Swedish cuisine is about more than just meatballs. It’s distinctive, traditional, and – like most Scandinavian cuisine – based on what can be foraged or caught from the land or the sea. Fish, pork and berries are essentials. Potatoes also feature heavily, as of course does dill (buttery, dill-covered new potatoes are one of Sweden’s great gifts to the world).
We’ve compiled a list of Swedish dishes you should try, from the obvious to the slightly obscure. Read on to get to know more about this Scandi cuisine…
So the rest of the world may have learnt about them as a result of our trips to Ikea, but in Sweden, meatballs are so much more than meaty nourishment to sustain you while sofa-shopping. Meatballs – köttbullar – are a staple in the Swedish diet, and family recipes are passed down from generation to generation. The recipe may vary between families or areas; for example, meatballs in the south tend to have more fat in them, while northern meatballs are leaner and meatier.
The classic Swedish way of serving up meatballs is with mashed potatoes, lingonberry jam, a bit of pickled cucumber, and gravy – depending on the maker, this can be a rich, deep gravy or a creamy sauce. My stomach is rumbling already.
Credit: Bethan Forbes
The Nords have hoarded the recipe since the Middle Ages, but now Gravad lax is now famous worldwide, and most countries have a variation on this dill-cured salmon dish. The Swedish version uses fresh raw salmon, which is rubbed in a mixture of dill, salt, sugar and white pepper. This is then weighted down and left to absorb these flavours for a few days in the fridge. Back in the days before there were fridges, the salmon was covered in salt and buried underground to preserve it, which is where the name comes from: grav for buried, lax for salmon.
The result is a beautiful, light, dill-fragranced salmon dish which is usually served with a gravad lax sauce ( dill, mustard and vinegar). Gravad lax is served as a starter, but can also be seen on Swedish buffets or on top of open rye sandwiches. Another delicious way of serving it is with stuvad potatis (potatoes in cream and dill) with gravad lax sauce. Beautiful.
Jansson’s temptation – Janssons frestelse – is a classic Swedish dish similar to the French dauphinoise. It’s made up of potatoes, onion, cream, breadcrumbs and ansjovis. Important note: ansjovis are not actually anchovies as we know them, but cured sprats. These are smaller and milder than the salty mediterranean anchovy (which to confuse matters, is known as sardeller in Sweden). This has led to a few awkward mix-ups when translating Jansson’s Temptation recipes into English, and I have worked at at least one restaurant that served a Janssons with anchovies… Rather than overpower, the ansjovis work as seasoning and balance out the rich, creamy goodness of sauce by adding a salty depth to the dish.
Fish confusion aside, the potatoes are thinly sliced and layered with the onions and ansjovis in a baking dish. Cream is poured in, breadcrumbs sprinkled over the top, and then the temptation is baked until golden brown. It’s the perfect accompaniment to a lamb or pork dish on a cold wintery evening, and it is a regular star on the Swedish Christmas table.
And who was Jansson? The rumours on how Jansson’s Temptation got its name are rife; some say it was named after a Swedish opera singer in the 1900s, some say a chef… My favourite is that Jansson was a religious zealot forbidden to eat for pleasure but who caved into the temptation of the dish. Whoever he was, he had excellent taste.
Come the end of summer, every Swede with a summerhouse is throwing a crayfish party (for more information and top tips on how to survive a crayfish party, click here). Crayfish is a national delicacy, and have been eaten in Sweden since the 1500s. Originally only a decadent treat for the wealthy, crayfish is now enjoyed by the masses.
The Swedish crayfish season runs throughout August and September. Overfishing in the early 1900s led to season restrictions to avert a catastrophic crayfish crisis that would definitely ruin everyone’s summer. Although frozen crayfish (often imported from China or the USA) is readily available in Swedish supermarkets throughout the year, the tradition of a late summer crayfish party remains.
Once procured, the crayfish are cooked in brine and crown dill and served cold in appealing platters (big red spiky piles). Bread and västerbotten cheese are served on the side, along with plenty of cold beer and schnapps. Perfect summer party food.
Scored an invitation to a crayfish party? These events can get pretty boozy, so here is your guide to surviving your first Swedish crayfish party.
No one – and we mean no one – in Sweden will put on a smörgåsbord (traditional Swedish buffet) at a party without including pickled herring. Herring has been eaten far and wide across Sweden for centuries: it’s cheap and abundant, and can be cured, pickled or smoked. Pickled herring (sill) is a firm favourite, and comes in all sorts of variations – with dill, tomato, garlic or mustard, even curried… The possibilities are endless with herring.
It’s served at buffets, on top of open sandwiches, or as a starter with buttered knäckebröd (rye crisp bread), egg and västerbotten. And probably the most quintessentially Swedish lunch is matjes herring (young herring pickled in a special spiced brine) with boiled new potatoes served with sour cream and chives. This simple dish is heaven on a warm summer’s day.
Sandwich Cakes/ Smörgåstårta
Credit: Josh Campbell
Sandwich cakes are pretty retro – I first discovered them at a 75th birthday party – but they’re a cracking Swedish invention that everyone should try. To explain a little further, a smörgåstårta is a layered cake, but made using bread and savoury sandwich fillings. They’re eaten at special occasions like birthdays or anniversaries, and they tend to be enormous and outrageously kitsch. Once made, they’re cut like a cake and everyone helps themselves to slices.
Sandwich cakes are the antithesis of everything we know about Scandi cooking; they’re definitely not healthy or simplistic – they’re excessively elaborate, with copious amounts of filling. The more mayonnaise, the better. Fillings and decorations vary, but usually include prawns, salmon, mayonnaise, swirls of cucumber, mayonnaise, hard-boiled eggs, mayonnaise, often a decorative radish carved into a rose, and tomatoes. This is all garnished with the holy trinity of Swedish herbs (dill, chives, and parsley) and glued together with… mayonnaise.
Kanelbullar or cinnamon buns are typically eaten during fika – the Swedish coffee break. The Swedes have a special place in their hearts reserved for kanelbullar, so much so that the 4th of October has been declared ‘Cinnamon Bun Day’ (Kanelbullens dag). Though Denmark may be credited for spreading the joy of ‘Danish pastries’ around the world, it is thought that the Swedes are the ones who originally invented this sweet, delicious bun. Swedish cinnamon buns are simple, buttery and sweet, and the perfect companion to a good cup of Swedish coffee. Cardamom is used in the dough, which works beautifully with the cinnamon swirl of the filling.
Dillkött is an old, traditional Swedish recipe. You may have noticed by now that dill plays a huge part in Swedish cooking, and Dillkött – which literally translates as ‘dill meat’ – is no exception. The dish comprises of slow cooked shoulder of veal (or another type of meat like lamb or elk) with a creamy dill sauce, served with boiled potatoes (what else?) and root vegetables. Dillkött is a warming and hearty stew, perfect in the winter.
It’s a good example of Husmanskost – a term which the Swedes use to refer to traditional, home-cooking using local ingredients. Husmanskost is comfort food, like meatballs or potato dumplings.
We couldn’t write a list of Swedish dishes without mentioning the open sandwich, the smörgås. The open sandwich a huge part of food culture in Sweden and is eaten everywhere, for breakfast, lunch, fika and dinner…
The quintessential Swedish open sandwich is the räksmörgå/räkmacka – a prawn sandwich that can be found in all cafés, fishmongers, roadside restaurants and food markets.
Best served on dark rye, the räksmörgå is piled high with juicy prawns on a bed of sliced boiled egg, lettuce, cucumber, tomato, and mayonnaise – topped off with dill and a lemon wedge.
What takes your fancy from our list of Swedish must-try dishes? Do you think we’ve missed anything out? Let us know in the comments below.