Are you thinking of taking on the challenge of preparing your very first Swedish Christmas dinner – the traditional buffet-style “julbord” – but don’t quite know where to get started?
Or perhaps you’re just feeling increasingly baffled at the office?, as your colleagues have started to bandy about distressingly bizarre phrases such as “Jansson’s frestelse” which in no way convey that they denote a foodstuff of any sort.
Either way, after reading the following guide to the must-have dishes and drinks for the Swedish festive season, you’ll hopefully feel as though you’re beginning to find your feet.
The mechanics of a julbord are actually fairly straight-forward – you’re going to be making your way to the buffet table at least three times, or more, depending on how roomy your trousers are. Fish dishes are the focus of your first foray, cold cuts which include the “julskinka” centrepiece feature in your second, and the warm dishes of the third round are sure to require a loosening of your belt a notch or three.
Inlagd sill (pickled herring)
Generally speaking, pickled herring tends to find its way onto Swedish buffet tables no matter the season or holiday being celebrated, and thus Christmas is no exception.
The pickled herring is one of the first dishes you’ll be digging into, and will most likely come flavoured in a number of different inventive ways, from mustard and dill for traditionalists, to lingonberries and oranges for the more adventurous among us.
Julskinka (Christmas ham)
The Christmas ham. The evening’s main event, which is so popular it even comes in a tofu version for vegetarians who can’t bear to miss out.
“Julskinka” is also the only dish on the julbord to have spawned a second dish of its own: “dopp i grytan”, which loosely and somewhat unexpectedly translates to “dip in the pot”. This is usually eaten directly after the ham, and is bread dipped in the stock that the ham was cooked in.
Grisfötter (Pig’s trotters)
This is exactly what it sounds like. I’m sure that there are several families in Sweden who love nothing better than digging into this delicacy every Christmas, but your author is not among them them. Pig’s feet? Yuck.
This dish translates to either brawn or head cheese, depending on which side of the Atlantic you call home. Either translation sounds pretty grim, but what it refers to is a meat dish prepared by mixing boiled meat with its broth and leaving it to harden. Not nearly as bad as it sounds, and usually eaten together with beetroot salad.
Swedish meatballs may come mass-produced from market leader Mamma Scan at the supermarket the rest of the year, but no self-respecting Swedish family is going to be serving anything other than home-made, home-rolled “köttbullar” come Christmas dinner.
Janssons frestelse (Jansson’s temptation)
Despite the mysterious-sounding name, this dish is nothing more exotic than a potato gratin, with some onion and anchovies thrown into the mix.
Risgrynsgröt (Rice pudding)
Serving porridge as a Christmas treat might seem distressingly meagre, but don’t let the name fool you! The fact is that this rice pudding is delicious, and a steady favourite on Swedish Christmas tables.
If you really want to go all out on Swedish holiday tradition, pop an almond in the porridge pot – the more superstitious among us claim that whoever gets it in their bowl will be married before the end of next year.
Julmust (Root beer)
This soft drink’s unique taste stems from its flavouring with malt, hops, and several other spices, which give it a taste reminiscent of root beer. Be warned, however, it’s not for everyone!
“Julmust” is usually only available at Christmas and it is perhaps this exclusivity which makes it so popular. For one month of the year, Sweden’s Coca-Cola consumption drops by 50 percent as people throughout the country stock up on the seasonal alternative.
The question of why julmust has such firm supporters during the holidays, only to be forgotten the rest of the year is best avoided as dinner conversation. Furthermore, “påskmust”, served at Easter, has an uncanny resemblance in taste, texture and colour.
Don’t be coy. You already know what this is. A steady intake of shots of vodka or akvavit is the social lubricant that’s going to keep a five-hour dinner with the in-laws a pleasant affair. Tradition also demands that these shots be accompanied by increasingly raucous choruses of snapsvisor, or drinking songs.
Don’t feel quite ready to start cooking up a storm? Don’t worry, there are plenty of options. Believe it or not, IKEA’s got a julbord with all the essentials. If you dare to brave the crowds, the double whammy of Swedish furniture giant and Swedish Christmas food can be yours for just 149 kronor ($22).