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IMMIGRATION

How I got immigrants and Swedes dining together

Swedish language teacher Ebba Åkerman, also known as the "Minister of Dinners", explains how she managed to bring immigrants and Swedes together at dinner tables across Stockholm.

How I got immigrants and Swedes dining together
Ebba Åkerman (left) organized her 42nd ‘Dinner with a Stranger' last Sunday. Ebba's photographer: malarky.se

A few months ago, a Swedish language teacher asked her Afghan student if he liked living in the southern Stockholm suburb of Norsborg, which is home to a 40 percent immigrant population.

“Norsborg… Afghanistan, it’s the same thing,” he replied.

Ebba Åkerman, then working as a substitute teacher for the Swedish teaching program for immigrants, SFI, was dismayed by this response – which got her thinking about how difficult it was for most of her students to integrate into Swedish society.

“I realized that Stockholm was a much more segregated city than I thought, and was filled with amazing people who didn't meet simply because they didn't know each other,” says Åkerman, who is Swedish herself.

Indeed, one fifth of Sweden’s population is either from abroad or born to two foreign parents.

“But what is the point of learning a language if you have no one to speak it with?”

Disheartened, she began trying to think of ways her students could socialize with Swedes. And eventually she hit on the idea of putting people together round a dinner table – especially as sharing food plays an important part in Swedish society.

“So I asked my class one day, ‘Do you like food?’ and they answered ‘yes’. Then I asked them: ‘Do you know any Swedish people?’ and most of them didn’t.

“I then told them that there was a bunch of Swedes who wanted to have them over for dinner. It’s free of charge, I said, and they could bring a friend, and it could happen any day they liked.”

Having appointed herself “Minister of Dinners” at the so-called ‘Invitationsdepartementet’ or “Department of Invitations”, Åkerman started recruiting hosts among her Swedish friends for her first “Dinner with a Stranger”.

Her students jumped at the opportunity to bond with Swedes – but the hosts were trickier to pin down.

“In beginning, there were some Swedes saying: ‘I can have someone over on the 17th in two months from now’”, recalls Åkerman with a laugh.

Åkerman then sent the guests the address, name, and number of the host – and the host would receive the guest’s name, number and details of any dietary requirements or allergies.

Before long, however, interest waned and she began to lose hope that the project would ever take off.

An interview on national Swedish Radio briefly raised her spirits. But after being broadcast across the nation, her appeal produced a grand total of four responses – with an additional three from journalists who simply wanted to “tag along”.

“Was it fear of not having the language skills to communicate properly – of having someone that didn’t speak Swedish at the dinner table?” she wondered.

In the end, she concluded that although the hearts of Swedes were in the right place, “many people were lazy, insecure and under the impression that they didn’t have time to cook extra meals for someone”.

Then, just as Åkerman was about to give up hope, the tide suddenly turned.

Whether it was social media or a report on national TV she says: “All of a sudden, I had an avalanche of hundreds of people wanting to invite people over for dinner. It was chaos.”

She was soon busily matching hosts and guests. That turned out to be the easy part. What she hadn’t foreseen were the various problems that ensued.

“Some guests were very shy, some arrived late, some couldn’t find follow directions, some didn’t even know that street numbers go up and down,” she recalls. This, as well as some no-shows and cancellations.

Photo: Private

On one occasion, a student arrived thinking that he was going to a restaurant with his whole SFI class. Another man showed up for a dinner two hours late, bringing with him a variety of groceries, including milk, as an apology for his tardiness.

And yet, despite such teething problems, the dinners soon became largely successful.

The hosts and guests, she says, certainly don’t have to become best friends. But she believes that the dinners really are promoting genuine understanding between cultures.

“They dine together, and if they want to, they stay in touch – they’re under no obligation to meet each other again.”

That’s not the point of her matchmaking, she says. “The point is to eat, meet and speak.”

Photo: Private

On Sunday, Åkerman organized her 42nd ‘Dinner with a Stranger’ – and she hopes a total of 10,000 will have taken place by the Swedish national elections in September.

“We all need a reminder that there are so many more things we can do than vote to create a society that we all want to live in,” she says.

“Sharing a meal is food culture at its finest – and building trust is what you need in society.”

Plus, she adds, “Having fun is never a bad thing.”

Ebba Åkerman was speaking at the’What’s Cooking’ event organized by TEDxStockholm. You can find out more here. To find out more about 'Dinner with a Stranger' visit Åkerman's website or Facebook page.  

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DISCOVER SWEDEN

The three tasty treats that make spring in Sweden a forager’s dream

Although parts of Sweden are still under snow at this time of year, spring is in full swing here in Skåne in the south of Sweden. Here are The Local's top tips for what you can forage in the great outdoors this season.

The three tasty treats that make spring in Sweden a forager's dream

You might already have your go-to svampställe where you forage mushrooms in autumn, but mushrooms aren’t the only thing you can forage in Sweden. The season for fruits and berries hasn’t quite started yet, but there is a wide range of produce on offer if you know where to look.

Obviously, all of these plants grow in the wild, meaning it’s a good idea to wash them thoroughly before you use them. You should also be respectful of nature and of other would-be foragers when you’re out foraging, and make sure not to take more than your fair share to ensure there’s enough for everyone.

As with all foraged foods, only pick and eat what you know. The plants in this guide do not look similar to any poisonous plants, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry – or ask someone who knows for help.

Additionally, avoid foraging plants close to the roadside or in other areas which could be more polluted. If you haven’t tried any of these plants before, start in small doses to make sure you don’t react negatively to them.

Wild garlic plants in a park in Alnarpsparken, Skåne. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Wild garlic

These pungent green leaves are just starting to pop up in shady wooded areas, and may even hang around as late as June in some areas. Wild garlic or ramsons, known as ramslök in Swedish, smell strongly of garlic and have wide, flat, pointed leaves which grow low to the ground.

The whole plant is edible: leaves, flowers and the bulbs underground – although try not to harvest too many bulbs or the plants won’t grow back next year.

The leaves have a very strong garlic taste which gets weaker once cooked. Common recipes for wild garlic include pesto and herb butter or herbed oil, but it can generally be used instead of traditional garlic in most recipes. If you’re cooking wild garlic, add it to the dish at the last possible moment so it still retains some flavour.

You can also preserve the flower buds and seed capsules as wild garlic capers, known as ramslökskapris in Swedish, which will then keep for up to a year.

Stinging nettles. Wear gloves when harvesting these to protect yourself from their needles. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Stinging nettles

Brännässlor or stinging nettles need to be cooked before eating to remove their sting, although blanching them for a couple of seconds in boiling water should do the trick. For the same reason, make sure you wear good gardening gloves when you pick them so you don’t get stung.

Nettles often grow in the same conditions as wild garlic – shady woodlands, and are often regarded as weeds.

The younger leaves are best – they can get stringy and tough as they get older.

A very traditional use for brännässlor in Sweden is nässelsoppa, a bright green soup made from blanched nettles, often topped with a boiled or poached egg.

Some Swedes may also remember eating stuvade nässlor with salmon around Easter, where the nettles are cooked with cream, butter and milk. If you can’t get hold of nettles, they can be replaced with spinach for a similar result.

You can also dry nettles and use them to make tea, or use blanched nettles to make nettle pesto.

Kirskål or ground elder, another popular foraged green for this time of year.
Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Ground elder

Ground elder is known as kirskål in Swedish, and can be used much in the same way as spinach. It also grows in shady areas, and is an invasive species, meaning that you shouldn’t be too worried about foraging too much of it (you might even find some in your garden!).

It is quite common in parks and old gardens, but can also be found in wooded areas. The stems and older leaves can be bitter, so try to focus on foraging the tender, younger leaves.

Ground elder has been cultivated in Sweden since at least 500BC, and has been historically used as a medicinal herb and as a vegetable. This is one of the reasons it can be found in old gardens near Swedish castles or country homes, as it was grown for use in cooking.

Kirskål is available from March to September, although it is best eaten earlier in the season.

As mentioned, ground elder can replace spinach in many recipes – you could also use it for pesto, in a quiche or salad, or to make ground elder soup.

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