Steffi Knowles-Dellner
0 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
Yuki Sugiura

Over the past few years, the term “Scandi” has become a byword, a shorthand for a particular brand of minimal, effortless cool. And though our crime writers have a knack for depicting a land full of darkness and horror, in actuality Scandinavia is more often spoken about as a kind of utopia, an image bolstered by affirming statistics on health, equality and well-being. Sweden, in particular, is hailed as the ideal place to live and whenever I mention where I’m from people frequently sigh and respond: “they seem to have got so many things right over there”.

When it comes to our food, however, few people seem to know very much about it beyond what can be found at IKEA. Perceptions seem to fall into one of two categories: either outlandish New Nordic gastronomy with a side of moss and ants or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, homely meatballs in cream sauce, beetroot and enough dill to fill a field.

This doesn’t really paint a picture of the food that I grew up with or the meals that my Swedish family and friends cook back home. Sure, from time to time every Swede pines for some husmanskost – the traditional and thrifty home cooking that mormor (maternal granny) makes: salmon pudding, game stew, potato dumplings, oven-baked pancakes studded with crispy bacon and, yes, meatballs. But everyday Swedish food has evolved over the years, embracing a variety of ingredients, cultures, cooking styles and, above all, placing a much greater emphasis on balance and health.

Lagom is best

For me, the word that encapsulates the way we eat in Sweden is lagom. The Swedes themselves are the first to admit to their peculiar attachment to this small, loaded word, even to the extent of joking about how lagom they are. “Lagom är bäst” (“lagom is best”), they say, rolling their eyes.

Notoriously difficult to translate, lagom can be used to describe almost anything: you can be lagom well, your friend can be lagom tall, your coffee lagom strong and the weather lagom warm. But to dismiss it as simply a quantifier would be to underestimate its importance. Lagom goes right to the heart of Sweden’s national psyche and characterizes everything from Sweden’s political leanings and stance on gender equality to their aversion to anything too ostentatious. It is at the core of many typically Scandinavian ideals like fairness, consensus and equality.

And while this may sound like a doctrine of restraint, it is in fact anything but. Lagom is simply a manifestation of equilibrium – work and play, light and dark, hot and cold, wealth and poverty, tradition and modernity. You can find lagom in our distinctive seasons, our high taxes, understated design and deep appreciation of quality, innovation and progress, so long as it isn’t too over-the-top or flashy – a bit like our sturdy Volvos and Saabs.

Not surprisingly, lagom extends to our cuisine as well – the Swedes take great pride in eating healthily, drawing on their own cooking traditions and the seasons’ offerings. But they also know when it’s time to break the rules and reach for a cinnamon bun or add a dash of sumac or chilli. Whether enough is as big as a feast or as small as breakfast, Swedes know how to celebrate life through food.

For us, eating has never been about extremes – swinging from one day to the next between excess and denial – but about harmony and enjoyment. Taking time to eat well, but also according to your means, the seasons and environment, while not shutting out pleasure or the rich food world beyond Scandinavia’s borders – these are the core food philosophies that come naturally to Swedes.

The Nordic diet

With their generous holiday allowances, extensive parental leave and work/life balance, there is time to spend in the kitchen, preparing more food from scratch. This is in part what contributes to a focus on health and eating well that is taken for granted in Sweden. Certainly, when I was growing up, overly sweet, processed food and drink did not enter the house: they simply didn’t belong there. Instead, breakfasts were based around whole grains and dairy (often cultured products like filmjölk, a soured pouring yogurt) that set you up for the day; dinners always featured plenty of the hearty vegetables that grow in our cold climes; fish was enjoyed as often as meat; and puddings were treats that didn’t make your teeth ache. Berries, rapeseed oil, root vegetables, nuts, rye, oily fish, game, unsweetened dairy products – these are the bread and butter of Scandinavian cooking and remain the staple ingredients in my kitchen today.

We’ll put spelt flour into our cinnamon buns or even make them gluten- or dairy-free. We’ve become experts at sneaking goodness into our cakes and bakes by using a range of flours, adding nuts, seeds, fruit and even vegetables – something we’ve been doing long before it was trendy.

There are precedents for this. Many of our traditional baked goods were already relatively low in sugar; even our famous cinnamon buns are created from a cardamom-laced bread dough which only has a fraction of the sugar you would find in the UK equivalent. Our beloved pick ‘n’ mix is limited to one day, known by every Swedish child as lördagsgodis – Saturday’s Sweets.

A lagom approach recognizes that these little indulgences are important, vital even, in the celebration of life through food, but they are evened out by a varied diet, getting up and moving about and not overindulging. A little of what you fancy does you good and life is far too short not to eat cake...

Lagom through the seasons

This harmony can also be seen in the seasonal way that the Swedes eat. There is no shortage of Swedish holidays and festivities throughout the year, from the bonfires of Walpurgis Night in late April and Midsummer’s Eve in June to St Lucia on 13th December. These are often marked with a specific food or dish. In fact, most Swedes even have a designated “name day” when you can expect a few cards and a slice of cake in honour of your name. Sometimes we celebrate food itself – National Cinnamon Bun Day on 4th October must surely be one of the best days of the year.

A knowledge of what is in season is deeply engrained in every Swede from an early age. Ever since I was old enough to walk, I was taught to pick ingredients (often from the wild) and recognize when they were ripe and ready. I grew up foraging for berries and whiling away afternoons fishing. We gathered bilberries, raspberries and dainty, perfumed wild strawberries in the late summer. In the spring, donning gardening gloves for protection, I snipped young nettles for soup, dandelion leaves for salads and plucked clove flowers, just to suck out the sweet nectar from the petals.

I grew up thinking that all this was part and parcel of life. For me, food became heavily associated with different times of the year and steeped in ritual. I’d gut herring with my mum before Midsummer’s Eve, staying up late into the bright night to complete the task. In August I would steal one or, depending on how brazen I was feeling, two live crayfish from the crate for our annual crayfish party. I thought I was doing nature a good turn by “setting them free” in the sea. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that releasing freshwater crayfish into the Baltic probably did them more harm than good.

It always seemed to me that everything we cooked in the summers I spent in the Stockholm archipelago was underpinned by an appreciation and respect for ingredients or råvaror (raw goods). Until relatively recently, there was a limit to what was available all year round in this far-flung, snow-capped corner of the world. So when lingonberry season came, the berries were relished in cakes and preserved in jams and cordials in order to enjoy them to their full but also ensure they lasted well into the colder months. And while foraging and preserving may not be a necessity any more, the ebb and flow of the Swedish calendar would simply not be the same without these foods to punctuate it.

Every year, my godmother, Margareta, feverishly hides the forest chanterelles she spots on her dog walks with leaves and branches. This shields them from other walkers so she can return and pick her plump, orange bounty when it is just right. The enjoyment of life through food is a serious business, but only because we know it is essential to have these events to look forward to and how important it is to mark a new season, another year. These small but significant acts help bring us together and acknowledge the passing of time.

A small corner in the North

The general perception of Swedish food is that it, like its geography, is fairly isolated from the rest of the world. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Swedes have been on the move since the 9th century, when the Vikings managed to get all the way to Constantinople and are said to have traded slaves for exotic spices like cinnamon and cardamom. These gradually worked their way into our own baking and cooking traditions. More recently, we’ve been particularly influenced by other cultures, beginning with the mass emigration in the mid 19th century to the States and Canada, when extreme poverty saw increasing numbers make the journey across the Atlantic in the hope of a better life.

Even as late as the 1950s, my mormor’s best friend joined the thousands who moved to Canada in hope of prosperity after the war. They still write to each other regularly and she sometimes asks if I’ve heard of exotic Canadian recipes like poutine (“sounds horrible” according to mormor). But while her friend never returned to Sweden, many others eventually did, bringing with them new classics like hot dogs, pizza and other recipes shared amongst the hodgepodge of immigrants arriving in North America from Europe and Asia.

After the Second World War, Sweden also became a haven for many escaping a wartorn world. Initially, we saw arrivals from other Scandinavian countries (my paternal grandmother ended up marrying the first man who helped her with her luggage when she got off the boat from Helsinki), but later from all around the world. They brought with them their food heritage and came to shape the varied, rich food culture that gradually became Swedish as well. This is a tradition that remains strong to this day – in the past few years we have accepted more refugees per capita than any other European country.

Swedes themselves are extraordinarily well travelled. Even today, my relocation to London is hardly noteworthy back home. I am simply one of many who has put down roots abroad. And as our world view has widened, so has our appetite for new flavours and ways to enhance our own cooking. It always surprises people when I explain that tacos are a big deal in Sweden – in households around the country, every Friday, you will find families gathering round to assemble their tacos and hunker down in front of a film for fredagsmys (Friday cosy). We’ve also got our own take on pierogi (European dumplings), make raspberry and chocolate scones for breakfast, and add dill and tarragon to our pestos.

Swedes are notorious “early adopters” of trends, which in part explains why the healthy eating movement has been active there for so long. Meanwhile, in many Swedish cities the food truck revolution has brought kimchi burgers, sourdough pizzas and craft ales to the masses, and restaurants will offer everything from classic bistro fare to ceviche.

Part of a balanced way of eating now embraces other cultures more than ever. There is a pastiche of influences rooted in Swedish traditions, a reverence for ingredients, seasonality and a healthy attitude towards to eating. This is the kind of food philosophy that is at the heart of real Swedish cooking. It’s not about perfection, but harmony. It is the unfussy food lovingly made in kitchens up and down this long country during the cold, dark winter months right through to the lengthy summer days when the sun never seems to set. Food that will look after you but is still full of life and joy – adventurous, wholesome dishes that satisfy even my insatiable appetite. There’s so much more to it than just meatballs!

“Lagom är bäst” [“lagom is best”]

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