Does Swedish food taste bad?
As an Asian expat living in Sweden, I have heard many people criticizing Swedish food. The usual complaints are the food here is tasteless and bland. Having lived in Sweden for many years, I have to agree. Hearing stories of weird and supposedly disgusting traditional dishes like “Surströmming” (fermented herring) didn’t exactly change my belief. However, I always thought it was because of personal tastes. I have never asked myself why do people think Swedish food is so bad in the first place?
I am curious, “Do people think Swedish food as ‘bad’ because of the weird delicacies, or the lack of flavors due to the local food culture?” Sweden is a very international and modern country, traditional Swedish cuisine is becoming harder to find and dishes from other countries have changed to suit the local taste. So, what is the Swedish taste, and how has it evolved over the years?
Proper Swedish food
I actually knew very little of the Swedish cuisine and food culture. My closest experience to true Swedish food I could think of was in the school canteen and the many local restaurants in the city. My family didn’t socialize with Swedish families much, and therefore my knowledge of local food was rather limited. I needed somewhere to start, so I asked the GoNatureTrip network for help.
From the network, I learned about how Swedish cuisine has been and still is heavily influenced by the country’s living history, cultural traits, its environment, and the living conditions and values of the people. As I understand it, Swedes for many years have lost the intimate connection with food, knowing where it came from and how to farm sustainability. This, however, is changing.
The same way Swedes embraced the industrialization of the food chain, they now look for authentic recipes, sustainable food production and no food waste. I will take you on the journey of discovery. Let’s start with some history and then I will recommend some tasty and interesting dishes.
History of Swedish food culture
Let’s start from the beginning. I noticed that many Swedish recipes don’t require many ingredients or seasoning. In fact, in most cases, salt and pepper is enough. I found out that Swedish food culture and taste are historically characterized by preservation, therefore many flavors today are influenced by it. Until the end of the 19th century, Swedish households themselves produced what they ate. They handled their own livestock, and grew the vegetables, wheat and fruits they needed.
The only item that households bought in large quantities was salt, which was difficult to obtain in most parts of Sweden. Therefore, many recipes were simple and quick. Dishes, such as porridge and soups, were common diets in most households. However, to also survive the harsh icy winter, Swedes came up with ways to preserve the crops and food.
Many speculate that’s how “Surströmming” came to be. Swedes preserved fish through fermentation in a weak brine when the price of salt was too high. As well as, the famous “Knäckebröd” (crispbread) was a way to make bread last longer. This created a style of Swedish cuisine called “Husmanskost”, or traditional plain everyday/comfort food.
On many menus, I have seen “Husmanskost” dishes, but I never actually understood what it was. I just assumed it meant “comfort food”. I was half right. There is no exact translation to “Husmanskost”, just like the Swedish word “Lagom”. However, the main point of “Husmanskost” is to use cheap local ingredients for simple meals. Therefore, you would find vastly different specialties and recipes in different parts of Sweden. It depends on what is available to them. For example, moose and reindeer meat is a northern Sweden specialty, and when I went there, the Sami people showed me their extensive knowledge of how to harvest such produce of nature.
I didn’t know that you can find reindeer meat in supermarkets all over Sweden. You just need to look for “renskav” in the frozen food aisle, and google “renskav” recipes. It is apparently especially popular in autumn when you can wok “renskav” with chanterelles and homemade “lingonsylt” (lingonberry jam) as the topping.
Anyone who has lived in Sweden will tell you that Swedes eat a lot of potatoes. Even my go-to dish when I don’t know what to eat is “Pytt-i-panna”. It is basically pan fried diced potatoes, sausages and onions with a sunny-side up egg on top. It is easy to make and very filling. So, I wasn’t surprised to learn that potatoes are an important part of “Husmanskost”, but I didn’t know that it was introduced to Sweden quite recently.
The potato first came to Sweden in 1658, it was a real lifesaver for the starving population as it was easy to grow. Many well-known dishes are based on potato, such as “Janssons Frestelse” (Jansson’s temptation), potato gratin and “Palt” (I will get to it later). The potato for more than a century was saving Swedes from hunger. Thus, it is not unreasonable to assume that people started to use potatoes as a delicacy in “Husmanskost” sometime in the mid-19th century.
In the 17th – 19th century, “Husmanskost” was used to distinguish prices and menus for the nobles and common folk at the inns. “Husmanskost” was cheap and easy, but nutritious and filling. “Husmanskost” today has found its way to fine dining, keeping its origins in the simple diet of the common people. “Pytt-i-panna” is therefore a “Husmanskost” dish.
Sweden and spices
I am aware that Sweden didn’t produce much spice, so there wouldn’t be much seasoning in the recipes. I also knew that most spices came from other countries through ports in the south. However, I learned that port cities, such as Gothenburg, relied on overseas trading and one of the most traded goods was spices. Most notably, the Swedish East India Company founded in Gothenburg in 1731 for the purpose of conducting trade with China and the Far East.
It wasn’t too long before the southerners began to appreciate the spices and started to experiment with different ingredients. Spices were especially liked by the Swedish upper class, and many dishes became more flavorful. However, spices were expensive and weren’t widely used until the 18th – 19th century. As a result, foods in Southwest Sweden are more complex and savorier compared to the northeast.
This made sense to me. When I travelled around Sweden, I distinctly remember more foods I ate in southern Sweden. A lot of the dishes I have never seen before, and have a more sophisticated taste to them. Unlike in the north, where I got to try many interesting ingredients such as reindeer meat, but they were cooked in a very simple manner. I remember our Sami guide roasting reindeer over an open fireplace with only pinches of salt sprinkled over it. It was great, but it was not refined.
The taste of Swedish cuisine compared to other countries
In my opinion, Swedish cuisine compared to many other countries is simpler and saltier. As mentioned before, Swedes depended on what was locally available prior to the Agricultural Revolution. Fish, root vegetables, and berries became staple foods as they can be found in abundance in Swedish forests. They are, in a sense, core components of every Swedish recipe.
Cured, fermented, and dried dishes are also heavily featured in traditional Swedish cuisine. Before the introduction of the wood-burning stove, which revolutionized how Swedes ate by allowing them to roast or fry, almost all foods were boiled. As a result, the foods are healthier but at the same time lose some of the flavors and taste worse.
Since spices are not native to Sweden, most Swedish dishes used only salt imported from Denmark. Which means compared to spice centric countries it is arguably more salty and bland. For example, when I compare Asian food in Sweden to Asia, Asian food in Sweden definitely lacks the layered flavours. However, this isn’t representative of Sweden as a whole. Different parts of the country have distinct flavors and ingredients. In fact, some regional recipes I had were very tasty, but are less popular. I had to travel to the countryside to find them.
Why are some delicious dishes hard to find?
The reason why some dishes are less popular is probably because you can’t find them in the everyday supermarket, restaurant, delicatessen or bakery unless you know what you are looking for. Different regions are very particular about their delicatessies. Some of them, for example seafood, usually come with a high price tag. Could it also be because there’s no reason for the dishes to reach beyond its region? I will explore it more another time.
For example, you can only find the pastry “Skånsk spettekaka” (a variation of spit cake) in southern parts of Sweden, such as Skåne. Many Swedes, outside Skåne, might have heard of this pastry but very few have ever tasted it. I only heard about this from my friend’s mom, who comes from Skåne. My friend said “I didn’t like it, but after a few bites I couldn’t stop eating it”. This is on my list of foods to try next time I visit Skåne.
“Ostkaka” (Swedish cheesecake)
The dessert “Ostkaka” (Swedish cheesecake) is, in some Swedish regions, cherished as the dessert of choice with focus on their own grandmother´s receipt. While in other regions it is something you would find factory-made in many supermarkets under the brand “Fröding”. Whichever way, it is nice to eat warm with jam and cream. If you are looking for the “real” stuff, you should go to the regions of Hälsingland or Småland. They have a proud history of “Ostkaka”.
“Bohusläns blåmusslor” (Bohuslän mussels) & “Rökt Vättersik” (smoked whitefish from lake Vättern)
You can also find great fish and seafood dishes in the coastal cities. For example, “Bohusläns blåmusslor” (Bohuslän mussels), which is amongst the highest quality seafood in Europe. Or “Rökt Vättersik” (smoked whitefish from lake Vättern), a tender and slightly sweet fish dish, which you can only find in towns and cities around lake Vättern. Trust me when I say even as a person who is not a big fan of seafood, “Bohusläns blåmusslor” and “Rökt Vättersik” blew me away.
“Hånnlamb” (lamb meat)
“Hånnlamb” (lamb meat) is another unforgettable dish from Gotland. They are cuts of a particular sheep breed, the “gutefår”. It is often considered as the tenderest meat in Sweden. “Hånnlamb” is a Gotland word for ‘sheep with horns’. They were rescued from the brink of extinction during the early 1900s, and later named “gutefår” in 1973. This is highly recommended from a friend who loves lamb meat. I haven’t had it, but I would love to taste it.
“Upplandskubb” is a traditional bread from Uppland, eastern Sweden, made of rye and wheat flour that must be produced locally. It is a unique Swedish delicacy, because it is the only bread that is baked in a water bath. It is then left to rest and ferment before it is cut up, which makes it quite juicy. I came across this bread when researching to write this article. It is apparently something everyone should try when they are in the region.
All of the dishes above all taste phenomenal, however, you wouldn’t find them on the high street. That is because you must follow the exact cooking method and the ingredients must come from particular regions. It is no easy task to cook them.
Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) & Protected Geographical Indication (PGI)
During my research, I learned about the “Protected designation of origin”. The PDO is a system created by the EU. It essentially means that all parts of the production, processing and preparation of certain agricultural products or foodstuff must take place exclusively in the specific region. Others outside the region are prohibited from commercializing the same product or foodstuff under the same name.
This is to protect the heritage of certain food and beverages that are significant in Europe. However, this also means that you can find similar dishes, but never the exact same elsewhere. Sweden is in the process of applying more and more PDOs as preserving the local production is becoming increasingly trendy. Nevertheless, so far, not every application was approved.
I would say that most Swedes might have heard of the dishes above, but have seldom tasted them. The most typical example is probably “Kalix löjrom” (Kalix roe). I can bet that 90% of Swedes know about it, but likely less than half of them have actually tried it. They don’t know that “Kalix löjrom”’s taste is unique. They may think, including me, that all roes are the same, but in reality, “Kalix löjrom” is unlike any other.
Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), on the other hand, is less strict. PGI is awarded to agricultural products or foodstuffs closely linked to its geographical area. At least one of the stages of production, processing or preparation takes place in that area. That is why PGI products are more common in shops, such as “Svensk Akvavit” (Swedish Aquavit, a type of distilled spirit), and “Absolut Vodka” (Swedish vodka). A word of advice, they are very strong. A couple shots can knock you out.
Swedish food culture today
In Swedish restaurants, it is not hard to find menus after menus with food from other cultures. The problem is that they are not authentic because they have been adjusted for the Swedish palate, and Swedes are used to simplicity. Which means the recipes are “watered down”, causing many to think Swedish food is bad. This is what I thought about Asian food in Sweden.
If you want good food, you need to find dishes that are built for Swedes, the traditional recipes and ingredients. That is why many Swedes cook at home, beside the expensiveness of eating out, they want to have it their way. What is for sure hard to miss for an expat, is what is considered authentic Swedish in the local food culture.
I learned that the concept of a national cuisine is a relatively new one in Sweden, since it has to reflect a meeting of regional traditions and cultures. The Swedish food culture is mostly formed by the surroundings and nature. Swedes love their outdoors, fishing, picking berries and picking mushrooms, and sometimes hunting. The resulting cuisine is a testimony to the culture and nature in the different parts of Sweden.
The “New Nordic Kitchen” is a novel culinary movement across the Nordic countries. It promotes the use of local, natural and seasonal produce for reviving many of the abandoned traditional food practices and dishes in both restaurants and homes.
Getting the best ingredients
People say that the secret to a tasty dish is the ingredients. Demand for quality, sustainably, and locally sourced foods are on the rise. People want to know where their food comes from, whether or not it has been harvested in a sustainable way, and the faces behind the scenes. At the same time, they would get the freshest produce. It is a win-win for everybody.
Following the trend, local communities have also started the “Reko-ring”. “Reko-ring” stands for sustainable consumption and is a way to buy locally produced food without the middleman. Vegetables, fruits, meats and such are sold directly from the producer to consumer. Each region would have their own “Reko-ring”.
The farmers would list their products online, normally in a Facebook group, and people would place their order. The date and location for pickup is determined in advance. They would meet and the farmers open their tailgate to give the customers their order. You can’t shop on site. This is a direct sales channel to the consumers, no more supermarkets and wasted food. You buy what you can eat and what the farmers can produce.
Natural tastes the best
Though today you can find everything you want in supermarkets, the spirit of going into nature to find wild ingredients is still present. For example, picking mushrooms and berries in the forest is one of my and my friends’ favorite outdoor activities. It is fun and relaxing, especially when you are in a large group.
As well as, Swedes have traditionally fished in the many lakes as one of their main sources of food, many locals today still love to fish. Typical fishes in the south Swedish lakes are Pike, Zander and Perch, while in the north Swedish mountain lakes you will find char, whitefish and lake trout. Crayfish fishing is a very popular event in south Sweden in the late summer and early autumn. Usually, we would spend a weekend or longer in the countryside to learn to catch and cook fresh crayfish.
Many Swedish homes would have a kitchen garden, and even the laziest gardeners would have some edible plants. For example, “Fläder” (sambucus/elderflowers), which is believed to have its origins in Sweden, is a popular ingredient in drinks, pies, desserts, and such. It grows mainly in southern Sweden and blooms around midsummer. Its unique sweet and musky taste adds another dimension to the recipe. I would say that it is close to lychee in flavor.
You would also find rhubarb grown in many kitchen gardens. Swedes like to bake rhubarb pies and other desserts with it. However, rhubarb is more commonly used in home cooking, therefore, normally you wouldn’t find it in fancy restaurants. I first tasted it when I was visiting Ödevata, in the countryside. It was without a doubt the most delicious pie I have ever had.
If you want to learn more about kitchen gardens, “Gunnebo slot” (Gunnebo Castle/House and Gardens) is one of Sweden’s most well-preserved estates from the 18th century. Visit its beautiful kitchen gardens and learn about the origins of “Husmanskost”. Otherwise, there are several farmstays in the countryside, like Ödevata, where the hosts can show and tell you about Swedish food culture.
Food tasting hikes & meal experiences
There is no better way to quickly know a place than through food, so I highly recommend a food hike or meal experience. They combine the Swedish culinary culture with the beauty and locals’ love of nature. There are several food hikes and meal experiences around the country, both guided and self-guided. Many of which are organized by experienced locals showcasing unique and regional menus, as well as explaining the history of Swedish traditions.
I would highly suggest Explore Småland if you are looking for self-guided options. Explore Småland is perfect for those who prefer to design their own experience based on their tastes and preferences. You decide how, when and where you want to start and finish. You will get a backpack full of packed meals with local flavors and suggestions on different trails.
If you want a guided tour, then I would recommend Agrigera. Ragni, your guide, will take you through Swedish forests and agricultural landscapes to tell you about the past and future of agriculture and food in Sweden. You will get the opportunity to have an outdoor meal experience with a beautiful view of lake Vättern during the tour.
For those with more time to spend, I would propose you to spend a couple of days at Ödevata Countryside Hotel to truly explore Sweden. Not only will you get to try local authentic traditional dishes, but also learn about how Ödevata’s work in developing sustainable tourism and food production. Relaxing whilst being surrounded by nature is Sweden at its best.
My list of “Husmanskost” dishes
I put together this list of delicious traditional dishes that are unique, flavorful and don’t taste bad with the help of friends and my personal experience. If you want to know Swedish culture, you should start with its food.
“Palt” is an important part of traditional Swedish food culture, described as boiled potato dumpling made from grated potatoes mixed with flour and a pork filling. There are slight differences depending on which part of Sweden you go to. In the Swedish Lapland, the Sami people would make “Blodpalt” from reindeer blood. In other parts of northern Sweden, it is made of mixed grains, “Gråpalt”. Usually you eat it with lingonberry jam to balance out the saltiness. Another similar dish would be “kroppkakor”.
“Raggmunk”, or potato pancake, is a comfort food that is eaten with salted pork and lingonberry. It was a common dish in my high-school cafeteria, and from time to time, I would eat it for nostalgia. In Jönköping, where I studied, there is a restaurant, “Restaurang Raggmunken”, focusing on serving this dish. It is a popular place among hungry guests looking for a good filling lunch.
“Isterband” is a traditional lightly smoked sausage. Normally, you would eat it with potatoes, beets, and lingonberry jam. Its smoky flavor is definitely like nothing else. It has a perfect balance between savory, but not overwhelmed by the smokiness. You could find it in most supermarkets in Sweden and restaurants in Småland.
“Bruna bönor med fläsk”
Beans are a staple food in many cultures. In Sweden, there is a traditional bean dish called “Bruna bönor med fläsk”. It is brown beans, usually from Öland, cooked with syrup and vinegar served with thick slices of bacon. You can find it at most lunch restaurants; however, the combination of sweet, sour and salty flavors might not be for everyone.
Another Swedish favorite is “Ärtsoppa” (yellow pea soup). It is something you would traditionally eat on Thursday because of a former catholic tradition when people fasted on Fridays, so on Thursday, they charged their bodies and spirit with a hearty soup. Many Swedish lunch restaurants still serve it on Thursdays, typically with pancakes.
Such a lunch would consist of the soup with warm ”Punsch” (punch), a classic household liquor. The drink is sweet with a hint of arrack. In the 1850s, at the height of its popularity, Swedes drank six million liters of “punsch” every year and several traditional drinking songs feature “punsch” in the lyrics.
Swedes love their “Macka”, a bread or crispbread with some kind of spread and hard cheese, especially for breakfast with porridge. One well-known “Macka” cheese is “Svecia”, a Swedish semi-hard cow’s milk cheese. Its creation can date back to the 13th century. Today, the Arla Kalmar Dairy farm produces it. Since I personally prefer softer cheese on my “Macka”, “Svecia” has the perfect texture and taste.
Fun fact, nearly all Swedish households would have the famous “Osthyvel” (a cheese slicing tool). If a Swedish family invited you to dine with them, make sure that you don’t make a “slope” in the cheese, they prefer it nice and flat.
Traditional food and beverages during festivities to try
If you are visiting Sweden in August or September, you must join a crayfish party and experience Swedish traditions. Today, crayfish is one of the most prominent seasonal southern delicacies. Over fishing in the past has led to regulations regarding when and how you may fish. Though the rules are no longer in effect, people still only fish for crayfish in August and September, and Swedes celebrate the fishing season with a party.
The most famous crayfish comes from the lake Vättern, but there are also crayfish in smaller lakes and private ponds. I used to live in Jönköping, a city on the shore of lake Vättern, and I had the chance to eat the delicious “Vätternläke” crayfish. Swedish crayfish are bigger and much tender. Depending on who you ask, which regions crayfish tastes the best can be a heated topic. I am hoping to try out some Norwegian lobster next time I go to Bohuslän on the Swedish west coast.
If you like to join a crayfish party, I would suggest Ödevata. Great people, wonderful atmosphere and tons of mouthwatering crayfish!
“Västerbottensostpaj” is a pie made from “Västerbotten” cheese, normally served as a side dish at festivals and feasts, such as during crayfish parties. It comes from the Västerbotten region. Famous for its salty and bitter taste, nevertheless it is one of the locals’ favorite heritage dishes. Food entrepreneurs today have begun to create their own unique recipes using “Västerbotten” cheese. You will most likely find it as a side dish during crayfish parties.
Leading up to Christmas, you will see many supermarkets promoting “Julmust”, a popular Swedish soft drink for the household “Julbord” (Christmas meal). Its taste is very unique, as I have heard some compared to drinking cough medicine. If you don’t like Dr. Pepper, then you might not like “Julmust”.
Swedes celebrate advent by lighting a candle for each Sunday and drinking “Glögg”. I would describe it as warm spiced red wine with almonds and raisins. Honestly, I wasn’t a big fan of it at the beginning, but came to love it after a few Christmases. You will find “Glögg” almost at every social gathering, such as office parties, before Christmas and even during New Years. You can easily make it at home and there are non-alcoholic versions as well.
“Matjessill från Klädesholmen”
If you think ”Surströmming” is bad, then you should try “Matjessill från Klädesholmen” (Matjes herring) instead. It is pickled and not fermented. So, no stinky smell and it doesn’t taste fishy as it is marinated with spices, onions and other vegetables. It does have a strong vinegar tone to it, and it is not for those who don’t like raw fish. You can find it in certain supermarkets and restaurants as a snack or side dish.
“Svensk Punsch” (Swedish Punch) is an alcoholic drink made by mixing arrack spirit, sugar, lemon juice, tea, and water together. Since 30% of the drink is sugar, it is sweet and quite easy to drink lots. However, it is still a strong drink. Normally, you would pair it with ice cream, pies, coffee and of course yellow pea soup. I had it during a party at university, and liked its unique blend of sweet rum and citrus taste.