Swedish has a number of “untranslatable words” which have become trends abroad, such as lagom (not too little, not too much) and fika (a coffee break).
I’d like to propose pålägg as the next one. It’s not particuarly fancy, and will probably not spark any articles in fashion magazines, but it is an extremely Swedish (or, arguably, Scandinavian) concept.
So what does it mean? Well, literally, it translates as “put-on” (på meaning “on” and lägg meaning “put” or “lie”), but it is the word used for the category of food eaten on top of bread.
Unlike in countries like for example the UK or Italy, where a sandwich or a tramezzino consist of at least two slices of bread with a filling, a Swedish smörgås or macka is usually an open slice of bread with some sort of pålägg. Many Swedes eat at least one macka a day at breakfast or as a snack (mellanmål – literally “between meal”), whether it’s a slice of cheese on white bread or hummus on wholegrain crispbread.
As a general rule, pålägg is something cold placed on a piece of bread or toast, which you should then be able to lift up and eat with your hands – so beans on toast (the British staple) or scrambled eggs are not considered pålägg. Cold, sliced boiled eggs are, however, pålägg, especially when eaten with Kalles kaviar (salted cod roe). One exception to this rule is Danish-style smörrebröd, which are usually eaten with cutlery as they are so piled high with pålägg that the bread underneath is completely hidden.
One common translation of pålägg is “spread”, which is partly correct – it can be used to mean spreads such as peanut butter, liver paté or cream cheese. Another word for spreads is röra, which, confusingly, can also be used as a pålägg (but not all pålägg can be used as röror – I know, it’s complicated).
The word pålägg also encapsulates cold cuts such as salami or ham, as well as sliced cheese, smashed avocado and even tinned mackerel in tomato sauce.
If you want to treat yourself, you could try chokladpålägg such as Nutella, or even get your hands on some Danish pålægschokolade – often sold in Swedish supermarkets – thin slices of milk or dark chocolate eaten on top of rye bread with tandsmør or “tooth butter”, a layer of butter so thick that you can see the markings left by your teeth in it once you take a bite.
The filling in a toastie (or grilled cheese sandwich, if you’re not British), is not pålägg, and neither are pizza toppings – most Swedes would refer to these as fyllning (“filling”), or in the case of pizza, pizzatopping.
Pålägg can also be used in a finance context, meaning “markup”. Markup is the difference between the wholesale price and resale price of a product, or the amount added to the total cost incurred by the producer of a good or service in order to cover the costs of doing business and create a profit.
In music, pålägg is the word for “layering” or “overdubbing”, a technique used by musicians to add extra recorded sounds to a previously recorded performance.
We hope this article has made your food shopping a bit easier, or will help you understand the breakfast buffet offered in Swedish hotels a bit better next time you visit.
Jag tror ägg och Kalles kaviar är det svenskaste smörgåspålägg som finns.
I think egg and Kalles caviar is the most Swedish bread topping you can find.
Man kan räkna ut pålägg i båda kronor och procent.
You can calculate markup both in kronor and in percent.
Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is available to order. Head to lysforlag.com/vvv to read more about it – or join The Local as a member and get your copy for free.