My Global Table: Sweden

My Global Table: Sweden
Photography by Brian Wetzstein | Food styling by Donna Coates and Linda Hall

Growing up in Sweden, local and seasonal food was a given. Availability of food was scarce, so combining self-sufficiency with limited food waste was important. My grandmother was amazing at creating delicious and healthy meals by using seasonal ingredients while ensuring very little food waste. She used leftover oatmeal from breakfast to bake bread. She made yesterday’s mashed potatoes into potato patties or placed them on top of fish and baked for fiskgratäng (fish pie). She fried leftover boiled potatoes and poured whisked eggs over them to make a dish similar to frittata. All leftover meat, sausages and boiled potatoes were chopped and pan-fried with onions to make pytt-i-panna (a hash dish), served with fried eggs and pickled beets.

Reflecting the seasons and using ingredients that were particularly suitable to our climate and environment led to many regional Swedish dishes and local variations of national dishes. Mixing influences of other cuisines while expressing the simplicity associated with Swedish food has helped Swedish cuisine evolve. Vikings, soldiers in the Middle Ages and New World explorers all brought back different food and influences. Immigration from countries including Poland, Turkey, Syria and areas previously known as Persia and Yugoslavia has been key to the development of traditional Swedish dishes.

Due to Sweden’s geographic location, there is a misconception that Sweden is very cold; but because of the Gulf Stream, Sweden has warm summers. However, the climate can be harsh, particularly in the North where long periods of cold temperatures, especially at night, make farming a challenge. Rye, barley, root vegetables and cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage are suitable to cultivate. Potatoes started to become a household staple in the 1800s and remain so today. Boiled potatoes are served with most traditional dishes and are considered a carbohydrate component of meals.

With land that is largely covered in forest, gathering what nature offers is central to Swedish culinary tradition. Game meat is a source of animal protein, but the forests primarily provide large amounts of mushrooms and berries. Lingonberries, blueberries, raspberries, cloudberries and blackberries are collected and preserved to last all year.

In the fall, there are plenty of apples, pears and plums. Just like berries, they are carefully preserved and stored. Apples are cooked into äpplemos, which resembles applesauce. Both lingonberry jam and äpplemos are served with oatmeal at breakfast and as a condiment with meat dishes. Lingonberry also is served with many Swedish dishes.

Sweden’s long coastline along with more than 90,000 lakes and many rivers and streams provide a richness of seafood. Cod, herring, mackerel, plaice (a flatfish) and shrimp are commonly sourced from the ocean. Salmon, trout, char, perch and pike come from lakes and rivers. Fish is prepared in all possible ways, including grävning or rimning (salt-cured).

Historically, fish is served on Tuesdays and ärtor och fläsk (yellow pea soup with pork) on Thursdays. This custom dates to the Middle Ages when Sweden was a Catholic nation and fasting was observed on Wednesdays and Fridays. For that reason, Tuesdays and Thursdays were days for feasting. In particular, ärtor och fläsk was a feast compared to usual meals composed of cabbage, root vegetables such as rutabaga, turnips and beets, and watery gruel (made by boiling oatmeal or cereal in milk or water). This food tradition remains today, even though fasting ended when Sweden became a Protestant nation in the 1500s.

Sausages are an important part of Swedish food tradition. Historically they were a way to use all edible parts of animals. Ground meat not used to make sausages is commonly used in meatballs, beef patties and filling for cabbage rolls and casseroles. To add moisture, ground meat is mixed with breadcrumbs or leftover rice, mashed potatoes or oatmeal. Historically, this was an inexpensive way to make filling.

A typical Swedish breakfast consists of open sandwiches with butter, a slice of ham or cheese. Two other common breakfasts include oatmeal prepared with water and served with milk, and yogurt or buttermilk topped with granola or muesli — a dry mixture of cereals, sometimes with nuts, seeds and dried fruit. Lunch and dinner usually are hot meals composed of potatoes, meat or fish and some vegetables. Today, thanks to influences from other cuisines, pasta, rice, bulgur or couscous are eaten instead of potatoes.

Economic stability and easy access to food have led to an increase in overweight and obesity in Sweden. Environmental concerns have led to growing interest in using local and seasonal food. Professional chefs and home cooks alike are dusting off recipes from older generations and adding twists. Collecting what is available in nature to cook with and preserve are common at both high-end restaurants and homes. There is an increased interest in legumes, root vegetables and sturdy vegetables such as cabbage and kale. Popular sausages are developed partially or completely with vegetables and meat-substitutes made with Swedish peas, oats and mushrooms. Time will tell if these changes will have a health effect on the population.


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(Translation of title: Food and meal. Studies in Swedish food culture)

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(Translation of title: Eating in the past)

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(Translation of title: The Swedish meal wonder)

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(Translation of title: Eating and drinking in the past… Food history and old fashion food)

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(Translation of title: Food with history. From Middle ages to today)

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(Translation of title: Food history)

Sweden’s oldest botanic garden. Uppsala Universitet website. Accessed August 27, 2019.

Maria Gustafsson
Maria Gustafsson is a registered dietitian in the United States and Sweden, currently based in Kungsbacka, Sweden. With a background from both food manufacturers and health care, Maria has a broad expertise including food innovations, communications and consumers insights and behavior. She is the founder of and specializes in food, nutrition and health communications.