Swedish food is about more than just meatballs. Read our insider tips on what star dishes to try when visiting this stunning Scandinavian destination...
The world has embraced all things Swedish - from furniture and crime fiction to cars and pop music. In recent years, as several restaurants affiliated with the New Nordic Cuisine movement have gained recognition, food has also joined the list of things Swedes excel at. With a diet high in whole grains, protein and omega fats, the Swedish way of eating in general has been hailed for its health benefits. But for those who want to experience Swedish cuisine without the eye-watering prices of a Michelin-starred restaurant or the restrictions of a low GI diet, here’s a roundup of the most essential foods to try when visiting the heart of Scandinavia...
Don’t leave Sweden without trying…
If Sweden had a national food, it would without a doubt be the cinnamon bun. It’s hard to avoid these delicious spiced rolls, which can be found in every café, bakery and food shop around the country - simply follow the scent of them baking! Made from lightly sweetened, leavened bread dough known as vetebröd (wheat bread), they can also be flavoured with cardamom, saffron and vanilla. These spices are a common feature in Swedish baking and are said to have been brought back when Vikings first traded in Istanbul. A kanelbulle is best served for a fika - the daily practice of sitting down with a cup of coffee and a little something sweet.
Try making your own... Cinnamon buns
Swedes are the second largest dairy consumers in the world per capita. Navigating dairy products often confuses visitors as the vast array of similar-looking cartons at breakfast can be baffling. There’s minimjölk with almost no fat content, gammaldags mjölk, old fashioned milk, which is creamy and unhomogenised, and latte art - milk specifically for hot, frothy drinks. But the product that causes the most contention is undoubtedly filmjölk. This 'love it or hate it' fermented dairy product has a slightly acidic, yogurty taste, and is made from soured milk, a bit like buttermilk or kefir. It’s packed full of healthy bacteria and is perfect with cereal, sweetened with a little sugar or even as an ingredient in breads and cakes.
Oat milk latte
Many Swedes are extremely health conscious, and should you strike a up conversation with a local, it won’t be long before they are regaling you with tales of their latest fitness or outdoor pursuits. In terms of nutrition, Paleo, 5:2 and LCHF (low carb, high fat) diets are popular. This, combined with the increase of food intolerances and allergies, has seen many restaurants offer alternatives and substitutes to cater to the country’s increasingly health aware, lactose and gluten intolerant population. There’s no fighting it, so why not try a latte made with oat milk, which has a slightly sweet, nutty taste.
Sweden’s more luxurious version of a prawn cocktail is made with peeled prawns, mixed with mayonnaise, dill and lemon topped with fish roe and served on crisp, sautéed bread. Skagen is a fishing port in northern Denmark, though the toast is not a Danish dish. Despite slightly retro connotations, it has retained popularity at dinner parties and on restaurant menus alike. It was invented by the chef, Tore Wretman, who ran some of Stockholm’s top restaurants. Apparently, Wretman was sailing in 1956 when he created this classic starter from leftovers in a bid to cheer up the crew during a windless strait. When asked what the dish was called, the story goes that he looked out of the window at the distant Danish coast and exclaimed, "it’s a classic Toast Skagen!"
Swedes love spending time in the wild and thanks to allemänsrätten (the right to roam), they can can wander freely through the country’s vast forests, planes and coastlines. Extreme poverty in the late 19th and early 20th centuries turned Swedes into thrifty foragers, making the most of the abundant free produce when it was available. These days, picking berries, mushrooms and herbs is a rite of passage for every Swedish child and a favourite way to spend a family day out. Cutting edge restaurants like Fäviken in Åre and Franzén in Stockholm have now got in on the act, but it’s also easy to find foraged loot in shops, markets and even on stalls along country roads. Try delicate wild strawberries, earthy chanterelle mushrooms or bright purple bilberries.
The Baltic and North Atlantic are awash with shoals of herring and Swedes are pros at cooking, pickling and smoking these small but flavoursome fish. The fish have two names in Swedish- sill, for the slightly larger fish found off the west coast, and strömming for the herring from the Baltic. Strömming is often enjoyed breaded and fried while sil is frequently pickled, in a variety of marinades and sauces. Matjes is among the more popular marinades, but sour cream, mustard and even curry are also popular additions. Or, why not try an S.O.S? This classic starter stands for Smör, Ost och Sill (‘butter, cheese and herring’) and is best served with crisp bread and washed down with a glass of aquavit, a traditional Scandinavian spirit.
Try making your own... Grilled herring with mustard
Godis (pick & mix)
Go into any supermarket, corner shop or newsagent in Sweden and you’ll see a whole aisle devoted to lurid-looking pick & mix. Sweets are a national obsession for young and old, and each Saturday is a dedicated day for indulging, known as lördagsgodis (‘Saturday sweets’). This unwritten rule is said to derive from a 1950’s health campaign to help curb the nation’s sweet tooth - apparently a family of four were regularly eating up to 1.2 kilos of the stuff per week. Favourites to try include bilar - pastel coloured cars, dumle - gooey chocolate covered caramels and saltlakrits - salty liquorice.
Husmanskost is a style of cooking, literally translating as 'house owner’s fare', comprising the peasant-style cooking that was meant to sustain you through a long day of manual labour. These days, the food is made up of many of the dishes Sweden is most famous for, including meatballs, Jansson's temptation (a potato gratin with cream and sprats, confusingly called anjovis in Swedish) and gravadlax. Every Swede will swear that their Granny makes the best meatballs or Janssons, but this comfort food can also be found as daily lunch specials in local restaurants. Two of the most famous places to try husmanskost include Kometen in Gothenburg and Den Gyldene Freden in Stockholm.
This bright green cake has become a lot more familiar in the UK after a starring role in The Great British Bake Off. Prinsesstårta is a domed, layered sponge cake covered in almost fluorescent marzipan and is usually the cake of choice at celebrations like graduations, retirements and birthdays. However, you can also try a small slice of the rich treat in most Swedish bakeries, known as konditori. The cake was created in the 1920s by Jenny Åkerstöm who taught three of the Swedish princesses to cook. The cake was apparently so loved by the young royals that it was named in their honour.
These tart berries look a little bit like red blueberries and, due to their high acid content, are great for using in preserves like jam or cordial. The Swedes love them in a rårörd or ‘raw-blended’ jam, simply mixed with sugar before pouring into jars. The berries are most famously served as a condiment with meatballs, but are also a traditional accompaniment to raggmunk - fried potato pancakes. You can also find them served with game, liver and blood pudding but they really come into their own in desserts like cheesecakes, ice creams and mousse.
Steffi Knowles-Dellner is a Sweden-born, London-based food stylist, writer and home economist.
Are you a fan of Scandi-chic cuisine? We'd love to hear the dishes you've tried in Sweden. We also have lots more advice for gourmet globetrotting in our travel section.