How spices have connected Sweden and India since the Viking Age

Come winter and the bouquet of cinnamon, cardamom and clove fill the air, as market stalls warm a fresh batch of glögg for a steady stream of revellers. For most, the spice-enhanced wine offers a warm comfort against the biting cold. For me, the aroma is a reminder of my home country, India.

How spices have connected Sweden and India since the Viking Age
Spices have linked Sweden and India together for centuries. Photo: Leif R Jansson/TT

To a Scandinavian, cinnamon, cardamom, clove, pepper, saffron and ginger are intrinsic to their all-time favourite recipes, handed down from one generation to the next. For an Indian, they are so close to the flavours back home that I cannot help but wonder, just how did they become a part of Scandinavian food culture?

“I have a feeling the spices came into Scandinavia through the great ports of the Baltics,” says Coleen Taylor Sen, an authority on Indian food and author of several cookbooks.

“Yeah, we use a lot of it,” says Claus Meyer, celebrity chef and founder of the Neo Nordic Food Manifesto, on his visit to India.

“I think because the Danish sailors were travelling to the Indian Ocean and they brought back spices from the East. From as far back as the Viking Age and The Middle Ages, we have been using ginger, cardamom, clove, coriander, cinnamon and cumin in our food,” Meyer adds.

“Even today when we do a marinade for herring or we pickle vegetables, or we do mulled wine for Christmas and when we make cookies, all these spices seem to be part of our food culture.”

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Spices and their flavours have been at the centre of trade and cultural exchanges for over a thousand years. The ancient spice trade between India and Constantinople and between China, the Asian Spice Islands, North East Africa and Southern Europe, via land and sea, is well documented. History has it that the Romans loved Indian pepper so much that they paid for it in gold.

“Around the Middle Ages, rich Swedes were using spices, called garam masala in India, as a way to differentiate themselves from the working class. Spices were the luxury of the rich and their homes would smell of spices,” says Sanjoo Malhotra, the co-founder of Tasting India symposium and a culinary expert who holds cooking classes to introduce Indian flavours into Nordic palates.

It is also believed that the Vikings chanced upon cardamom, another spice native to India, via the Venetian route and their descendants have been using it in their breads and desserts ever since.

Centuries later, these spices continue to find a pride of place in Scandinavian kitchens. Cardamom and cinnamon buns, spiced breads, and rice porridge with cinnamon sugar are all popular treats in Sweden. Perhaps the Scandinavians are the only Europeans to use cardamom in their desserts as much as the Indians do.

The only difference is that in India spices such as cardamom, cinnamon and saffron are also used in savoury preparations such as meat-based curries and rice. Pepper is another popular spice that is grown in the South of India, used as a preservative and a flavouring agent for meats in Sweden.

While traditionally they were the symbol of the rich and the nobility, spices entered the imagination of a larger population base in the 1920s through cookbooks coming in from the UK. For example, Curry-höns or 'the curry chicken', a Sunday favourite in Swedish homes, is similar to the British Sunday roast but uses a lot of Indian spices.

Much of the credit for popularizing Indian spices also goes to King Gustav VI of Sweden.

“He used to love Indian food and his favourite restaurant was Veeraswamy in London. Whenever he was at Veeraswamy he would always have the spicy Duck Vindaloo with his beer. So the story goes that it was the Swedish king who first helped pair Indian food with beer,” says Malhotra.

It is no secret that Indians love their spices, and many take their family's own spice blend with them when they move out of India. But when it comes to appreciation of spices, the Swedes are not far behind. And with the vegan movement catching on and several Swedes turning vegetarian out of concern for the climate, the discovery of new combinations of spices and their pairing with plant-based foods promises looks to be stronger than ever.

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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.