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.”

READ ALSO: How homesickness inspired this Indian's Swedish startup

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.

READ ALSO: Nine bizarre Swedish eating habits that confuse foreigners

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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.