‘I constantly evolve my Swedishness’

Sweden isn’t the same place it was 50 years ago – and that’s a good thing. Star Swedish chef Marcus Samuelsson tells The Local about cuisine, curiosity, and connectivity.

'I constantly evolve my Swedishness'
Chef Marcus Samuelsson. Photo: Monika Sziladi

The Swedish Chef.

The phrase may still make some people think of the Muppets, but increasingly it’s another image that comes to mind. Aquavit. New York. White House dinners.

Marcus Samuelsson.

Born in Ethiopia, Marcus 'Joar' Samuelsson was adopted by Swedish parents when he was three-years-old. He had a typical Swedish childhood in Gothenburg, dining on meatballs and spending summer evenings wandering in nature.

Now the 45-year-old has world-famous restaurants in New York, Chicago, Bermuda, Gothenburg, and Stockholm, and when The Local snags him he's in the middle of opening his latest concept in Malmö.

But even in Harlem, New York – the place he currently calls home – his roots affect everything he does.

“I take my Swedishness with me in everything I do,” Samuelsson tells The Local.

In the kitchen that means “having a relationship” with pickling and preserving, great seafood, and game meats.

“When I think of Sweden, I think about direct access to nature,” he says, “Sweden also has four very strong seasons, and that is reflected in the food.”

Swedish crayfish. Photo: Carolina Romare/Imagebank Sweden

Along with distinct seasonal flavours, Samuelsson says that aesthetics are vitally important in Swedish cuisine.

“We have a great sense of art, aesthetics, and craftsmanship,” he say. “Maybe we don’t make a lot, but what we do make, we take pride in. Beauty matters.”

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But, beautiful or not, cooking has never “just been meatballs” for Marcus.

Husmanskost may be our weekly diet, but we are much more diverse than that,” Samuelsson clarifies. “Sweden’s cuisine has changed widely due to migration and immigration. The Turks and Greeks who have been here for 50 years are just as much a part of new Sweden.”

Sweden has its own versions of falafel and kebab, and Samuelsson is quick to note that the generations of immigrants and the cuisine they brought are also part of the “New Scandinavian Cuisine”.

The world is changing and becoming more and more globalised, and food has to keep pace. Samuelsson says that Swedes have always been good at adapting, both with people and palates.

“Sweden is not the same country now as when I was growing up,” he says. “It’s much more diverse today. And all these great innovations we have are a product of our diversity.”

As an international chef opening restaurants over the world, Samuelsson says that air travel is “key” to running his business, and to the development of new culinary ideas.

Marcus Samuelsson's Red Rooster restaurant. Photo: Monika Sziladi

“Especially for countries like Sweden that are a little off-centre, it’s very important,” he says. “I come to Sweden four or five times a year and you need to be able to travel quickly.”

Although Sweden still has a ways to go– to travel back home to Gothenburg, Samuelsson has to stop in Copenhagen or Amsterdam – he says that the country’s small-town mentality has helped boost its connectivity.

“We feel that we are a small country, but we also have a large middle-class population and we learn English very early,” he explains. “So our connectivity is based on our curiosity, but also that you learn very early on that you have to get out of Sweden, you have to see the world.”

Bigger countries like the US or Germany are more internally sustainable in a sense, whereas Swedes tend to travel outside their borders for both business and leisure, Samuelsson says.

“It’s key that people can trade and they can go on vacation. We need that international freedom. But then we come back, inspired by what we saw, informed by our travels.”

Read also: Is the world wrong to link Sweden with sexiness?

The chef says it’s “exciting” to see Sweden being shaped in a different way – and to be on the forefront of the change with his cutting-edge cooking.

“Sweden, and Swedish food, is not as homogenous as you might think,” he says.

“I’m constantly evolving my Swedishness, and I always pull in my African roots as well. I have a sense of pride in that, but it’s also very international. I’m always thinking about those three: Sweden, Harlem, and Ethiopia.”

Photo: Monika Sziladi

He adds that he’s glad Swedish food is finally “on the map”, after working to get it there for so many years. And with a little luck, Sweden’s new flourishing culinary reputation will lead to a whole new awareness of Sweden.

“That’s also why trade is so important. If you work with food, you already know about the new Scandinavian dining scene,” he says.

“But it’s just one way in. If you hear about Volvo, if you listen to our music, or go to IKEA or H&M, maybe that’s how you enter Sweden – but either way, you discover this country that you are really going to fall in love with.”

This article is part of an ongoing series produced by The Local in partnership with ConnectSweden

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Five sweet treats you should be able to identify if you live in Sweden

Do you know your biskvi from your bakelse? Your chokladboll from your kanelbulle? Here's a guide guaranteed to get your mouth watering.

Five sweet treats you should be able to identify if you live in Sweden


The most famous of all Swedish cakes outside Sweden, the classic kanelbulle (cinnamon bun) is the symbol of Sweden abroad, no doubt helped by the fact that Swedish furniture giants IKEA stock frozen buns in their food stores for customers to bake off at home.

Forget American tear-apart cinnamon rolls baked in a pan and slathered with cream cheese frosting: a classic Swedish cinnamon bun is baked individually using a yeasted dough spread with cinnamon sugar and butter. The dough is then rolled up, sliced into strips which are then stretched out and knotted into buns, baked, glazed with sugar syrup and sprinkled with pearl sugar.

Home-made varieties skip the stretching and knotting step, rolling the cinnamon-sprinkled dough into a spiral instead which, although less traditional, tastes just as good.

Kanelbullar in Sweden often include a small amount of Sweden’s favourite spice: cardamom. If you’re a fan of cardamom, try ordering the kanelbulle‘s even more Swedish cousin, the kardemummabulle or cardamom bun, which skips the cinnamon entirely and goes all-out on cardamom instead.

Sweden celebrates cinnamon bun day (kanelbullens dag) on October 4th.

Photo: Lieselotte van der Meijs/


A great option if you want a smaller cake for your fika, the chokladboll or ‘chocolate ball’ is a perfect accompaniment to coffee – some recipes even call for mixing cold coffee into the batter.

They aren’t baked and are relatively easy to make, meaning they are a popular choice for parents (or grandparents) wanting to involve children in the cake-making process.

Chokladbollar are a simple mix of sugar, oats, melted butter and cocoa powder, with the optional addition of vanilla or coffee, or occasionally rum extract. They are rolled into balls which are then rolled in desiccated coconut (or occasionally pearl sugar), and placed in the fridge to become more solid.

Some bakeries or cafés also offer dadelbollar or rawbollar/råbollar (date or raw balls), a vegan alternative made from dried dates and nuts blended together with cocoa powder.

Chocolate ball day (chokladbollens dag) falls on May 11th.

Photo: Magnus Carlsson/


The lime-green prinsesstårta or ‘princess cake’ may look like a modern invention with it’s brightly-coloured marzipan covering, but it has been around since the beginning of the 1900s, and is named after three Swedish princesses, Margareta, Märta and Astrid, who were supposedly especially fond of the cake.

The cake consists of a sponge bottom spread with jam, crème pâtissière and a dome of whipped cream, covered in green marzipan and some sort of decoration, often a marzipan rose.

Prinsesstårtor can also be served in individual portions, small slices of a log which are then referred to as a prinsessbakelse.

Although the cakes are popular all year round, in the Swedish region of Småland, prinsesstårta is eaten on the first Thursday in March, due to this being the unofficial national day of the Småland region (as the phrase första torsdagen i mars is pronounced fössta tossdan i mass in the Småland dialect).

Since 2004, the Association of Swedish Bakers and Confectioners has designated the last week of September as prinsesstårtans vecka (Princess cake day).

Photo: Sinikka Halme, Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0.


Belonging to the more traditional cakes, a Budapestbakelse or “Budapest slice” is a type of rulltårta or “roll cake” similar to a Swiss roll, consisting of a light and crispy cake made from whipped egg whites, sugar and hazelnut, filled with whipped cream and fruit, often chopped conserved peaches, nectarines or mandarines, and rolled into a log.

The log is then sliced into individual portions and drizzled with chocolate, then often topped with whipped cream and a slice of fruit. 

Despite its name, the Budapest slice has nothing to do with the city of Budapest – it was supposedly invented by baker Ingvar Strid in 1926 and received the name due to Strid’s love for the Hungarian capital.

Of course, the Budapestbakelse also has its own day – May 1st.

Kanelbullar (left), chokladbollar (centre) and biskvier (right). Photo: Tuukka Ervasti/


Another smaller cake, a biskvi (pronounced like the French biscuit), consists of an almond biscuit base, covered in buttercream (usually chocolate flavoured), and dark chocolate.

Different variants of biskvier exist, such as a Sarah Bernhardt, named after the French actress of the same name, which has chocolate truffle instead of buttercream.

You might also spot biskvier with white chocolate, often with a hallon (raspberry) or citron (lemon) filling, or even saffransbiskvier around Christmastime.

Chokladbiskviens dag is celebrated on November 11th.