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.
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.)
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!
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?
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.
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.