13 October, 2020

In praise of Swedish tacos

I have all the Mexicans, and all other sensible people out there, screaming at me through their screens now, but I’m afraid Sweden has claimed and appropriated tacos. This is old news, I assume, but this blog post is to confirm it: there is no food more Swedish than tacos.

What does gunpowder have to do with it?

I did my research though and learnt that the Mexican taco probably originated in silver mines in the 19th century. Not new, not old. Apparently, the dish resembled explosives wrapped in paper, and this contraption was, incidentally, called a taco, which henceforth inspired the naming of the dish. Interesting.

Parallel to my research, I have been informed that taco is not a dish but a way of eating. Wrapped in bread and with your hands, it is street food, it is for everyone. Then, as usual, the Americans (I mean US people, to clarify) turned it into a dish, it lost its social value, its versatility, its connotations. It had been commodified to a caricature of itself, a caricature that was later exported to Europe and Sweden. Sweden learned of tacos not from Mexico but from the US.

Sweden fell in love immediately. The reasons are multifold. I was born in the early 80s, and although it is difficult to imagine now, there was very little variety when it came to foodstuff to purchase during my upbringing. I didn’t have chicken until I was ten years old. Unsweetened bread was a novelty. Garlic was a powder and so was parmesan. Almond flour, sea salt, ginger, vanilla were all condiments we used to buy when we travelled abroad, bringing these sacred gifts to keep for ourselves or through requests from friends and family.

Something must have changed (a free trade agreement?) in the early 90s because I remember all sorts of new dishes appearing. We were all adventurous, burning our tongues with new spices, letting go of cutlery, disrupting our perception of food as fuel. There was utter excitement as first El Paso and then Santa Maria launched this unheard dish of tacos. Spices! Choice! Foreign stuff! Eating with our hands! 

Something new

Photo by Xavier crook on Unsplash

The first time I got to try this dish was at a dinner party with my parents. Unfortunately, the taco shells (there was only one option in the beginning) had sold out, and our host, in despair, had bought ready-salted crisps as a substitute. Our plates were brimming with tiny potato shells loaded with minced meat, cucumber, and grated cheese. What decadence! How could we not love it!

Unlike many other trends, this one stayed. It set roots and started to grow. It adapted to the Swedish lifestyle and planted new seeds. Its origin as street food was abandoned. The Swedes saw tacos as the perfect dish to prepare at home. Perfect for families.

As most parent-aged Swedes work and there is no housewife culture, cooking needs to be fast when all family members come home early evening. It also fits perfectly with the traditions of raising children as autonomous individuals. A four-year-old can chop some cucumber, an eight-year-old can grate the cheese. A twelve-year-old may host their own dinner party, preparing all ingredients and setting the table.

A new life

Primarily, everyone, toddlers included, can help themselves and compose their own meals. And this is the very core of Swedish tacos. It celebrates individualism. Everyone can make their own combo and still be happy together. I know many internationals are sceptical about the Swedish sense of individualism, which may appear selfish and inconsiderate, but I think Swedish taco culture shows its best side. It celebrates diversity and difference at the same time as it brings people together.

And with that, something interesting has happened. There has been a second transformation: From a way of eating to becoming a dish, tacos have again become a way of eating, a way of being together. It has regained its social dimension, a sense of community, and individuality combined.

So thank you Mexico. I understand you want to reclaim your food, but could we please exist alongside, because tacos make Sweden a better place. And do feel free to take what Sweden has to offer and make it your own! Fika? Free påtår? Fruktstund? Måndagsmöte?

In the book Beyond Fika (Tacos, tvättstuga och tack för senast, Swedish translation), Mattias Axelsson explores Swedish cultures beyond the obvious stereotypes.

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Sofi Tegsveden Deveaux on Github
Sofi Tegsveden Deveaux
I grew up in Stockholm but spent several years abroad before re-settling in my birth town to teach Swedish to internationals. These days, I spend most of my days making books, through publishing house LYS. We create course literature in professional Swedish and guidebooks to Swedish culture, as well as the occasional novel or biography on the experience of living between different cultures. I also host a podcast, Lysande lagom, on the same topics (in Swedish). The thing I love the most about Swedish life is access to water, I love swimming, regardless of season or weather.

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