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How to survive a Swedish julbord – a beginner's guide to the Christmas meal

The Local Sweden
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How to survive a Swedish julbord – a beginner's guide to the Christmas meal
Confused? Allow us to help... Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

Got a Christmas meal still to come with work, or wondering how to navigate your first Christmas with your in-laws? Here's a simple guide to help you navigate the Swedish Christmas meal.


1. The order of affairs

The sheer variation of food on offer at a Swedish Christmas meal can be daunting for newcomers, but there’s a clear order to follow that should make things simpler.

You might kick off with some glögg (similar to mulled wine) to warm up, then comes the first wave of food. That's usually the fish dishes, focusing on pickled herring (sill) and cured salmon (gravad lax) accompanied with potatoes and crispbread (knäckebröd).

Next up is cold cured meats (including the fabled Christmas ham), more bread, and probably some pâté. Then it's the heaviest wave, the warm dishes, which will likely involve meatballs, sausage (prinskorv), a potato and cream casserole (Janssons frestelse), and sometimes bread dipped in pork broth (dopp i grytan).

After that, it's dessert and/or cheese with crackers, finished off with some coffee and perhaps a few sweets and rice pudding (ris à la Malta).

If that sounds like a lot, then the trick here is not to fill yourself up early on – as tasty as the sill may be. That means going easy on the knäckebröd to begin with, by the way. There’s nothing worse than trying to force down Janssons frestelse in order to look polite when in truth you're already full.

2. If you're the chef, shoot for quality, not quantity

It sounds like a contradiction considering Sweden's traditional Christmas meal is based on a variety of smaller dishes, but try to exercise some common sense and avoid being overambitious if you're in charge of making the food.

Instead of trying to make as many of the almost countless number of potential dishes as possible, pick a selection and focus on getting them right. A smaller number of tasty, well-prepared dishes will go down better than a huge volume of badly cooked food, and it'll be less stressful too. 

A handy list of recipes for Swedish julbord staples can be found on John Duxbury's Swedish Food website here. Simply pick your favourites from each category, and get cooking!


3. Solving the veggie dilemma

A traditional julbord can be unkind on vegetarians, so if you're either hosting a veggie and feel like being accommodating, or want to try making a more veggie-friendly julbord yourself, there are a few simple tricks that can make it easier.

Replacing sill is a tricky one, but pickling beetroot or apples is a decent alternative, and luckily we have a recipe for just that.

If you are in Sweden, some supermarkets stock ready-made vegetarian herring alternatives – look for mushroom (svill), or tofu-based alternatives (often named after the flavour of herring they are trying to replicate – such as skärgårdstofu or senapstofu).

READ ALSO: The history of Sweden's julbord

Similarly, most Swedish supermarkets carry a decent range of vegetarian sausages and meatballs.

If you want to have a go at a vegetarian alternative to julskinka or Christmas ham, try glazing a celeriac – see here for Rachel Khoo's recipe (in English).


4. The all-important drinks

Sweden does Christmas drinks well, and there's a wide range of options if you want to bring a bottle to a friend's. A simple start is to pack some glögg, but given everyone has probably been drinking that stuff for a month already, it may be worth branching out.

Dark beers like porters work well, and many Swedish brewers even brew their own special Christmas beer (julöl) which tends to be of the darker variety. If you don’t drink, there’s more and more non-alcoholic Christmas beer appearing every year, and some of them are surprisingly good, so keep your eyes peeled in the supermarket’s beer section.

Alternatively there’s svagdricka, a low-alcohol or alcohol-free malt drink that’s dark, sweet, and still made by a few breweries. A high-alcohol alternative is mumma, a sort of old-fashioned Swedish Christmas cocktail containing four different types of alcohol that can be bought at Systembolaget or made according to the simple recipe noted here.

Then there’s of course snaps and aquavit, which are consumed at Christmas just like pretty much every other Swedish party. Oh, and there’s also julmust, Sweden's Christmassy soda, which outsells Coca Cola in Sweden each winter.

Wine is usually not served at Swedish Christmas dinners.


5. The regional variations

Helpfully if you're keen on surprises, or worryingly if you're not, Swedish julbords rarely look exactly alike thanks to the strong regional variation involved in Christmas foods in the country, so prepare for a bit of the unexpected.

If you’re in Bohuslän you may be presented with “egg cheese” for example, which we detailed here, while in the south, a form of sweet fried cabbage called brunkål as well as smoked eel (luad ål) are popular. In the north, oven baked cheese dessert fatost is a specialty.

If you’re lucky enough to be on Gotland at Christmas meanwhile, you may be treated to saffron pancakes, though not in the familiar crepe style. The island's traditional Christmas dish is made by combining dessert rice, almond paste, eggs, flour, saffron and sliced almonds then baking in the oven before serving in squares. Tasty.


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