Known most of all for its stunning landscapes and colorful capital in Stockholm, Sweden is not the first place you might associate with mouth-watering cuisine. However, in recent years, the country has been gaining traction as a foodie destination in its own right. Cue this guide to Swedish food culture; a 101 for anyone interested in tasting their way through the backbone of Scandinavia.
Nordic cuisine has enjoyed widespread recognition with fine-dining fans thanks to the advent of New Nordic in recent years. That’s given rise to several new Michelin-starred restaurants in the capital and beyond. We’re talking about places like Ekstedt, which offers a full tasting menu based on only seasonal ingredients, all cooked over a roaring open fire.
But, don’t worry, if your pockets aren’t quite deep enough for haute stuff. There are plenty of other great ways to appreciate Swedish food culture without breaking the bank. This list of 11 must-try dishes should help give a full picture of the nuances and history of the region’s kitchen, not to mention keep you full as you explore the royal palaces and the vast woodland reserves of this fantastic nation.
Köttbullar – meatballs
If you’ve ever had to purchase flat-pack furniture, the chances are that you’ll have already sampled köttbullar. Served at IKEAs worldwide, this iconic dish is possibly the only one to have found widespread fame outside of Sweden itself. However, the dish takes on a whole new meaning when served in its home country. It can easily be found in most typical Swedish restaurants, and every household has their own family recipe.
Köttbullar is far tastier when made from scratch, with the meatballs lovingly created using ground pork, milk, breadcrumbs, egg, and onion. The meatballs are then served with a thick brown gravy, lingonberry jam, and mashed potatoes. Lingonberries are small red berries native to the northern hemisphere. Once preserved with sugar, they are considered an essential accompaniment to many Swedish dishes, and can easily be found fresh in harvest season throughout the country.
Smulpaj – fruit Crumble
Smulpaj is a heart-warming Swedish dessert similar to a crumble. It is made using stewed, seasonal fruit such as apples, rhubarb or bilberries, and topped with a sweet, tasty crumb. Swedes love foraging for wild berries for the freshest result, especially during te height of the summer and in the fall, when the berry bushes are at their most generous.
The topping of a smulpaj is made from butter mixed with sugar, wheat flour, and oatmeal, while the dish is often served with a decadent dollop of vanilla-flavored cream. The tart fruit always pairs perfectly with the bity crumb topping, and is all the tastier when made with locally foraged fruit. You’ll find this dish on dessert menus in traditional restaurants across the country, although it’s always best when cooked at home!
Toast Skagen – prawns on toast
Often said to represent the true elegance of Swedish cuisine, Toast Skagen was created by a famous restauranteur called Tore Wretman after the Second World War. The story goes that Wretman was looking for a dish that combined the old traditions and simplicity of Swedish cooking but brought a new air of elegance and refinement to the whole process. Thus, this seafood cocktail on toast was born.
It consists of prawns, mixed with mayonnaise, gräddfil (a dairy product that’s similar to sour cream), and seasoning. Some also choose to add a little punch of flavor with some grated horseradish, tabasco, chili, or even brandy. It is served on toasted or sautéed bread, often sourdough, and garnished with dill and a slice of lemon. In more upmarket restaurants, you may even find your toast Skagen topped with a dollop of caviar.
Gravlax – smoked salmon
Gravlax isn’t just one of the mainstay dishes in Swedish food culture. It’s a mainstay dish of all of Nordic food culture. Yep, you’ll find this one served up in aperitif cafes and even for breakfast, from Stockholm all the way to Reykjavik and Oslo in between.
It’s simple enough: A fresh Scandinavian salmon is cured with salt and herbs and then lightly smoked over natural wood. Then, it’s thinly sliced (the thinner the better) and laid out on a platter of seafood carpaccio, topped with fresh dill, and sprinkled with salt and pepper. Easy.
Swedish versions of gravlax are usually accompanied by a zingy, vinegary sauce that brims with herbs and mustard. It’s known, appropriately, as gravlaxsås (literally: sauce of the gravlax). Outside of Sweden, smoked salmon is seen as something of a delicacy. It can be pricy and is usually served as a nibble in cocktail parties and whatnot.
Pitepalt – filled potato dumplings
Sweden’s answer to gnocchi or dumplings, Pitepalt is a dish with traditional roots. It hails from a region called Piteå, where every household has their own take on this classic comfort food – in fact, it’s said that there are more recipes for the dish than there are people in the region!
It is made using grated potatoes mixed with barley or wheat flour. The dough mix is then rolled into balls before each one is filled with the chef’s choice of meat – often beef, pork, or bacon. Once the filling has been poked inside, the hole is filled with more dough to prevent leakage and the balls are placed in a pot of boiling water to cook. Once cooked, Pitepalt is typically served with butter and a sweet and sticky lingonberry jam.
Don’t be put off if you’ve tried to make these dumpling balls at home and failed. There’s a knack to it that’s not easy to master. The best way is to try and try again. Or, like us, scratch that and head to one of the taverns of Piteå up in the icy depths of the Gulf of Bothnia.
Ärtsoppa & pannkakor – pea soup & pancakes
A strangely satisfying Swedish tradition, Ärtsoppa & Pannkakor is usually served on a Thursday. No one really knows why it’s customary to have pea soup and pancakes on the penultimate day of the working week, but the tradition is upheld in schools and restaurants nonetheless. Hey, we’re not complaining!
The dish consists of a thick soup made with yellow peas and pork broth, topped with a few sprigs of thyme and perhaps a dollop of brown mustard. The winter warmer is then followed by thin, crispy crepes, served with whipped cream and berry jam. The odd yet delicious combination is usually very affordable and can be found on restaurant menus throughout the country.
Sill – pickled herring
Fish and seafood have always played an important role in Sweden’s national cuisine, which is hardly surprising when you consider the abundance of lakes and long, long coastline here. On top of that, food in Sweden has historically been preserved to help settlers make it through long, harsh winters. And that’s where the sill comes in…
Despite fresh food now being freely available all year round, pickled herring remains a familiar favorite for many Swedes. It is often pickled with mustard, garlic, and herbs, for an additional depth of flavor, and is eaten all year round with potatoes or crispbread.
There is always space on the plate for pickled herring during holidays such as Christmas and Easter. You’ll often see it served in restaurants as an appetizer, or you can easily pick up a jar in the supermarket to bring home. Simple but authentic.
Kanelbullar – cinnamon bun
Sold at every bakery, supermarket, and café across the country, Kanelbullar is Sweden’s take on the classic cinnamon bun. The recipe involves creating a sweet, yeasty dough with a touch of ground cardamom. A filling made with butter, sugar, vanilla is spread over the dough after it has been left to rise and rolled out. The buns can then be shaped into twisty swirls or tied up in knots before a second rise and baking in the oven.
Unlike the popular American version, these cinnamon buns are topped with pearled sugar rather than a sticky white glaze, lending an irresistible crunch that keeps you coming back for more. The cardamom also gives these buns an intriguing depth of flavor you won’t find anywhere else. Have one with your morning coffee for the full Swedish experience.
Raggmunk – potato pancake
A great comfort food for the winter months, Raggmunk is a long-time favorite for most Swedes. Part potato, part pancake, the dish is normally served alongside fried pork and of course, lingonberries. The golden goodness is created with grated potatoes and classic pancake batter, mixed together, and then fried in butter or oil until brown and crispy. Some people also like to add garlic, onions, or herbs to the batter.
You can find it in eateries across Sweden, although it is more commonly served in winter than summer. The origins of the dish itself are probably somewhere in the Baltic region, as you find potato pancakes are served in many other neighboring countries just across the seas – Poland, Latvia, Lithuania.
Falukorv – Swedish sausage
Germany has the bratwurst, Poland has the kielbasa, Italy has the salami. Sweden’s entry to the sausage party – what, why are you laughing? – is the humble Falukorv. A filling comfort food that’s often the main rival to meatballs on midwinter weekday nights, it’s a smooth ring sausage that’s packed with pork, veal, or beef and then ground together with potato starch and paprika.
The real art here is in the preparation and the serving. Traditionally, that involves slicing a whole Falukorv into inch-long sections, bending it whole around a plate and garnishing it with rings of red onion, smoked cheese, chili sauce, and mustard. Bake that so the dairy melts and binds the whole thing together, while prepping a mash of potato and peas to sit in the middle.
It’s thought that Falukorv itself was brought to Sweden by German miners who worked up in the copper shafts of Falun, deep in the mineral-rich heart of the country. The product now enjoys Traditional Specialty Guaranteed (TSG) status in the EU, which means anyone looking to make one has to follow strict rules and processes.
Smörgåstårta – Swedish sandwich cake
Celebrating a special occasion on your trip to Sweden? You need a Smörgåstårta! It’s the perfect marriage between sandwiches and cake. It’s made with layers of bread and filling all stacked together to form one large set of laters, which is then decorated with additional meat, seafood, or filling. The whole thing is then sliced up and served just as you would any regular cake.
There are no set fillings, although salmon and prawns are popular, as is a meat version made with roast beef, ham, and cheese. It is usually served at big family gatherings such as parties or weddings, however, you can also find it in grocery stores. Some cafés even serve smaller slices so you can get a taste of this strange Swedish specialty without committing to the full thing.
What are traditional Swedish foods?
There are lots of traditional Swedish foods but pickled herring and meatballs are among the most commonly consumed. Bread and sandwiches are eternally popular with Swedes, in many forms, such as Smörgåstårta and Toast Skagen detailed above. Due to the many lakes and vast coastline, a typical Swedish diet consists of lots of fish and seafood, along with hearty meat dishes such as Kalops – a slow-cooked beef stew.
What is a typical breakfast in Sweden?
A typical breakfast in Sweden usually consists of smörgås, which is a type of open sandwich made with bread, butter, and cheese. Many people choose to add additional toppings such as gurka (cucumber), tomat (tomato), and skinka (ham). Regular bread may also be exchanged for a crispbread known as knäckebröd, while adding cold cuts, caviar and messmör (a sweet Norwegian spread made from whey) is not uncommon either. Muesli is another popular choice for breakfast, often served with filmjölk (fermented milk/buttermilk) or yogurt, and all washed down with juice, tea, or coffee – the Swedes have GREAT coffee!
What is Sweden famous for in food?
Sweden’s most iconic dish has got to be Köttbullar (meatballs), made famous by a certain flat-pack furniture brand (Clue: We mean IKEA). Served with gravy, lingonberry jam, and mashed potatoes, the meal is also Sweden’s national dish and is particularly popular with children. Sweden is also famous for its fish, exporting huge quantities of dried, salted, and smoked seafood from the prolific waters of the Baltic Sea.