5 Quintessential Swedish Foods You’ll Never Find in a Cookbook

Food is a way of getting to know a country, its people and its history. By learning about typical Swedish cuisine, for example, you’ll learn about the importance of the sea, the different flora and fauna of different regions, and the inventiveness of the Swedish people as they came up with different methods for coping with the long, hard winters.

To learn about a country’s food culture, historians and anthropologists might comb through cookbooks, interview chefs, and examine grocery store aisles. But what about the quintessential Swedish foods that would never show up on a restaurant menu or in a cookbook? Those have to be at least as important, if not more.

Welcome to the freak show tour of Swedish food: the foods that hardly ever see the light of day, and yet are undeniably Swedish.

1. Macaroni and Ketchup

Thanks to Ikea and the Swedish Chef, everyone knows about Swedish meatballs. Something that most foreigners  don’t know, however, is that there are high class meatballs and low class meatballs, much like the United States and hamburgers.

Low class meatballs are a weeknight standby in our household and many others; you buy them frozen at the grocery store and fry them up on those evenings when you want to spend less than 15 minutes on dinner.

Brace yourself now, because the information you’re about to receive may shock and appall you.

The most common accompaniment to low class meatballs is macaroni and ketchup. (High class meatballs get lingonberries and potatoes.) Make the macaroni, serve the meatballs on the side, and slather the whole thing in crazy amounts of ketchup.

If this doesn’t constitute pasta sacrilege, I don’t know what does. Ketchup. And. Pasta. Ketchup and pasta! It’s a travesty.

To cope with the stress of the situation, I draw a firm boundary between my meatballs and the pasta OVER WHICH NO KETCHUP MAY CROSS, much like the DMZ between North and South Korea. They may share the same plate, but there will be no diplomatic relationships.

If this is a match made in heaven, I don't want to go. Photo: Kate Reuterswärd

2. Swedish Tacos

Ahh, tacos. Growing up in the Midwest, taco night meant an evening of enjoying the simple pleasures offered by the magical combination of tortilla shells, ground meat, tomatoes, cheese, a spice packet of questionable authenticity, and salsa.

Here in Sweden, taco night also holds a special place in the heart of Swedes. Apparently there was a marketing campaign a few years ago that was pushing the idea of Taco Fridays. It was an immense success, and “Tex Mex Products” now occupies entire sections of Swedish grocery stores.

So here’s what a Swedish taco looks like: hard or soft shell, just like in the US, the spice packet of questionable authenticity, ground meat, and tomatoes. Plus cheese, although it’s most likely Gouda here, because Cheddar and Pepper jack are nonexistent. Then it’s canned corn, which is a maverick move, but ok, and the final touch is… cucumber.

That’s right. Just slice and quarter up a cucumber, which, as far as I can tell, doesn’t even grow in Mexico, and throw it on top. If you’re really edgy, you might even add some canned pineapple to the mix.

Move over, Tex Mex. Swede Mex is the new black. (Or not.)

Not that being from the US makes me the arbiter of authentic Mexican food or anything, but Swedish tacos are... interesting. Photos: Kate Reuterswärd

3. Open face crisp bread sandwiches, especially the one with leverpastej and pickles

People here love their crisp bread (the halfway point between bread and crackers, like Wasa crackers and Finn Crisps). They can be breakfast, lunch, or snack, topped with anything your heart desires, from cheese and jam to eggs and caviar to my new personal favorite, leverpastej.

Leverpastej is a lot like French pâté, but based on pork liver and lard instead of duck liver. You can see how it’s made here, although it probably won’t make you want to try it. Basically it’s like this very thick, spreadable liver paste that is traditionally served with pickle rounds on top.

I didn’t get around to trying it until recently, but it’s just weird enough to me that the entire time I’m eating it, I’m thinking to myself: “I like this, I know I do, but why? Why do I like this? Maybe this is actually really gross, and I’m only two more bites away from realizing it. Hmm.”  

I was pretty proud of myself for liking it and was feeling very much the proper little Swede until I shared my sandwich combination with my friends. Apparently even thoughleverpastej and pickles is really normal and delicious, leverpastej and cheese is the strangest, most disgusting-sounding combination in the world.

What can I say? I’m a foreigner! No one taught me how to make my leverpastej crisp bread sandwiches!

My infidel leverpastej on Wasa crackers. Photo: Kate Reuterswärd

4. Bulle med Bulle (“Bulle with Bulle”)

All the Stockholm-affiliated readers are going to get all worked up about the food item they don’t think is real, but don’t listen to them. This is a real thing.

In the Landskrona/Helsingborg area, there is a truly spectacular snack sensation called Bulle med Bulle, which is (as my sources tell me) most frequently served to children as a snack in daycare.

To make a Bulle med Bulle, you take a bulle (a bread roll) and cut it in half. Then you take a bulle (a coconut-covered chocolate ball), and place it inside. Reunite the two halves of bread, then flatten the whole thing with the palm of your hand. There you have it: Bulle with Bulle!

If this sounds weird, well, you’re probably right. But if you think about it, how different is it from spreading nutella on a piece of toast?

Bulle med Bulle. Photos: Kate Reutersward

5. Turkish Pepper Shots

As I’ve said before, salt licorice is a serious menace in the otherwise heavenly world of Swedish candy. Just imagine peppery black licorice made even more loathsome by being coated in a cloud of salt-like dust. EW. I shudder just thinking about it.

Salt licorice is a multifaceted little scourge, however, and Turkish Pepper Shots is the perfect illustration of its versatility. Take a bottle of clean-tasting vodka and drop a few Turkish Pepper candies to the bottom. (It’s a hard candy variation of salt licorice.) Put the concoction away for about a day, and the salt licorice will dissolve into the vodka, making a salty-spicy licorice infused vodka most often taken as shots.

TURKISH PEPPER! Photo: Kate Reutersward

I have to admit, even though I hate the candy, I kind of liked it in vodka form… but a little goes a long way.

  • Anonymous

    Ahhh, Northern European Tex-Mex. An exotic cuisine.

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      Can’t believe you didn’t comment on the Turkish Pepper Shots. You were almost the illustration for that particular item…

  • http://twitter.com/AnnicaSE Annica

    Tacos with veggies, pineapple and banana (!) are delicious.

    People eat pasta with ketchup here and I thought people did that everywhere. o_O How do you eat ketchup in the US?

    (Pardon my English…)

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      Ketchup is a beloved condiment in the US, but you’ll find it most often on hamburgers, hot dogs, and french fries. After that, there’s a fanatical group that puts it on their eggs and hash browns for breakfast, and then the even smaller fringe group that will put it on everything. But not on pasta, at least not that I’ve ever seen!

      • Emma

        I remember the horror I felt when I first saw my Swedish fiancée slathering ketchup onto his macaroni and meatballs. Worse yet, I now see it as a perfectly normal choice of food if you’re feeling lazy. Think I may have been here too long… not sure what the family would say if I dared to serve it up back in the UK. :)

  • http://twitter.com/ninino86 Anna Lerneryd

    Im swedish. would never put pineapple on my taco, but yes I do put cucumber on it. I am also sad to say that I had pasta and meatballs last night. But just a little ketchup on the side. (she said with her head hanging, slightly guilty) ;)

  • Lizardek

    hahahah! this cracked me up. Agree with you 100% on the NO KETCHUP ON PASTA rule!

  • Axel

    Bulle med Bulle? Served to children?
    No Swede could be responsible for such a horror! It feels So… so filthy?
    Mmmm, filthy delicious…

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      Haha it’s true! It’s those Helsingborg-ers! Culinary rebels, I tell you.

  • Monica-USA

    Very interesting food choices!! Yep love my Mac N Cheese with ketchup as well it is the only way to go. You can also make what my family calls Taco Salad. Which is tortilla potato chips(like Doritos chips) and your ground meat with the taco seasoning and then cheese and lettuce and tomato and black olives with sour cream and eat it that way. It is great for the Summer very light but filling.

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      Oh, and the elementary school classic… walking tacos! All the taco fillings shoveled into a Doritos bag on top of the Doritos. Can’t believe that was legal!

  • Pingback: 5 Quintessential Swedish Foods You’ll Never Find in a Cookbook | TheCanaryNews | Scoop.it

  • Niklas

    Not a big fan of macaroni and ketchup myself. But it you want to talk about strange choices, everybody in my family except myself insist on putting lingonberry jam on their boiled rice. Now there’s a combination to fear. *shudders*

    Also, this is my first comment here, but I’ve been following your blog since early January. Great stuff, always manages to put a smile on my face.

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      Hi Niklas! Thanks so much for commenting, I’m glad to hear that you’ve been enjoying the blog! Lingonberry and rice… that’s one I haven’t heard before. Wow! I wonder where that started.

      Thanks again for reading!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Linus-Andersson/523774354 Linus Andersson

    If we’re going to talk about frankenstein food combinations, let’s adress the peanutbutter and jelly sandwich for a moment. Peanutbutter and jelly do not belong together any more than strawberries and lard, which I assume you eat as well?

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      NO! Denied. Peanut butter and jelly = food of the gods. Obviousssssssly! :)

    • Monica-USA

      Peanut butter and jelly is an American staple!!! So yummy!!!

  • Claes

    Kate, I think you can find Swedish crisp bread in most grocery stores here in US. And many of them also have Braunschweiger Liverwurst, which is basically the same as leverpastej. And Pickles… Well those are plenty here. So now everyone can get aquainted with that specific Swedish delicacy!

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      MMM, fantastic!

  • http://twitter.com/palespectre flipside of amemory

    Macaroni and Ketchup doesn’t sound so weird to me because the Philippine version of a Spaghetti has ketchup along with tomato sauce in it. (There are also hotdogs in it hehe). The taco seems interesting, and is Leverpastej somewhat like liverwurst? It looks kinda good. Maybe it’s because I am Asian, these don’t seem weird to me at all haha.

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      I think the leverpastej is a lot like liverwurst. I think it’s good! And apparently very healthy for you… lots of iron!

  • Ida

    I come from outside Helsingborg and have indeed eaten bulle med bulle – BUT I can assure you that this is a contraband snack, never ever served by parents/childminders of any kind. It was the kind of thing we snuck out to buy when we hated the food at school (so… a lot, basically). We didn’t even LIKE it that much, it was more of a “cool” thing to do. In the obvious, trashy kind of way. And we knew it.

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      Ok! I can totally understand that. Although I would certainly not look down on parents who give this to their children every now and then… I grew up with Hostess snacks. We all have our own versions of sugar/carb-heavy children’s snacks!

  • Kristl Huffman

    Ketchup on pasta? No no no… again, I say NO!
    I dated a Finn who’s mother made spaghetti once, and being the good Italian-bloodstock that I am, made sure to have an extra large helping…… which I promptly regretted, because the sauce was SWEET. SWEET!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Why, you may ask? Because she put KETCHUP in it. I thought at the time that it was just odd, and she did not know better (obviously!) but now, Kate, I am thinking that it is the fault of the Swedes. How can they go soooo wrong!? :P

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      I don’t know how or where this started, but it is a travesty! A travesty, I tell you! I nearly had a heart attack the first time I saw Simon adding a good old squeeze to his bolognese sauce. ICK! And to think that they’ve spread it to the Finns… oh, the humanity!

      • Anonymous

        As a Swede, I’m baffled. What else would you use ketchup for if not pasta?

        • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

          Haha hmm… yes. I understand your bewilderment, but I think you and the Finns stand alone on this point!

          Some Americans eat ketchup on eggs, too, although I’m not one of them. We also use it in sloppy joes and barbecue sauce, but we don’t love ketchup nearly as much as you would think!

          Sidenote — ketchup on fries, heavenly. We don’t eat mayo on our fries though. Is that a Swedish thing or just a Dutch/Belgian quirk?

          • Anonymous

            Ketchup on EGGS!? That’s beyond bizarre.

            I don’t personally eat fries. I’ve seen lots of people eat them with ketchup, but never with mayo.

            That reminds me — I just recently learned that many Americans find it weird to have butter on a meat sandwich (which seems entirely normal to me).

  • Donna88

    Super funny!! Your blog always makes me laugh!

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      Thank you! :)

  • Emma

    I also like the combination of leverpastej and cheese and I also use to put Hushålls med-wurst (A flat round sausage). Every one in my family think it weird but I really like the combination. =)

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      Ooh, I’ve never had that kind of sausage. Will have to keep my eyes open for it!

      • Emma

        You really should =) If you search for Hushållsmedwurst on google you can see pictures on the package.

  • Troycharles

    I live in Canada (Ontario) and eating macaroni and cheese with ketchup is very common here. Most people I know put it on, the main type of macaroni eaten though is kraft macaroni and cheese (kraft dinner), almost every household has a couple boxes in the cupboard.

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      Kraft Mac and Cheese is an American staple, too, although the ketchup must not have made it over the border. Very interesting to hear from people where this is totally normal and where it’s totally unthinkable! Thanks for stopping by. :)

  • http://laperm.wordpress.com/ kristerP

    Haha – although from Skåne myself , – I only heard about this “bulle i bulle” thing the other day, could be a northern Skåne thing (being from the very south myself).