesstårta), topped with a bright pink sugar rose. Comprising layers of yellow sponge cake lined with jam and vanilla custard, and then finished off with a heavy topping of whipped cream, the cake is carefully sealed with a thin layer of sugary sweet green marzipan. A relatively recent addition to Sweden’s culinary history, princess cake debuted in the 1920s, courtesy of Jenny Åkerström. She was a teacher to King Gustav V’s brother Prince Carl Bernadotte’s daughters – Princesses Margaretha, Märtha and Astrid – who loved it so much that they inspired its name. While the third week of September is officially princess cake week, this popular cake is now eaten during special festivals and is used to mark many milestones in people’s lives. Today, it comes in a variety of colours – from the classic green to yellow for Easter, red at Christmas, orange for Halloween and white for weddings.
#7 The calendar of sweet delights
In Sweden, people can always find a good excuse to tuck into something sweet – so much so that specific calendar days are designated to the celebration of particular sugary specialties. Cinnamon Bun Day (Kanelbullens dag) is celebrated on 4 October. Buns filled with cream and almond paste known as semlor are eaten on Shrove Tuesday or ‘Fat Tuesday’ (fettisdagen) as the Swedes call it – the day before Ash Wednesday (askonsdagen), the first day of Lent. Waffles (våfflor) are consumed on 25 March, and creamy sponge cakes decorated with chocolate or marzipan silhouettes of King Gustav II Adolf (Gustav Adolfs-bakelse) on 6 November in memory of the Swedish monarch who was killed on this day in 1632 at the Battle of Lützen.
#8 Crazy for crayfish
Crayfish parties (kräftskivor) are popular in August, when warm summer evenings are spent feasting on these red bite-sized freshwater shellfish – or saltwater shellfish (then called langoustine or, funnily enough, Norway lobster) – in gardens and on balconies all over Sweden. Eaten only by Sweden’s upper-class citizens and aristocracy in the 1500s, crayfish have become a national delicacy enjoyed by all, with mass importation having significantly brought down the price over the centuries.
#9 There’s something fishy about Surströmming
Every culture has at least one culinary speciality that makes both locals and visitors cringe. From late August to early September, a stinky tradition is upheld in Sweden, particularly in the northern part of the country. This is when cans of fermented sour Baltic herring (surströmming) are opened – a tradition dating back to the 1800s. The custom preferably takes place outdoors owing to the overpowering, unpleasant smell, which many compare with rotten eggs and raw sewage.
#10 Lördagsgodis (Saturday sweets)
The average Swedish family, with two adults and two children, eats 1.2 kilos of sweets per week – most of it on Saturday, sweets day. Upheld mostly to protect people’s teeth and prevent dental cavities, the once-a-week tradition is historically linked to dubious medical practices. In the 1940s and 1950s, at Vipeholm Mental Hospital in Lund patients were fed large amounts of sweets to intentionally cause tooth decay, as part of a series of human experiments for research purposes. Based on findings from 1957 of the direct relationship between sweets and tooth decay, the Medical Board suggested Swedes eat sweets only once a week – an unwritten rule that many families still stick to.