A Beginner’s Guide to Food in Sweden

It’s been sometime since I wrote, and now that I’m not travelling so much (not full time at least) I wondered what I should turn my attention to. Well, where better to start than a topic that I deal with every day – an expats view of food in Sweden.

Admittedly, coming from Melbourne, Australia, a city that was voted the world’s most liveable city 7 years in a row (before sadly losing the crown to Vienna…) and where you can arguably get food from almost ANY country, at most times of the day, and it will usually be GOOD… I may be a little spoiled.

After nearly a cumulative year and a half here, here’s a beginners guide to what to expect from food in Sweden.

Fika
Of course, this is at the top of the list and it’s one of the first things everyone hears about Sweden. Fika is more than just coffee, it is a cultural institution. Fika is for colleagues, for friends, for coffee-addicts, for those who don’t drink coffee, and for those who just want an excuse to eat some cake.

Alcohol
The second most spoken about gastronomic topics in Sweden – alcohol can be bought (retail) from one place and one place only, that is Systembolaget, the Swedish official alcohol monopoly and the biggest alcohol buyer in the world. It usually closes at 6 or 7pm on the weekdays, 3pm on Saturdays, and is not open on Sundays, so you need to buy in advance and stock up. All bars also serve food, due to the alcohol laws.

Diversity
Stockholm was, admittedly, more diverse than I expected when I arrived here, but this diversity doesn’t extend far beyond the major cities. Unfortunately, the same applies to the food as to it’s people. Swedish food probably gets a worse rap than it deserves, but it’s not BAD, it’s just BORING. Here are the some of the dishes that you can expect to see in basically every ‘Swedish’ restaurant and cafe:

  • Skagen röra – it’s small shrimps in a cream and dill sauce
  • Toast Skagen – it’s skagen röra on a piece of toast
  • Köttbullar – the famous Swedish meatballs, served with brown sauce and lingonberry jam
  • Wallenburgare – it’s basically the same flavour as köttbullar, but you get it in one big piece instead of several small ones
  • Biff rydberg – A beef stew that is somehow always more expensive than everything else. Some restaurants put fancy liquor in the sauce
  • Lax – Salmon, often grilled with various accompaniments
  • Paj – it’s a Swedish quiche, with various fillings

Other than that, the typical things – pizza, burgers, and kebabs.

Kebab pizza is a thing.

If you don’t eat seafood, your choice at Swedish restaurants is basically whittled down to meatballs and wallenburgare, over and over.

Lunch Buffe
Food in Sweden is generally expensive, but for a better deal you can go out for lunch instead of dinner. Many restaurants and cafes in Sweden offer a lunch buffet or a daily lunch (dagens lunch) at a reduced price during set hours. When warm main courses, these can be great value and many of them come with a salad buffet and coffee included. Don’t make the mistake I did of sitting down with my meal and not realising that the salad/water/coffee to the side of the venue was self service and included! Speaking of which:

Coffee
Swedes are allegedly the second highest consumers of coffee in the world, after Finland. Coffee is consumed at fika, at breakfast, at lunch, after dinner. On many menus, you will see the usual- latte, cappucino, sometimes cortado, espresso and one just called ‘kafe’ (coffee). The ‘coffee’ with no additional description just means brewed black coffee. It’s always cheaper than espresso based coffees, and in many places, it’s self service and you get free refills.

Groceries
You can get most things you would want at the bigger supermarkets. Both Coop and ICA have several sub-brands which give you a guide to what you can expect. The smaller  Coop/ICA stores (Nära, Rapidköp) have a pretty limited range. The bigger ones (Stora Coop, ICA Maxi) are well stocked with a broad range of items in each category. ICA Kvantum is a little more upmarket/gourmet. City Gross also has some pretty good stuff, despite sounding like a budget option, and LIDL is the same as LIDL everywhere. There is no ALDI.

Candy
Scandinavian adults eat more candy than I have ever seen adults eat, and Swedes are no exception. Most candy is consumed on Saturday, hence the term lördagsgodis. When it’s not Saturday, Swedes make up for this lack of candy by eating almost entirely sweet snacks between meals. Cookies, cinnamon buns, fikabröd. Other than potato crisps, it’s very hard to find any kind of snack that isn’t sweet. You can eat knäckebröd (crispbread), but I don’t consider that a convenience / grab-and-go snack because you really need to put something on it.

Asian Food
Thai food is the prevalent South and East Asian cuisine. Most Chinese restaurants are “Asian” restaurants that combine Thai, Chinese, Korean and Japanese dishes on one menu. As someone with Cantonese and Malaysian heritage, I cry endlessly over the fact that it’s almost impossible to get here. There’s Chinese food, but it’s either bad (*cough*Dumplings*cough*), or from other regions (a pretty good Sichuan hotpot exists in Liljeholmen). There is no Cantonese barbeque. None. The closest you can get it is London.

The Indian food is pretty good, but you get very little meat in the curry, just a lot of sauce. Likewise, there’s a pretty good Vietnamese rare beef pho at Yoi, in K25 on Kungsgatan in the city.

Swedish Oddities

  • Julbord – The julbord or Christmas Table is a wonderful Swedish tradition where you eat a buffet and drink glögg (similar to gluhwein, spiced warm wine) with your friends. Expect the julbord to be 50% pickled herring, 15% salmon, 15% meats, and 20% dessert!
  • Sauce – Swedes eat A LOT of sauce. With everything. Meatballs? Brown sauce. Grilled meat? Drown it in bearnaise sauce. Cake or pudding? It better be swimming in vanilla sauce. Whip at least 3 times as much cream as you think you need, to all desserts, at all times.
  • Bearnaise Sauce – following the above, Swedish people really like Bearnaise sauce, and aside from putting it on everything, this is one thing where diversity really exists! You can have classic bearnaise, chilli bearnaise, dill bearnaise, tarragon bearnaise. Also, tarragon is called dragon, which rocks.
  • Chinese menus – almost every Chinese Asian restaurant has a ‘secret’ menu that you have to ask for. This has much more traditional and authentic dishes than the standard menus, but is most likely written in Mandarin.
  • Sushi – often comes covered in chilli mayonnaise. Ask for it without if this seems strange to you.
  • Lunch – most Swedes eat lunch pretty early, around 11 or 11:30am. Speaking of which, although it’s not really food related – time is always in 24 hour format. If you say let’s meet at 7, chances are your Swedish friend will be confused about why you want to meet so early in the morning, even if you were making plans for dinner and it should be obvious.

That’s really all the obvious stuff I can think of to sum up food in Sweden in a nutshell! Expect more posts to come on more specific foods or venues, and feel free to ask questions or make suggestions for things you’d like to hear about!

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