14 delicious Swedish foods and where to find them
“En kanelbulle och ett kaffe med mjölk, tack.” A cinnamon bun and a latte. The grey-haired waitress flashed me a warm smile appreciating my attempt to speak her language. “Det blir 42 kronor, tack.” I pay, receive my order, and sit down at the round table next to the window, the one I always choose. My favourite coffee shop in the very centre of Stockholm is nothing special, or fancy – but their pastries are unrivalled. No visit to Gamla Stan (the Old City) is complete without a stop here for a fika, the Swedish coffee break tradition. In fact, Sweden finds itself in the top ten coffee consumers in the world… buzzing! Beyond their cinnamon-spiced art of baking and brewing, the Swedish kitchen is known for its skilful use of basic but high-quality local ingredients like potatoes, fish, meat, mushrooms and berries. If you’re planning a tasty journey through Sweden (or if you’re not, then now’s the time to start!), think of this as your introduction to Swedish food and where to find the most delicious traditional dishes the country has to offer.
What would a list of Swedish foods be without köttbullar (pronounced shut-boo-lahr). The Ikea-famous meatballs are easily national dish number one, typically served with mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and peas. If you fancy something less fruity, look out for the creamy sauce version (gräddsås), or try the fish variation fiskbullar. Köttbullar can be found anywhere across the country in restaurants of varying price-classes, of which the most basic yet authentic option is the kvarterskrog, local and cheap taverns that offer the dagens rätt (dish of the day) for around 80 SEK – including salad, bread and coffee.
You’ll find this crispbread in markets across the globe, but its origin is from Sweden. Rye barely prospers in the North, so people came up with a different idea about 500 years ago, when in need of something that keeps as long as possible through the Scandinavian winter. Today, knäckebröd is baked at over 400°C and has to be hard, it’s not supposed to give in when pressed. If you break off a piece it has to crack as loudly as if you would step on a walnut. Traditionally, it will be served with salted butter, and maybe a piece of hard cheese – everything else is luxury. It is available for a few SEK in every supermarket, but if you really want to look behind the scenes, check out the knäckebröd museum in Filipstad!
Let’s hope you don’t have a sensitive sense of smell with this one! Surströmming is the Swedish speciality that makes both locals and foreigners cringe. The stinky tradition of opening cans of fermented sour herring around late August started in the 1800s in the Norrland region, and has held up ever since. Commonly, the herring is eaten wrapped in tunnbröd (thin crispy bread from North Sweden), with potatoes, butter and onions. All ingredients are available in supermarkets for cheap, but if you want to try an authentic meal, try restaurants around Norrland, e.g. Hamnkrogen in Härnösand, where’ll you get a full meal for around 100 SEK.
Herring in its more easily digestible, pickled form is called sill. It comes in a variety of flavors – like mustard, onion, or garlic and dill – and is often eaten with potatoes, sour cream, chives, hard cheese, boiled eggs and, of course, knäckebröd. While available in every supermarket, it will typically be served on a sillbord during midsummer celebrations. If the pickled version is not your thing, you can opt for smoked or fried herring – check out Strömmingsvagnen in Stockholm, a food stall that has stood there for decades and for example offers fried herring with potatoes, salad and crispbread for only 60 SEK.
If you once tried a proper Swedish cinnamon bun fresh out of the oven, you won’t be able to eat the sad imitations they try to sell across the world ever again. Sweden even celebrates its own Kanelbullens Dag (“Day of the cinnamon bun”) every October 4th. Usually, a cinnamon bun and a coffee will cost between 35 and 60 SEK. If you’re in Stockholm, I recommend Café Järntorget – but the best kanelbulle I’m secretly still dreaming of in cold nights is from Café Husaren in Göteborg.
Ärtsoppa med pannkakor
A very traditional and often weekly family meal on Thursdays is pea soup with pancakes. Its true origins from religious to social class backgrounds are widely debated, but the habit has stuck. Many traditional restaurants still offer the dish with lingonberry jam on Thursdays, e.g. Restaurangkompaniet in Jönköping, where a meal with starter will cost around 140 SEK.
Like the name suggests, Småland is famous for its delicious cheesecake. Yep, the Swedes do take pride in their desserts, as also the ostkaka has its annual official holiday on November 14th. Traditionally eaten warm with jam and cream, fruit or ice-cream, pretty much any bakery throughout Småland will offer their own variety of cheesecake. A piece will cost somewhere around 25 to 40 SEK.
Especially the breezier South of Sweden is famous for its fresh fish. Göteborg even dedicated an entire “church” (feskekörka) to seafood, a market hall where you’ll find the most diverse and high-quality offer of fresh fish. They also feature some casual lunch places as well as a couple of fancy restaurants – the perfect place to immerse yourself in Sweden’s fish-kitchen and try some baked cod! Served with brown butter and freshly grated horseradish, a plate with a drink will cost you around 130 SEK.
Hundreds of years ago, the “graved salmon” was marinated in salt, sugar, dill and other spices, buried in the ground and weighed down with stones for at least three days. This process withdrew water while also fermenting the fish somewhat, so that it could keep longer. Today, the fish is not buried nor fermented, but will just be marinated and kept in the fridge for a few days. It’s then typically eaten with a cold, relatively sweet dill and mustard sauce (hovmästersås), on bread or with a salad. A popular dish throughout the country, it makes for a good starter in many restaurants, from about 100 SEK.
Would you have imagined that hot dogs are among Sweden’s most popular street food? On events of all sorts, student gatherings, markets or in small food stalls (gatukök), hot dogs and sausages with mashed potatoes have a solid spot in the Swedish kitchen. Even if they might not be to everyone’s taste, at around only 40 SEK they make for a cheap afternoon snack, while especially places around Stockholm have come up with some more exotic hot dog recipes. How about a sausage topped with räksallad (shrimps in mayonnaise) for example?
Filmjölk is a fermented milk that resembles yoghurt, but is produced with different kinds of bacterial cultures and lower temperatures. While generally quite popular throughout Scandinavia, Swedes have filmjölk in daily use, consumed for breakfast with fruits and muesli or pure. In supermarkets, a liter is available for around 12 SEK.
Swedes love their open sandwiches. This goes back to the 1400s, when thick slices of bread were used as plates. One typical version that you’ll see on many menus today is the räksmörgås (shrimp sandwich), where a pile of shrimps, boiled egg slices, lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers with a creamy dill sauce are placed on a hearty bread. In many bakeries, you can even find räksmörgåstator, shrimp sandwich cake. While typically available throughout the country, you’ll find the freshest shrimp dishes in seaside cities like Göteborg or Malmö, where you’ll pay around 70 SEK for a starter in a restaurant.
In the 1500s, crayfish was only eaten by the Swedish aristocracy – but today it is a national delicacy. Famous in particular are the crayfish parties (kräftskivor) all over the country in August, when people get together to feast on the red freshwater shellfish, marking the end of summer. Families and friends gather at night to catch the crayfish themselves, or buy them from 200 SEK a kilo. One of the Swede’s favorite herbs, the crayfish is then prepared with dill, but eaten cold using only fingers. Together with bread and a strong Västerbotten cheese, it creates quite a mess that is perfectly acceptable, and then is washed down with beer and the inevitable schnapps. Generally, the Swedes are proud of their festivities and will invite you if you want to find out more about a typical crayfish party, otherwise look out for expat communities who often host one as well.
Due to the long winters and harder conditions, the northern kitchen is known to cook with anything that nature gives; from leaves, berries and mushrooms, to reindeer and elk meat. Especially in Lapland, the Sami population makes use of whatever the animals can provide: All meat and organs are processed, the fur is made into clothing and bedding, bones are still used to make different tools. A rather harmless option to try the nutritious meat is the hearty goulash-like elk stew, for example in Luleå or Kiruna. Elk meat being a rather expensive ingredient, a meal will cost you from 250 SEK.
A word on Swedish alcohol
It’s possible to argue that it’s the long winters that make the Swedes experts on hot drinks and good liquors. They’re the makers of the internationally renowned Absolut Vodka, while their other favourite shot is the cinnamon-spiced Fireball. Colder days are withstood with the winter drink glögg (spicy hot wine) and its variations with white wine or apple cider.
To go with a casual meal, the options vary from good locally produced wines, to lättöl or starköl (light beer or stout). And no matter if it’s a warm summer day or during a sweaty sauna session, the Swedes love their cider with its varying degrees of sweetness and alcohol level (personally, I swear by pear or blueberry flavor). Except for light beer, all alcoholic beverages can only be bought in the government-controlled systembolaget and are in European comparison quite expensive.
So waste no time and skynda dig, hurry up, and hop on a plane to Sweden! What do you think about Swedish food and what dish are you desperate to try?