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Swedish staples

by Marleen Whiteley
July 06, 2010 12:33 PM | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Ask your average American to name a famous French dish and you will most likely hear about ratatouille, beef bourguignon and crepes suzette (for the more culinary challenged, perhaps French fries, or was that freedom fries?). Ask them to name a well-known Swedish dish and nine times out of ten — maybe even ten times out of ten — they’ll answer “Swedish meatballs.”

Sweden has a very traditional, varied cuisine with some dishes dating back hundreds of years. The basis of Swedish cuisine is “husmanskost,” or house-man food. This refers to the traditional, simple meals served in the homes of families living in the countryside. Most Swedes, huge fans of husmanskost, attribute their good health and longevity to it and to the great deal of walking and biking they do. The majority of Swedes eat these types of traditional meals for lunch, either by going to a restaurant and choosing the daily special, or bringing with them a matlåda or lunchbox with them to work.

A typical lunch dish is pyttipanna, which is a hash made with beef or pork, potatoes and root vegetables, served with a fried egg and pickled beet. Other typical Swedish dishes include moose steak served with black currant jelly, baked cod with a dill sauce served with boiled potatoes, stuffed cabbage with mustard sauce and boiled potatoes, and thinly sliced reindeer meat and chanterelle mushrooms in a cream sauce, served with pasta (very delicious, but I can’t get past the feeling that I’m doing something very mean to Rudolph and friends). Salmon is very popular, as is my favorite, fried herring with mashed potatoes and lingonberry jam.

Lingonberry jam is definitely a staple food. Many Swedes take to the woods, pick their own lingonberries in the Swedish forest, and make their own jam. It’s very similar to cranberry sauce and is served with both fish and meat dishes, as well as pancakes.

Pea soup and pancakes is perhaps the most famous traditional Swedish dish. It is served only on Thursdays in Swedish homes and restaurants. The soup is a very simple creation made with yellow peas and served with, of all things, mustard. The traditional crepe-like pancakes are served with lingonberry. Erik XIV, a former Swedish king, ate his pea soup one Thursday in February 1577 and died. The fact the king’s soup was laced with arsenic hasn’t deterred Swedes from eating this traditional, simple meal on a fairly regular basis.

Swedes are very particular about their breakfasts and stick to a routine that can drive an American like me crazy. There are very few restaurants that actually serve breakfast (McDonald’s began serving breakfast here just a few years ago), and most Swedes eat their breakfast at home. A typical breakfast includes fil milk, a truly odious dairy product that can best be described as runny sour cream, eaten plain or with musli cereal, accompanied by a few ham-and-cheese sandwiches — open — on either regular or crisp bread, with a slice of cucumber or red pepper. No Swedish breakfast would be complete without strong coffee (I have been told many times that we Americans drink dishwater) or tea.

Many Swedes are unable to contemplate the thought of something different for breakfast. I made the mistake of making American pancakes and bacon as a special treat on a trip up north to the Swedish mountains. I got strange looks, and the older members of the party simply refused to eat them. “You don’t eat that kind of food for breakfast” said one elderly woman as she poured fil milk into her bowl.

One of my favorite food holidays is Waffle Day, celebrated on March 25. The original name of this holiday was Vårfrudagen, or Our Lady day, a celebration of the Virgin Mary. Swedes are not a religious people and, over the years, the name changed to Våffeldagen. Instead of remembering the Virgin, Swedes eat waffles on this day, secularization at its finest.

Crayfish parties are celebrated each year in August. Swedes gather and eat crayfish cooked in dill, bread and cheese while they drink aquavit, which is essentially vodka flavored with herbs. They usually make quiche or grill some type of meat after the crayfish. The special lamps, bibs and tablecloths with crayfish on them add to the atmosphere. Swedes, who love to sing, break into song before downing a shot of aquavit. This happens many times throughout the crayfish party. I wasn’t aware that the aquavit, called snapps in Swedish, wasn’t like peppermint schnapps, a liqueur with much less alcohol in it. At my first crayfish party, I was encouraged to sing a lot (I didn’t know a word of Swedish) and sample all the different varieties of aquavit. You can eat a lot of crayfish without ingesting much food. Two seconds after I stood up from the table I found myself on the ground. Lesson learned.

August is a popular food month in Sweden. No August would be complete without surströmming, or sour herring. Sour herring is Baltic herring that has been fermented for several months before being placed in tin cans, where it ferments some more for up to a year. The cans, which bulge due to the gas build-up, are traditionally opened underwater to help diminish the rotten stench that emanates from the tins upon opening. I was told that sour herring tastes a lot better than it smells. The only way to describe the odor is a mixture of car exhaust, industrial chemicals and sewer. My eyes watery, I placed boiled potatoes and onions on a piece of buttered flat bread, dabbed on small bits of one small herring filet (the traditional way of eating sour herring), and took a bite. It was okay, except I hadn’t gotten any fish in that first bite. The second bite was another experience entirely — it tastes exactly as it smells. Several shots of aquavit was the only remedy available to me. I have often heard Swedes bragging about their sour herring — “this year, I ate three filets.” It seems an important challenge to them.

Smörgåsbord is a Swedish word familiar to most Americans. A smorgasbord is a collection of different dishes served buffet-style on a table. The smorgasbord season begins in December, when most restaurants offer a Christmas table for lunch guests. The most famous smorgasbord in Sweden is the Julbord, or literally Christmas table. On Christmas Eve a very traditional set of food dishes is served. It is popular for most businesses and organizations to invite their employees and customers to a Christmas table. In the Swedish home, food is served in the afternoon of December 24 and consists of baked ham, brown beans, a potato dish called Jansson’s Temptation, pork ribs, herring, smoked salmon, boiled potatoes and, the highlight, meatballs.

Another typical dish served is lutfisk (literally lye fish), which is a white fish soaked in water and lye (yes, lye), rinsed (thank goodness), and cooked in the oven. It is served with a very simple white sauce.  To be perfectly honest, I have never tried lutfisk. It isn’t so much that I can’t get past the lye, but more the fact that the fish looks a lot like a soggy white brain. Lutfisk is very popular in Minnesota, where many descendents of the big Swedish emigration of the late nineteenth century live.

Since Americans are most familiar with Swedish meatballs, let me share an insider’s secret. The best place to get authentic meatballs is Ikea, the Swedish furniture store. Other Swedish delicacies, such as traditional apple cake and salt licorice, are available there. For those of you who don’t live close to an Ikea, the following recipe for Swedish meatballs will allow you to bring a bit of Sweden into your home. ++

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