I am intrigued by the concept of comfort food, and I had to ask several native English speakers, native food comforters about the topic. In Swedish, there is one seemingly fitting equivalent, which is tröstäter, ‘comfort eating’ or ‘consolation eating’, but this leads us in the wrong direction.
Is there such a thing as Swedish comfort food?
Att tröstäta is not related to any particular food, or culinary experience, it is a behaviour, bad behaviour, when you eat because you’re sad. We’re in the domain of psychology here, using food as a drug, to deal with your emotions. This may be the case for comfort food too, but you’d never ask your friend what they tröstäter or suggest you’re going to do it. It is something you tell your doctor or psychotherapist, and you are ashamed of it. Tröstäter is in a dark cupboard, hiding under your bed, stuffed under everything else in the bottom of your bag.
High and low
The Anglo-Saxon concept of comfort food, however, doesn’t mind daylight. There are several cookbooks on the theme, and I just read a long Twitter thread on people sharing their favourite comfort food. Chicken soup, spaghetti sandwiches, cheese on toast, bacon butties, chocolate cake, cereal with maple syrup, cake mix, margarine mixed with butter and rolled into little balls.
Yes, sometimes something shameful. But sometimes what Swedes would call ‘real food’ (riktig mat) that is a cooked meal. Sometimes snacks, incomplete meals, sweets, cakes, or makeshift solutions to give a kick of fat and sugar.
Yet, I’m lost for a Swedish equivalent. I ask my (French) husband and although he can not come up with a French word for it, he can easily tell me that his comfort food is butter biscuits from the western regions of France (similar to shortbread but thinner, more caramelised).
Comfort food is all about nostalgia, he tells me, something that brings you back to your childhood, the comfort of your home. Perhaps, he says, all Swedes have the same comfort food: you are all so obsessed with the seasonal. Chantarelles, in a basket with bits of moss still to clean, the first (overpriced) strawberries, new potatoes, semla, pepparkakor for Christmas.
All about nostalgia
Perhaps he is right. This is nostalgia for me, reinforcing the traditions of my childhood. What would a summer be without wild strawberries on a straw, without an ice-cream by the harbour on a July afternoon, the savoury smell of crayfish under a full August moon? The efforts I go through to pick bilberries and bake a crumble, to serve with thick custard made with fresh eggs, overpriced from a farmer’s market.
It’s heavily seasonal, give me a semla in November and I will cry, but I can’t go through late February without one. Meet any Swede and ask what would be the right season, or even date, for a particular foodstuff, and they will know. The rhubarb crumbles of early June, followed by the citrusy fläderblomsaft, elderflower cordial. Berries and whipped cream over summer.
But we also have the concept of mammas köttbullar, ‘mum’s meatballs’, which builds on the idea that everyone’s mother (forget about Swedish gender equality here!) makes the best meatballs in the world. That nothing will ever be as good as your mum’s cooking and isn’t köttbullar the perfect comfort food, innocent in shape, simple in flavour, served with potatoes and sauce and jam.
Or Thursday pancakes? According to tradition, Thursdays means (yellow) pea soup with pancakes for dessert. Many families now skip the hassle of the soup and have dessert for dinner, thin crepes with jam (strawberry, raspberry, bilberry or why not a mix) and whipped cream. A glass of milk with that and the rest of the week is spent in a soft food coma.
I’m also inclined to think that the Swedish concept of comfort food could be narrowed down to lördagsgodis. Why else would perfectly sane grownups (including myself) make such fools of themselves hovering by the pick-and-mix section at the supermarket, carefully composing their individual selection of different-coloured sugar? The joy and comfort of your own bag, and its predictability in that it will be there every Saturday. However difficult today is, Saturday is looming, a sure treat.
Or is it, perhaps too obviously, fika? Do these eternal coffee breaks serve as moments of comfort, for each and everyone as well as the group? Is this what we turn to in moments of discomfort and despair, be it a drudgy workday or a slow November Saturday afternoon? In contrast to tröstäter, there is nothing shameful about fika, it is an established ritual, something you do on your own or together. There are cookbooks, Twitter threads, ideas and recipes.
Share your thoughts
What are your comfort foods? Does the concept exist in your cultures? What is Swedish comfort food, in your opinion? I’m curious to learn.