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Fermented herring to taco Fridays - Sweden

Updated: Apr 8

"The backbone of Nordic cuisine comes from dealing with challenges" Rachel Khoo

Back to my foodie tour around the world with the third Scandinavian country - Sweden. Sweden is perhaps the major Scandinavian country in the world's eyes, although I'm sure that each of the others would bristle at the thought. They certainly have a large number of huge international companies, and a venerable artistic resumé. Food? Well are those IKEA meatballs really Sweden's national dish?

I will come back to the meatballs, but let's begin with herrings which I seem to remember my husband, who worked for Ericsson at the time, and visited Stockholm every now and then, said were a major feature of every meal.

I'm not quite sure what the position with herrings is at the moment. I know there have been 'economic' wars fought over them and that there has also been overfishing, but I think they are now probably recovering. In the past, however, herrings have been a staple food, as the short summers prevented long growing seasons.

Herrings were plentiful, but they too were seasonal and so they were preserved in many, many ways - the most notorious of which was surströmming - fermented herrings - in a weak salty brine - which are now canned but used to be buried in the ground. The smell is apparently horrendous, and so the can is always opened outdoors. I imagine a few people might like it, but not many. It's certainly not mentioned on many lists of Swedish dishes to try.

But there are lots more things you can do with herrings, particularly in the pickled area as the writer Dale Brown of the now vintage Time/Life The Cooking of Scandinavia tells:

"They ring a hundred tongue-prickling, mouth-watering changes on it through shifting combinations of white and red vinegars, salt and sugar, black and white pepper, powdered mustard, ginger, horse-radish, crushed mustard seed and allspice. And always they succeed in making it look beautiful by serving it with bracelets and chains of red and yellow sliced onion, sprinklings of parsley and chives, garnishes of whole bay leaf and cubes of carrot, grey-green capers and bright green feathers of dill, chopped hard-boiled eggs, hills and furrows of sour cream, scarlet cubes of beet and translucent slices of cucumber."

Of course you can also make your own Pickled herring and the website Swedish Spoon has a recipe. The herrings are usually served with Swedish crispbread called 'knäckerbröd', which in a manufactured form appears in our supermarkets as Ryvita. Traditionally, however, it does seem to have that hole in the middle.

Or serve, as the Skånska Sillaacademien - a pickled herring appreciation group says:

“A herring should swim three times — in the sea, in spirit vinegar, and in schnapps.”

Schnapps - by which I think they mean Aquavit, a herby vodka kind of drink which is tossed back in one go as shots on many, many occasions. At the beginning of this journey around Scandinavia I quoted Dale Brown as saying that "the Swedes eat to drink." And they certainly do drink. I remember going to a party at David's boss's home here in Melbourne, at which we all had to sing a song, and then everyone tossed back a shot after each rendition. Slightly weird and very alcoholic. I think David and I somehow avoided the number of shots that the Swedes indulged in.

The aquavit is flavoured with various spices, most notably caraway. Cardamom is another spice that is very heavily featured in Scandinavian cooking, and is said to have been first introduced into Scandinavia by the Vikings when they were trading with Istanbul.

Like the other Scandinavian countries other seafoods are also popular besides herring, most notably perhaps gravadlax - cured salmon - which we all now love, and which I often make at Christmas. Mind you I do not know which is the correct spelling - gravadlax, gravlax, gravalax, but assume it might be connected to whichever country you are in at the time. The process seems to be much the same in all of them, however, and dill, is always a feature.

When I was in my early twenties - in the sixties and seventies, all things Swedish were big and fashionable and one of the most famous of its institutions was the smörgasbord. The name means bread and butter table apparently although I do not think of it as containing much bread and butter, although, in England, anyway there would have been lots of open sandwiches, and lots of fish. Mostly herrings:

"though the herring may appear a dozen or more times on such a smörgasbord, it will never look, nor will it ever taste, exactly the same way twice." Dale Brown/Time/Life The Cooking of Scandinavia

I chose the rather wonderful example above from my vintage Time/Life book to illustrate, and where you will see that actually it contains more than just appetiser type open sandwiches. It includes main dishes as well, from which you pick and choose. I do not know but I suspect that this particular Swedish tradition is not as common these days - at least outside of Sweden. It's been replaced but mezze and antipasti I think.

Rachel Khoo - she of the Little Paris Kitchen, married a Swede back in 2015 and now lives there with husband and three children. She wrote a book on her Little Swedish Kitchen, and so I found an interview in which she spoke about Swedish food in the modern era:

"Growing produce in the Nordic region isn't easy. The short growing season obviously results in having less native produce available as a cook. That is limiting, but having restrictions also gives chefs and cooks a creative edge. You have to push yourself in the kitchen to come up with ways of preserving ingredients to last longer or finding ways of cooking the same ingredient so you end up with different results." Rachel Khoo/Visit Stockholm

She also said that, as well as particular recipes one had to bear in mind various concepts which encompassed an attitude rather than specific recipes. The first of these is 'fika' which she describes as "the idea of taking the time to have a coffee and a bun", and it wasn't just her mentioning this. Practically every article I found about Swedish food mentioned 'fika' and the most commonly mentioned goodies that were eaten were 'kanelbullar' cinnamon buns - flavoured with cinnamon and cardamom and 'semla' - a bun flavoured with almonds and lavishly topped with cream:

Lots of sugar here and apparently the Swedes are huge consumers of sugar - which doesn't really gel with that image of beautiful blonde, athletic looking people does it? Apparently in an effort to cut back, they now have Sweet Saturdays, trying to keep the consumption of things like this Princess Cake, to just one day in the week.

Traditional food - as in many countries around the world these days - often humble peasant food - has undergone a renaissance in Sweden. It is described as 'husmanskost' - home owner food, and, as its name suggests, is not peasant food in this instance, but more middle-class everyday food. There are now many restaurants that specialise in such foods.

Amongst which are some of the contenders for the title of national dish. Pytt i panna is a prime contender. It's a kind of leftover hash - well it began with leftovers, although now is often made with fresh ingredients. The version shown here is from Jamie Oliver of all people, who describes it thus:

"The one thing that seems to be consistent is that it usually involves using leftover meat and potatoes. The idea is to chop and slice all the ingredients into roughly 1–2cm cubes and add them to the pan as you go. So you're prepping and frying until everything is beautifully cooked."

And then traditionally you top it with an egg yolk which is stirred into the hash. Many seem to replace this with a fried egg.

Another contender are those Meatballs - these are Rachel Khoo's, which may have been tarted up a little but I think the fundamentals are all there - the meatballs themselves, mashed potatoes, a gravy - normally there is more gravy I think, and the lingonberry jam and cucumber - accompaniments to almost everything.

So a brief word about that lingonberry jam. I don't know if it is any different from any other Scandinavian lingonberry jam, but it is ubiquitous. It seems to appear on almost anything - sort of like our tomato sauce, and apparently rarely used as actual jam on a piece of toast. More of a condiment than a jam, and often made by housewives themselves, for, apparently the Swedes - great outdoorsy people, go out into the countryside to collect all manner of fresh berries to be turned into jams and sauces, or just eaten. Here, you can pop along to your local IKEA and pick up a jar there, or sometimes in Aldi.

Another 'husmanskost' dish is potato pancakes - 'raggmunk' which are served with bacon and the good old lingonberry jam, most usually, but could probably be served with all manner of other things or just on their own. Sometimes they are large as in this picture, sometimes small.

And whilst we are still on potatoes - a vegetable which saved 18th century Swedes from starvation, and which is now a favourite of the Swedes we have Jansson's temptation - a gratin of potatoes, or small salted herrings. This is Nigella's version.

My last dish in this category is not just a dish it's an occasion as well - Swedish yellow pea soup - Ärtsoppa. It's also a dish that many nominated as the national dish. The soup is thick and often includes smoked pork as in the recipe version from Kari Diehl of The Spruce Eats. The other two pictures illustrate that this dish is often served on Thursdays - they think because it is the day before Friday fasting and to improve the relative frugality of the soup it is always followed by pancakes 'pannkakor' with the inevitable lingonberry jam. The last photograph below is a modernised version from Adam Liaw of Pea soup and pancakes.


The pancakes themselves though - Swedish pancakes - plättar - these are from Nigella - are a top treat for the Swedes, and are almost always either rolled or folded and served with fruit of some kind.

The main thing to get from this particular dish, however, is that connection to a specific day, because I'm going to end with modern weird things and 'Fredagsmys' - 'Cosy Fridays' is the first. The idea is to snuggle up at home in your pyjamas or something equally comfortable in front of the television and eat fast food because Fridays are now Taco Fridays. Tacos! I'm not entirely sure why tacos, although Atlas Obscura has an article entitled How tacos became a Swedish tradition which sort of explains it, and on the Newbie Guide to Sweden website, the writer has his own explanation:

"From a way of eating to becoming a dish, tacos have again become a way of eating, a way of being together. It has regained its social dimension, a sense of community, and individuality combined." The Newbie Guide to Sweden

Note that there are lots of cucumbers in the tacos - apparently a common and very Swedish thing.

I couldn't resist one final, truly awful looking but modern, low level fusion dish which is apparently extraordinarily popular - Kebabpizza - for Sweden like all of Europe has a large number of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, and this dish is obviously a merger of Middle-Eastern, with Italian food which everyone in the world eats, and maybe with sour cream on top as a Swedish touch. Some people voted this as the new Swedish national dish. Maybe you should look at this article - Why do people think Swedish food is so bad? by Mike Li/Go Nature Trip for an explanation.

I doubt that Swedish food is that bad. It's a sophisticated and highly devoloped country with its fair share of Michelin starred chefs. It may well be simple food, but I'm guessing that home cooks probably do good things with them, and of course these days the Swedes are not limited by the food that their own country can produce. I suspect this may be a country in the throes of great change when it comes to choosing a national dish. But interesting that so many of those dishes seem to be connected to a particular day. Somewhat regimented - a bit like the Swedes.

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My recollection of Sweden and the Swedes is that they are all slim, speak perfect English (even the taxi drivers) and eat lots of fish, and drink enthusiastically which might explains that some are described as being very germanic, but without a sense of humour!

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