I’ve always had a desire to visit Scandinavia, but I admit that prior to actually visiting Stockholm my knowledge of the region’s food was sorely lacking. A search for cafes in our Södermalm neighborhood proved that Swedes loved coffee, but I wasn’t aware the country is the sixth highest consumer of coffee in the world. I knew that fish was frequently on the menu, but didn’t understand all versions of the finned food available: pickled, pulverized and squeezed from a tube, even soaked in lye. I’ve had many-a-Swedish-meatball, but when had I seen gubbröra on a menu?
In many ways Sweden was exactly what I expected it to be — Yes, the people are incredibly svelte, blonde and blue eyed (you know you’re somewhere trendy when there’s, gasp, a Swedish brunette at the next table). Yes, it’s incredibly clean, organized and everyone waits their turn in line. Things seemed to fall into place just as they would in an Ikea DRÖNJÖNS organizer. Though the street signs had few consonants, overall Sweden felt incredibly familiar. 90% of the population speaks English, so there were no “lost in translation” moments. The sky was lower and gloomier than many other places, but having lived in Seattle the climate didn’t feel out of the ordinary. Overall Stockholm felt like a cleaner Portland and seldom took me outside of my comfort zone, despite being four thousand miles from home.
The food, however, was a true surprise and absolute delight. I began my infatuation with cardamom. Grew to appreciate the way a sprig of dill can lift a dish. Developed a deep respect for rye bread, learned to love the lingonberry, and enjoyed making a meal of Rudolph’s reindeer friends.
Food is one of my primary travel incentives, and Sweden is a hell of a motivator.
I spent a week eating and drinking my way through Stockholm (the main activity in October when hours of sunlight are limited and the sky unleashes a consistent patter of cold rain) and have since purchased a Swedish cookbook and have made over 100 kardemummabullar. And while I haven’t been able to make a large dent in the country’s cuisine, I’m here to share my favorite findings, and the foods I long to return for.
It’s not a looker, I know (with so many cream-based dishes Swedish food often looks like mush but tastes like heaven), but gubbrora has made it from our trip to our Christmas appetizer table. We love it that much. The components and preparation are simple: put chopped anchovies, boiled eggs, chives and dill into a bowl. Mix. Plop concoction onto a slice of rye bread. Top with an egg yolk and further dill if desired. It sounds about as appetizing as it looks. Gubbröra does translate to “old man” after all.
But, sitting down to our fancy dinner at Pelikan, a 100+ year old Stockholm institution, my first bite of gubbröra gave me one of those rare ommmmm moments in eating. Specializing in husmanskost, traditional Swedish cuisine made with local ingredients, gubbrora is listed on Pelikan’s GROSSHANDLAR (prix fixe) menu. Knowing the restaurant is constantly recommending this option piqued my interest, and after my first dilly, yolky, creamy bite, I looked Carl in the eye, said “oh my god”, then kept on eating.
Gravlax, Inlagd Sill and Lutfisk
The trifecta of preserved fish — Or respectively: cured salmon, pickled herring, and cod dried and treated with lye.
Vikings have a lot of “firsts.” First to discover Iceland. First to perfect an axe to become a battle axe. First to create the longboat. They were also some of the first to preserve foods. Needing to satiate themselves on long sea voyages of pillaging and plundering, seafood was often salted, dehydrated and cured. The viking heritage lives on in Sweden over a thousand years later, not just in the number of blondies bouncing about, but also in the number of ways fish is prepared. Ranging from the regular to the weird, some of the most popular fish preparations are as follows.
Gravlax is similar to its Yiddish friend lox, but where lox relies entirely on a salt brine, gravlax relies on salt, sugar, dill, and occasionally alcohol, to get its flavor. Traditionally, gravlax was also buried during its curing phase, “grav” translating to grave and “lax” being salmon — a little coffin fish.
Inlagd sill has a two-step pickling process. First it’s cured in salt to dehydrate it, then it’s soaked in a brine. This herring is a staple at family gatherings like Christmas, Easter and Midsommar. Like any Swedish festivity, snaps (similar to schnapps) are a frequently accompaniment.
Lutfisk is a staple on the Christmas Smörgåsbord. It’s cod, which is common enough, but it’s cod that’s been dried and treated with lye, giving it a gelatinous texture. While the true origin of lutfisk is unknown, a fun (though historically inaccurate) origin story has been offered up, where St. Patrick offered up the lye-soaked fish to viking raiders as a trick to poison them. Death didn’t come about, instead the vikings hailed the fish as a delicacy and kept on pillaging. During the many soaks the cod experiences, the fish goes from corrosive to edible, but if an oversoaking of lye occurs, saponification may take place (the transformation of fat into soap). A jelly-like fish seems like little payoff for such a process, but Christmas tradition causes humans to do weird things all over the world.
Keeping up with the Christmas tradition, glögg is Sweden’s variation of mulled wine, a staple during the holidays. I was first introduced to glögg from Carl when he made a crock-pot for friends. Main ingredients are red wine, spices and almonds, frequently served with an orange peel, commonly spiked with a hard liquor. Carl’s family recipe is a bottle of red wine, bottle of port, pint of whiskey, with plenty of cinnamon sticks and almonds. The abv is not for the light drinkers out there. Heated for serving, it’s easy to see how much a strong elixir could warm the heart and loosen the tongue, and make for a festive gathering.
Plättar and Raggmunk
People. Love. Pancakes. From French crepes to Japanese okonomiyaki to Ethiopian injera, there are dozens of varieties around the globe. Pancakes can be sweet, savory, flat or fluffy, and in Sweden, they have a wonderful balance of the two.
There’s raggmunk, a potato pancake fried in butter and served alongside bacon and lingonberries. It’s salty and crispy and hearty and perfect for a cold winter morning. On the other side of the spectrum is plättar, translating to “plate”. These puppies are made with similar ingredients to the American pancake, but they’re smaller and thinner and more of a stacking pancake. Instead of being doused and served in syrup, lingonberries (shocker) are the topping of choice. While raggmunk is for those dark and cold days, when in the mood for something light and sweet, plättar is your go-to
Kanelbullar and Kardemummabullar
I kept hearing the word “fika” thrown around in Sweden — It would be tossed about in Yelp reviews and mentioned in cafe descriptions. Fika is a coffee break, but it isn’t just a coffee break. Frequently the coffee is paired with pastry, but again, it isn’t just a coffee and pastry break. Fika is a way of life. A time for reflection and appreciation. A moment to slow down and savor each sip of coffee and each bite of pastry. Turns out my life had a fika shaped hole in it all 29 years I’d went without knowing of its existence.
It was during my fika moments I came across the kanelbullar and kardemummabullar (cinnamon bun and cardamom bun respectively). I’ve had dozens of American cinnamon buns in my life, and have loved every one. But, the American cinnamon bun is incredibly different from the Swedish variation. In the States, the bun is sugary explosion the size of Lebron James’ fist (a babies face?) and commonly slathered in an icing as thick as jam. The kanelbullar is more subdued and more refined. Like the woman who can make a $20 black dress more chic than piles of couture. The dough is spiced with cardamom, the filling less sweet, the size shorter and more manageable and won’t leave you in a kanel-coma once finished.
I like the kanelbullar a lot. But it’s the kardemummabullar that I can pin l-o-v-e onto. Instead of a hint of cardamom, these puppies are packed with flavor. It’s not often that I can see cardamom pods flecked on my food, but when I do, I’m ecstatic. I’ve since taken to grinding up the spice and throwing it into a french press in the morning. When I make kardemummabullar at home, I double the amount of cardamom called for. I may have a problem, but it’s one I’m not willing to fix.
As a cherry on top, these pastries are wrapped and twisted into perfect pastry specimens. Each one a snowflake and more tempting than the next.
This is the iconic one: Swedish Meatballs. As synonymous with Sweden as knit sweaters, all white bedrooms and Ikea shelving. This dish is a bit of an enigma — All Swedish meatballs are meatballs, but not all meatballs are Swedish. So, what is it that makes this rendition garner the name “Swedish Meatball”? Well, size certainly plays a hand here. Sweden’s main meatball comparison would be Italy, and whereas the Italian version is molto grande, the Scandanavian counterpart is shaped smaller. Outside of Sweden, each time I’ve had a Swedish meatball it was served alongside toothpicks.
Because size isn’t all that matters, spices and sauces also a core component — While the Italian’s jam their meat full of cheese and garlic and smother it in marinara, the Swedes pack their meatballs with white pepper and nutmeg then pour a creamy gravy on top, served with a side of lingonberries.
For our Köttbulla meal we waited for a table at the aptly named “Meatballs for the People”. Touristy, yes. But with a meat menu ranging from the classic beef Meatball, to options like ox, boar and moose, this does make for a more memorable meat spot. My recommendation would be to make a reservation and skip the queue.
Meat is a dietary staple all over the globe, and many are familiar with beef, chicken and pork gracing menus. But some may balk at the idea of eating renskav — reindeer. (Rudolph? Never!) While reindeer isn’t the countries most consumed meat, these antlered friends will grace Stockholm menus without anyone batting an eye.
Reindeer herding is widespread in Northern Sweden, with reindeer pastures taking up a third of the land across the whole country. The meat eventually makes its way down south, with Pelikan’s menu featuring a reindeer steak — cooked ‘til perfectly pink in the middle and running with juices, served alongside potatoes and slathered in a red wine sauce. A decadent meal for sure, but reindeer meat is more lean than beef, so I didn’t feel too weighed down. (The massive pork knuckle we had alongside the renskav is another story).
Janssons Frestelse — “Janssons Temptation”
Like all casseroles, Janssons Frestelse isn’t much to look at. But, as mamma always said, it’s what’s inside that counts. Luckily for this dish, its insides are a blend of potato, onion and cream — A tried and true combination. To really Swede this up though, sprats are also a key ingredient. Sprats, while similar to anchovies, are not interchangeable. The sprat is pickled in sugar and spices, making it far less salty than the common anchovy.
The origins of the name are fuzzy. Some say it’s named after an early 20th century opera singer who loved the dish. Others claim it’s borrowed from the 1928 film Janssons frestelse. Whatever its origins, the ingredients when mixed together, topped with breadcrumbs and baked until bubbling, are a staple on the Christmas julbord.
I wasn’t able to come across Janssons Frestelse on a menu while in the country, but I did eat a similar casserole, stuffed with prawns in lieu of sprats at Harvest Home, and eating steaming spoonfuls of the dish on a chilly October night satiated me in the same way a home-cooked meal on a snowy evening will.
I first learned of the Prinsesstårta from my beloved Great British Bake Off — Watching contestants flail over layers of cake, green marzipan and whipped cream made me wonder where on earth they actually eat something this decadent. This extra. The answer is Sweden.
In the 1940’s, the three daughters of Prince Carl, Duke of Västergötland, fell in love with the cake their baking instructor made for them — A cake comprised of layers of sponge, whipped cream, custard and jam, beneath a domed lid of bright green marzipan and decorated with a pink marzipan rose. Their teacher went on to publish the cake under the inspired name “Green Cake” but over time it came to be known as Prinsesstårta (princess cake). Decadent, yes, but this cake was created for actual princesses. I imagine Cinderella hung over from a ball and refusing to eat anything not topped with a rose.
Decades later the cake is so revered it has its own week in September dedicated to it. During my week in Stockholm I didn’t stumble upon the green confection (or was too busy eating kardemummabullar to notice), but should you be in the market for a slice in the city, bakeries and cafes are your go-to. Be sure to request a piece of the rose.
My Restaurant Recommendations for Stockholm:
- Pelikan for gubbröra and reindeer
- Meatballs for the People for, well, meatballs
- Il Cafe for Fika and kanelbullar/kardemummabullar
- Nytorget 6 for blood pudding and all things chanterelle
- Harvest Home for warm and fuzzy vibes
- Bar Agrikultur for the most amazing gin & tonic
- Omnipollo for world renowned craft beer in an impossibly trending setting
- Aifur for a delicious and surprisingly subdued viking meal — Decorated to look like the interior of a viking ship, you’ll eat meat from two-pronged forks and drink mead from goblets. Silly, yet surprisingly satisfying