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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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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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