A glimpse into the traditional Swedish diet is both culturally and educationally enriching, providing an insight into the earliest food preservation methods. Read our guide for more facts and information on the traditional foods of this Scandinavian country…
Food traditions vary widely from one place to another due to many aspects such as climatic conditions, growing season, locally available food ingredients, and so on. In Sweden, the largest Scandinavian country, early inhabitants took into account the short growing season and limited transport availability and devised methods to stock supplies for the long winters. The traditional foods are still eaten today, demonstrating the lasting role of culture in cultivating food habits.
Impact of Sweden’s climate on traditional food habits
The weather conditions in Scandinavia is not quite favorable for year-round agriculture. Part of Sweden lies north of the Arctic Circle. The short growing season favors just about one crop a year. So, people had to adapt themselves in all possible ways to keep their food supply until the next harvest. During the long winters, it was difficult to feed cattle as well, so it was not possible to get milk in those seasons. Hence, traditional Swedish cooking was much about processing and preserving food. Preservation methods that were commonly used include fermentation, drying, salting and smoking. Fermentation, which is mainly used for milk was also used for fish because fermented fish required less salt when salting – salt was quite expensive in those days. Today, despite the availability of refrigerators and freezers, Swedes continue to use these methods to cure many foods, especially fish.
Staples in Swedish traditional foods
The most staple foods until the end of the 18th century were bread, carrots, turnips, onions, cabbages and dried yellow peas. Grains, milk, fish and meat were preserved when available. Potato became an important part of the meal after Swedes started cultivating them. Traditionally, Swedish diet included fish, cheese, bread and meat.
Wheat and barley have been cultivated in Sweden for the past several millennia, though wheat cultivation became substantial only in the 20th century. Barley was common in northern Sweden. Rye, used in southern and central Sweden, has been cultivated since 2,000 years, but became widespread only in the 16th century. Oats, used in the west coast, became common about 300 years ago. Barley and oats, which lack gluten, result in light-colored, thin and crisp bread, whereas Rye results in soft bread as it allows the dough to rise. The kind of mill used to grind the grain also determined the availability and quality of bread. In southern Sweden, windmills were used, allowing fresh bread baking every few weeks. However, in regions where watermills were used, bread baking was possible only twice a year, resulting in the invention of knäckebröd or Swedish crisp bread made from rye to last indefinitely when stored dry.
Milk was generally preserved and fermented to make filmjölk. In northern Sweden, germ culture was used to make a special type of fermented milk called långmjölk or “long” milk, which was less sour and could last for several months, provided it was tended regularly and washed with aquavit. In order to start a long milk culture, it was common to preserve it by dipping a linen or cotton cloth in the long milk and drying it. Fresh milk was given to children and sick people.
In the traditional Swedish diet, salted herring was among the most common dishes served with potatoes and bread. The Baltic Sea’s brackish waters are home to the strömming (Baltic herring). In the northern coast, fish was generally fermented to produce surströmming (sour Baltic herring). Sometimes, Baltic herring and salmon were served as fresh dishes rather than fermented.
Meat was generally preserved by salting, drying or smoking. Salted bacon called flask was a popular dish, fried and served in slices. Hunting deer and elk was permitted only for landowners while any one could hunt hares and birds. Meat was usually eaten on Sundays and Thursdays. It was common to serve yellow pea soup with pork called “ärtsoppa med flask” on Thursdays. The dish is still popular in Swedish restaurants.
The main seasoning ingredients were salt and pepper, which were imported and hence expensive. Onions, dill, parsley and horseradish were some of the indigenous ingredients used for seasoning. The most common beverage was water mixed with whey. Beer, considered a male drink, was consumed on special occasions. A kind of liquor called Brännvin was also common.
Open sandwiches, which consist of just one slice of bread, are popular in Sweden. The concept dates back to the 15th century when slabs of breads served as plates. The shrimp sandwich or räksmörgås is a popular seafood snack topped with egg slices, tomato, cucumber and lettuce.
Typical traditional Swedish diet
The traditional Swedish diet typically consists of three meals and at least one coffee break. Breakfast was light, followed by a beverage break, the main mid-day meal and a light evening meal. Breakfast includes bread, oatmeal porridge, cold cereal, cheese, potatoes, eggs, herring, fruit and open sandwiches. Cereal is served with fermented milk. The mid-day meal includes open-face sandwiches, bread, cheese, pea soup with briskets or hash, stuffed cabbage, mashed rutabaga and hamburger. The evening meal includes breads, cheese, seafood, potatoes, vegetables, pork and veal.
Bread, grey or yellow peas, gruel and porridge were common dishes, along with potato which debuted in the 19th century. Gruel and porridge were made from any kind of grain and were included in the daily menu. Dumplings made from potatoes and rye or barley flour were common and were served plain or with cheese or butter. Bread and dumplings were made with water or blood. Sausages made from blood were also common.
Special days for food delights
Among the many special days, Cinnamon Roll day or Kanelbullens dag is celebrated in October. The day before Ash Wednesday, called “Fat Tuesday” is reserved for semlor (bun filled with cream and almond paste). Swedes dedicate November 6th to honor a Swedish monarch Gultave Adolfs-bakelse, celebrating the day with creamy sponge cakes adorned with marzipan or chocolate silhouettes of the monarch. Christmas Eve is celebrated with the most lavish meal, which includes twenty to thirty different dishes.