“What is traditional Swedish food?” is probably the most asked questions when I go abroad. I never know how to reply. I have asked other Newbies and even Swedish friends but they don’t seem to be sure on that either.
Ikea has popularised Swedish meatballs all over the world, and that’s the first dish people think about when they hear about Sweden, but obviously there’s more to it! The issue is that different people seem to interpret “traditional food” in different ways.
Traditional food as “old” food
Traditional food can be thought off as only using ingredients produced in the country. Going back a few decades, when Sweden didn’t import so many products, there was a lot of potatoes, rye, elk, fish and berries. Potatoes and rye bread are still very common nowadays, and in the summer we can all witness the strawberry fever. Elk meat, however, is more of a speciality and not something Swedes eat everyday. Fish is quite popular, especially salmon and herring.
Traditional food as modern food
If we instead considerer the most common dishes consumed today, we end up with a totally different result. Whether at a restaurant, from a takeaway or home cooked, the most common dishes are probably pasta, tacos, pancakes, sushi and noodles.
Surely, potatoes, bread and fish are still a part of it but not like a few generations ago. The list is not finished without adding the most popular pizza on a Swedish menu… Kebab pizza of course.
Traditional food as feast food
After not being able to answer the question of traditional Swedish food, I get asked which dishes are served on special events, like Christmas for instance.
In Sweden you can be served the same (or very similar) dishes for Christmas, Easter and midsummer: sill (pickled herring), boiled potatoes and nubbe (a shot of aquavit). Other dishes usually involve salmon, dill, eggs and sauces. Although these can vary more depending on the tastes of the family and/or region of the country. Around August, it’s popular to have a seafood fest, kräftskiva, featuring a table full of crayfish, shrimp and a delicious Västerbottenost pie. And nubbe again. Of course.
Traditional food as unique food
What if we think of traditional food as those special dishes that we find in Sweden but not so much in other countries? Surely pickled herring and elk meat could be added in this category.
I would also add blood pudding, the Swedish answer to low iron levels, baked falukorv sausage, pyttipanna, and the famous pea soup with pancakes (not mixed!). Traditionally, one would have punsch (another Swedish liqueur) with the last.
But nowadays it is a popular dish served on Thursdays for lunch, therefore without any alcohol.
So what is traditional Swedish food after all?
For me it’s all these things combined. It is this openness to new dishes blended with more old fashion ingredients and methods. It is to have a barbecue with guacamole and naan bread. It is to eat enchiladas one day and meatballs with boiled potatoes the next. It is to open a food magazine and see recipes from all over the world with a Swedish touch, such as salmon pasta.
But isn’t this to be expected? Sweden is populated by Newbies and Oldbies from all over the world. People with many different backgrounds that bring with them their own food culture, resulting in the turmoil of flavours that we see everyday.
Now I know! The next time someone asks me about Swedish traditional food I will simply say that it’s a fantastic trip around the world in one dish. Ok, that might be a bit exaggerated but hopefully the point will come across.