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The weirdest Swedish eating habits that have nothing to do with meatballs

FROM THE LOCAL'S ARCHIVE: Catherine Edwards didn't know much beyond the menu of her nearest Ikea canteen before she moved to Stockholm. But she's discovered there's so much more to Swedish food than meatballs, including some rather strange habits.

The weirdest Swedish eating habits that have nothing to do with meatballs
Ketchup on pasta? Ketchup on pasta. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

1. Pick'n'mix

In the UK, where I'm from, pick'n'mix is associated with overpriced cinema snacks and long-extinct discount chain Woolworth's. It's not really a socially acceptable snack above the age of about eight and many parents worry about it being unhygienic or leading to costly dental care. But Swedish adults absolutely love their sweets, with a fondness for salt liquorice in particular, and pick'n'mix stands take pride of place in almost every supermarket and corner shop.


In Sweden, there's no shame in a Saturday pick'n'mix session. Photo: Mariam Butt/NTB scanpix/TT

2. Fruit with meat

The pairing of pineapple and ham in a Hawaiian pizza is so polarizing in the US and UK that I don't know how they'd cope if they ever travelled to Sweden, where fruit and meat are regularly eaten together with reckless abandon. Lingonberry jam is a common accompaniment to meatballs, stews, and black pudding, while also finding its way onto pancakes, potatoes and toast. Another strange thing Swedes do with fruit is turn it into soup, especially rose hip or blueberry, which is served hot or cold, usually as a dessert or just a drink.


Photo: Susanne Walström/imagebank.sweden.se

3. Ketchup on pasta

Jam and meat may be an odd combination but it pales in comparison to this utter sacrilege. Apparently making or opening a jar of sauce is just too taxing, so ketchup on pasta isn't just a late-night last resort for hungry college students, but is actually commonplace in many Swedish households and even served at some of the hot dog and burger stands around Stockholm.


Is this acceptable? Photo: Antti T. Nissinen/Flickr

4. Ice cream in winter

During my first Swedish class, the teacher's explanations of the difference between hard and soft 'k' sounds was repeatedly interrupted by a familiar tinkling tune coming from just outside the window. It sounded like an ice cream van, but at 7pm on a gloomy, freezing January evening it wasn't exactly ice cream weather – or so I thought. My teacher ended up diverting the lesson into a passionate discourse on Swedish food, including their love of ice cream in all weathers. Several corner shops have recently started displaying signs excitedly informing customers that their assortment of ice creams are back in stock, so it seems that as soon as the ice on the streets has thawed, it's acceptable to indulge in the frozen treats.


Photo: Claudio Bresciani/SCANPIX/TT

5. 'Fredagsmys'

While in the UK a Friday night is often celebrated with drinks at the local pub, a curry with friends or a night on the town, the Swedes do things differently. More or less translating as 'cosy Friday', the idea of 'Fredagsmys' is a family evening at home with comfort food, first popularized by a series of commercials by a crisps manufacturer and now a national tradition. Families eat an easily prepared meal like pizza or tacos while watching TV.

6. The fish obsession

In a country almost entirely surrounded by water and contains plenty of lakes, it's hardly a surprise that fish is a staple in the Swedish diet. But before moving here I didn't realize just deep the obsession runs. My language-learning app taught me how to say sill (pickled herring) surströmming (fermented herring) and kräfta (crayfish) before it had taught me how to ask 'how are you?' or to ask for directions, and that seems to sum up the place fish takes in Swedish life; apparently crayfish parties are a thing. You can even buy caviar in a tube.


A Swede pretending that crayfish parties are normal. Photo: Carolina Romare/imagebank.sweden.se

7. Pea soup and pancake day

AKA every Thursday! This tradition supposedly comes from Sweden's distant Catholic past, when a filling meal was needed before the traditional fasting on Friday, and yellow pea soup followed by pancakes and jam is still the usual meal in many restaurants, Swedish schools, and in the national army.


A school dinner of milk and pea soup. Photo: Susanne Walström/imagebank.sweden.se

8. Pastries that don't sound good on paper – but are

The bright green hue of Swedish prinsesstårta is not especially appetizing and yet the elaborate marzipan-topped layer cake is one of the most popular treats in Sweden. As its name suggests, it even has fans in the royal family and was originally created for the princesses. And while foreigners may associate cardamom with savoury Asian food, in the Nordic countries it's used in baking, and cardamom buns are surprisingly delicious.


Photo: Magnus Carlsson/imagebank.sweden.se

9. Dinner parties 

Perhaps the most obvious difference between Swedish eating habits and those abroad is that Swedes eat out much less often, mainly because of the cost. As well as the UK, I've lived in Rome and Berlin, and in both cities it's easy to find a restaurant meal for under €10 – including wine. Not so in Sweden. With a much higher average wage, restaurants have to hike up their prices, so socializing often revolves around dinner at friends' houses more than eating out, with guests frequently asked to bring along dishes, ingredients and most definitely their own drinks.

For me, dining in feels very sophisticated and cosier than eating in a restaurant. But it must cause problems once your friendship group grows larger than the number of seats at your kitchen table.


Photo: Susanne Walström/imagebank.sweden.se

READ ALSO: Seven delicious dates in the Swedish food calendar

This article was originally published in 2016.

Member comments

  1. If you have ever gone grocery shopping in Sweden it becomes apparent that Swede’s don’t actually like food.

    There are few if any butchers, certainly in my time here all across the country I have never found a “good” butcher. (Malmö in particular utterly sucks for this or good fresh fish stores)

    As for the prepacked meat in supermarkets. Oh my god. This passes in Sweden? The standards of selection, preparation and presentation are really low. I’ve paid premium prices for what are not premium cuts that look like they were carved by a blind guy with a chainsaw.

    (I live in Malmö but I have to go to Copenhagen to buy fresh meat and fish because the Danes actually like food)

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FOOD & DRINK

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

Kanelbulle

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/imagebank.sweden.se

Chokladboll

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/imagebank.sweden.se

Prinsesstårta

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.

Budapestbakelse

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/imagebank.sweden.se

Biskvi

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.

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