Blogging out of Stockholm for the last close to three years, you’d think I have a clear handle of what makes Swedish food, well, you couldn’t be more wrong.
Sure, I know meatballs, I know about game, I know herring, I know the love of seafood and then the occasional obsession with fermented fish. Heck I even know about the controversy about the origin of Swedish meatballs.
But, why and what is the story behind the cuisine, wherein lies the soul of Swedish cuisine, what can food tell us about the culture? It’s hard to find good ‘budget-friendly’ Swedish food in Stockholm. Despite being in the capital of Sweden, it’s not always easy to find Swedish food (here, here and here) in Stockholm at bargain prices. It is quite instructive that the Måltid i Stockholm section of this blog is filled with non-Swedish food. This is not something unique to Sweden, it is rather common across Western Europe (not in Asia or other parts of Europe) to not be able to find affordable local food.
So I joined a Nordic Food Tour, when the schedule freed up all ready to eat, get fat and learn.
Part of the reason for my relative lack of knowledge on Swedish food is that most of the more affordable restaurants in Stockholm do not sell Swedish cuisine – it makes sense, if you are selling local food and most people in the country can prepare it, then you will only open a place to sell local food if your quality is significantly better.
We begin our lesson today where some of the most fascinating Nordic food can be found is in Hotorshallen, the food hall in the Hay Market. Located in the centre of town, Hotorshallen is a food market that sells some of the best quality items you can find in Stockholm (a close competitor is the Ostermalms Saluhall). Consequent of that, its food prices are unsurprisingly on the higher end and its patrons tend to be connoisseurs rather than regular Joes.
The Swedes may not have a globally known cheese tradition, but they sure do have some good cheeses and Fromageriet stocks some of the best cheeses in town. Called ost in Swedish, cheese and diary are central to Swedish diet right back to the Viking days.
Unlike French cheeses though, Swedish cheese as a whole do not smell as strong and are slightly more pleasant in my mind.
The undisputed king of Swedish cheese, Västerbotten cheese, is a hard cheese with holes, a slightly more bitter version of Parmesan and comes from the northern Västerbotten region of Sweden. For a slightly more pungent flavour there is Bredsjö Blå, a blue cheese made in the central Örebro region of Sweden. Bredsjö Blå was only made in 1987 by a Lena Hall och Lars-Göran Staffare. These cheese from milk from Belgian sheep grazing in Bredsjö and mixed with roquefort, stored for up to 2 years before being sold. Even though it is blue cheese, Bredsjö Blå is actually quite mild with a rather nutty after taste.
We move from cheese to meat another key staple item on the Swedish palate. Hellbergs Fågel & Vilthandel sells poultry and game, including reindeer, bear and moose. Because of the size of these animals and the need to make food last, most of these meats are preserved in some way, the most common forms these days being sausages and salami.
We had a platter of moose pate, wild game mouse and boar salami. Now none of these are common foods these days, but they are traditional meats that provided important sustenance for the peoples especially those further north in the country.
Because of its northern location is is easy to imagine the game is a traditional staple for Swedes. This is actually only true in the far north but not where most Swedes live. In the South of Sweden, the protein of choice has always been fish. Hav was next on the list for some pickled fishes – of salmon and herring (sill in the West of Sweden and Stromming in the East).
Fishes in the Swedish sea are fatty fishes, which have a high fat content. This is the result of the colder climate, fish need fats to keep warm too! There is a saying that nature provides what you need where you are, and the fishes in the waters here are a good example of that. These fats are important though because of their high Vitamin D content. Vitamin D is important for bone health among others, and the main source of Vitamin D is the sun. In places like Sweden where the sun is not out all year round, these fishes therefore become an important alternative source.
Swedish fish is not always preserved, they do get cooked. Kajsas Fisk, a restaurant dating back to the 1930s, serves up a traditional Swedish fish soup (Svenska Fisksoppa), creamy and savoury. A Stockholm tradition when it comes to fisk soup restaurants is that the business is matriarchal, set up by women and handed over to women (this pre-dates the feminist era, but was a matter of practicality, men went out to fish, women who didn’t sold the fish), this store continues that with the restaurant now run by a mother-daughter team (Maria and Clara). The fisksoppa is from a stock brewed by long boiling of fish heads and bones with other vegetables for sweetness, fish cubes added before serving a dollop of aioli for creaminess.
Fish, herring especially, is also fried and served as a herring sandwich on top of a hard bread with some sour cream, onions and chives for additional layers of flavour.
We finish this post with a to Finland, to try Karelian Pasties at Finska Butiken. A boutique opened by a Finnish matriah (Marjatta Stobi) and her four daughters (Rosanna, Sonja, Elisa och Anniina), Finska Butiken stores all sorts of local Finnish items that cannot be obtained elsewhere in Sweden.
Karelian pasties for example are one of these rare food items. Karelian Pasties are made with a fluffy and sweet rice filling, and commonly eaten with a mashed eggs and some chives on top. Savoury from the eggs but a little sweet from the rice, these pasties are considered a snack that can be eaten at any time of the day in Finland. It is so popular because it is so simple, a dish made up of staples – rice and pastry that anyone can eat.
Despite Helsinki and Stockholm being separated by less than an hour by plane, and both food considered Nordic, these two countries are vastly different in culture and cuisine – the former sharing more with Russia and its Baltic Sister, Estonia, while the latter more in common with its Scandinavian neighbours. This is shaped partly by the nature of the countries. Finnish cuisine was shaped by agriculture right from the start, and supplemented with meats found in the area. Because of the weather, crops that were relied upon were very resilient such as tubers, rye, fermented and preserved products.
Swedish cuisine on the other hand as we have seen centres around proteins – whether it is diary, meat, berries. Tubers like potatoes are rarely the main dish but a side one. This is shaped by the fact that the majority of Sweden lives in the south where the climate is warmer and there is more life and produce compared to Finland. This explains the variety in foods, especially in fish and meats.
Although it has more raw ingredients than Finland, Swedish cuisine does not have the variety of ingredients and spices that you would see, in other more tropical parts of the world. Most of the dishes have therefore less ingredients, and less of a kick but overall a more gentle natural taste. Flavour is enhanced by playing with preparation techniques rather than adding a bunch of ingredients.
But these flavours are gaining in complexity because of the globalised world we live in. More on that in the next post.
ON THE MAP