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No doubt you’re probably familiar with Sweden’s world-famous meatballs, but there’s so much more to Swedish food than that.
From soft, crisp breads to tender, melt-in-mouth fish and meat from the mountains and forests, there’s a whirlwind of freshness and flavor in this unique Scandinavian cuisine.
So, under the guidance of a native writer, let’s take a culinary journey through the awe and beauty of Sweden, discovering 15 of its most delicious and traditional foods.
Popular & Traditional Swedish Food
1 – Köttbullar – Meatballs
Sweden’s national dish made worldwide famous in IKEA restaurants is a classic!
The recipe is simple and goes way back: minced pork or beef, onion, egg, milk, and breadcrumbs.
Mixed and fried in a generous amount of butter, it’s traditionally served with mashed potato, lingonberry jam, and brown cream sauce.
As with most Swedish food the meatballs are only lightly seasoned. Salt and pepper are generally considered enough.
The traditional meatball has a very important role in Swedish cuisine. It’s served both as an everyday meal and as special meals during the holidays. Christmas, Easter, Midsummer – the meatball will be there along with some other things on this list.
2 – Räkmacka – Shrimp Sandwich
Seafood is very popular in Sweden, especially on the west coast where fishing has a long tradition and history.
For many generations, fishing was the main occupation, and fish and seafood were an important part of the local diet. Today local fish and seafood are considered a delicacy.
Räkmacka is an open-faced sandwich, generally served on rye bread. It’s topped with lettuce, mayonnaise, egg, dill, caviar, and a generous amount of shrimp.
The sandwich serves both as an appetizer or as a main dish. Generally, the amount of shrimp on the sandwich tells quite a bit about the standard of the restaurant.
3 – Smulpaj – Crumble
Many Swedes enjoy gardening and during summer when we can finally harvest the fruit and berries from our hard work.
We love to use the fruit and berries for cooking and baking. Smulpaj is a summer favorite, and it’s made with whatever berries or fruits are in season.
The fruit or berries are placed on the bottom of the pie dish and are covered with a crumble made from butter, sugar, wheat flour, and oatmeal.
That makes a sweet crumble dough, which goes perfectly with the sourness from fruit and berries like rhubarb, raspberries, strawberries, or blueberries.
Later during the fall season, it’s also popular to make apple pie this way. The pie is preferably served warm with whipped cream or custard.
4 – Semla – Sweet Roll
Semla is so beloved it has its own day, called “fettisdagen” and celebrated every year in February.
This pastry consists of a simple wheat bun, flavored with cardamom. The top is cut off, and it’s filled with almond paste and whipped cream.
The history goes back to the middle ages when the original recipe was just the bun. Back then, it was a symbol of wealth (due to the high content of wheat flour).
The whipped cream has been a given part of the recipe since at least the 16th century, and the almond paste was added to the recipe approximately 300 years later in the 1850s.
It’s supposed to only be eaten on “fettisdagen”, but nowadays it’s so popular it’s available in bakeries from the end of Christmas throughout March.
Bakeries have in the past years also begun to make new interpretations of this classic, adding chocolate or nuts or serving them as wraps.
5 – Falukorv – Falu Sausage
Falukorv is a local sausage from the district of Dalarna, located in the middle of Sweden. It’s been served for a few centuries.
The reason it was produced in the first place brings us back to the 16th century and the Copper Mine in Falun.
Ox hide was used to make ropes and to make use of all the remaining meat they made sausages out of it. Today, the sausage consists of a mix of pork and veal, potato flour, onion, and salt.
It’s not considered to be a very fancy dish. People generally don’t serve it to their guests, and you rarely find it in restaurants.
Instead, it’s popular to serve it as an everyday meal. It’s generally baked in the oven or fried and served with macaroni or in a cream tomato sauce with rice.
6 – Ärtsoppa & Pannkakor – Pea Soup & Pancakes
Thursday for Swedes means Ärtsoppa & Pannkakor (Pea Soup and Pancakes) is served, and it’s been like this for as long as Swedes can remember.
There are various legends as to why Pea Soup and Pancakes are always served on Thursdays.
One theory is that Catholics in the middle ages made this dish on a Thursday to eat a filling meal before the Friday fast.
Another theory is that, given that maids used to have Thursday afternoons off, they would make it on Thursdays to save time as the soup was easy to prepare.
Regardless, the tradition lives on and pea soup is served on Thursdays in the military, in restaurants, and in schools.
The pea soup is made from dried yellow peas and pork broth, seasoned with thyme, and topped with salty pieces of pork and mustard. This is often served with a warm punsch drink.
For dessert, Pannkakor (pancakes) with jam are served.
7 – Sill – Pickled Herring
The herring is another historical dish with long traditions. Fish and seafood have always been an important part of Swedish cuisine.
Herring has been fished in southern Sweden for as long as we can remember. We have a history of conserving it in barrels with great amounts of salt or dry it so that it can either be sold and transported or saved for the winter.
Today the most popular way to prepare and serve the herring is to pickle it. After the pickling process, the fish is flavored before serving.
Various flavors are added, such as mustard, garlic, onion, herbs, and others.
Families and restaurants often have their own recipes and put a lot of pride in preparing and serving it.
It’s eaten all year round with potatoes, egg, sour cream, and crisp bread. And during holidays like Christmas, Easter, and Midsummer, the pickled herring will always have a special place.
8 – Smörgåstårta – Swedish Sandwich Cake
Smörgåstårta is Sweden’s number one feast meal. This is where we put everything we like on bread, in layers, and serve it as a cake.
There aren’t really any rules on what goes in the cake – you pick whatever you like or have available.
There are two classics: Smörgåstårta with salmon and seafood and Smörgåstårta with roast beef, ham, and cheese.
To avoid the cake being too dry, it’s filled with different things such as mayonnaise, egg, pate or creamy mixtures, and then decorated with meat and vegetables.
It might sound a bit weird, but it’s really good. It’s mainly served on festive occasions when many people are present and eager to eat, like parties, conferences, weddings, or graduation ceremonies.
You will also find it in cafés or in grocery stores where they are sold in smaller pieces.
9 – Blodpudding – Black Pudding
The Swedish name of this dish basically means “Blood Pudding”. It’s close to what it sounds like.
It’s made from pork blood, but it also contains milk, beer, rye flour, lard, syrup, and, often, raisins or apple pieces.
The old dish has been served for centuries and it’s still served in schools and restaurants. But due to its name, many are hesitant before eating it, and it’s not very that popular amongst children.
Truth be told, it tastes nothing like blood or even meat. It has a very sweet and spicy taste of clove, pepper, and marjoram. It’s served with bacon, lingonberry jam or syrup, and a glass of milk.
10 – Pytt i Panna – Pyttipanna Swedish Hash
This is a mix of ingredients that comes together well as a tasty and filling dish. It generally consists of potatoes, onion, and pork or beef. Other vegetables and meat can also be added if available; the rules aren’t that strict.
Everything is cut in small pieces and fried together in a big pan and served with fried egg, pickled beetroots and ketchup.
Traditionally, the dish is made from leftovers to make sure nothing’s going to waste. Today it’s more often made from fresh ingredients, especially when served in restaurants. However, you can also buy it frozen in the grocery store and fry it yourself.
Biff à la Rydberg is the more luxurious version of the dish. The ingredients are cut in bigger pieces, fried, and served separately with raw egg yolk on the top. This was served as a delicacy in one of the classiest hotels in Stockholm, Hotel Rydberg, for a while, over a hundred years ago.
11 – Kräftor – Crayfish
Ever heard of crayfish parties? Well, if you ever find yourself in Sweden during August, make sure to attend one.
The freshly-caught crayfish are boiled and seasoned with dill. The crayfish is then served whole and you must take the meat out of the tails and claws by yourself before you can eat. But that’s the whole appeal of crayfish parties – to sit down, relax and enjoy a long meal.
The crayfish is the centerpiece at these parties, but shrimp are also commonly served, as well as quiche and bread.
In the past, the crayfish was more commonly used as an ingredient in other dishes. It still is partially, but they are considered a delicacy, and now they are most commonly enjoyed as a main dish in itself.
12 – Surströmming – Sour Herring
This is by far the smelliest food you’ll ever try. We save it for the summer when we can serve it outside; that’s how bad the smell is. The tin must be opened outside or underwater to handle the smell. It gets its characteristic smell from fermentation as a part of the preserving process.
Despite being smelly, it’s a very traditional and popular dish, especially in northern Sweden. It even has its own day, which is the third Thursday in August.
Just like with other herring, we serve it with potatoes, sour cream, and crisp bread. You might find it in a few restaurants while in season, but you can buy a tin yourself in the grocery store.
13 – Ostkaka – Cheesecake
Not to be mistaken with the American cheesecake, the Swedish cheesecake is very different. The cake itself is sweet but very plain and therefore served lukewarm with whipped cream and jam.
There are two different kinds of Swedish cheesecakes with local heritage, one from Småland in the south and the other from Hälsingland in the north.
Both recipes contain milk, wheat flour, and rennet. But in the southern version, almonds, egg, cream, and sugar are added, leading to a slightly different texture.
Historically, the cheesecake used to be baked in copper pots, which left traces of copper in the cake. Therefore, guests were encouraged to begin to eat from the center of the cake. The edges with copper traces were left for the servants and the children.
This has led to the tradition of eating the cheesecake from the middle, even though they are no longer baked in copper pots.
14 – Kladdkaka – Mud Cake
This chocolate cake has gone from practically non-existent in Swedish cuisine to massive popularity in just a few decades.
Its quick popularity is likely due to its creamy texture and ease of making it. The goal is to preserve the batter, making it creamy, with a crispy exterior.
The main difference between the Mud Cake and other sponge cakes with similar ingredients is that baking soda is not used, which makes it creamier.
There’s a wide variety of recipes and you can find it anywhere in five-star restaurants, homemade and served with afternoon coffee, or on the go at your nearest 7/11.
The cake is good in itself, but if you want to make it even better, try it with some whipped cream. We’ll give the cake some extra love on its own day, which is on November 7.
15 – Frukost: Knäckebröd och Filmjölk – Breakfast: Crisp Bread and Filmjölk
Swedes prefer a light, quick breakfast like a sandwich, yogurt, or cereals. Some Swedish specialties are crisp bread and “filmjölk”.
Knäckebröd is a thin, crispy, hard bread baked with rye and was originally baked to last for a long time without going bad.
They are traditionally baked as large circles with a hole in the middle so it could be stored, hanging on long poles from the ceiling. It doesn’t have much flavor, so it’s eaten as an open-faced sandwich with toppings like cheese, ham, avocado, or maybe most significant, eggs and tube caviar.
Filmjölk, which is often combined with the crisp bread, is fermented milk that leaves it with a bit of sour taste. The texture is like yogurt, but a little less creamy. Because of its sourness, we top it with fruit, berries, cinnamon, jam, or cereals. The bacteria in filmjölk are very healthy and good for the stomach and digestion.
Swedish Food Summary
As with all the Scandanavian and Baltic cuisines, the innovation and resourcefulness of the people when it comes to food is humbling.
Pre-globalization, facing months of bleak, snowy winters, food was always far more than heritage and culture: it was a matter of survival.
In such circumstances, how so many fascinating and wholesome foods were prepared, fit to last for months, is truly mind-boggling.
Swedish food is packed with textures and fresh flavors. The fish from the lakes and the meat from the forests are so succulent and full of nutrients.
Then, you have a range of European influences, from French to Russian, that have made their way into the country’s foods since the Ottoman era.
All of these factors come together to create a cuisine that’s diverse, fresh, and truly delicious.
Whether you’re traveling to Sweden or bringing Swedish cooking into your own cooking, be sure to try as many of these dishes as possible.
Before we leave Sweden, there’s one final thing to do: take one final look at all the foods discovered in this article.
Be sure to keep this list of Swedish foods handy, so that you can find recipes or ask for them in Swedish bakeries and restaurants.
- Köttbullar – Meatballs
- Räkmacka – Shrimp Sandwich
- Smulpaj – Crumble
- Semla – Sweet Roll
- Falukorv – Falu Sausage
- Ärtsoppa & Pannkakor – Pea Soup & Pancakes
- Sill – Pickled Herring
- Smörgåstårta – Swedish Sandwich Cake
- Blodpudding – Black Pudding
- Pytt i Panna – Pyttipanna Swedish Hash
- Kräftor – Crayfish
- Surströmming – Sour Herring
- Ostkaka – Cheesecake
- Kladdkaka – Mud Cake
- Frukost: Knäckebröd och Filmjölk – Breakfast: Crisp Bread and Filmjölk
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Contributor: Carolina Fridh is a communications consultant and creative writer, hailing from Goteborg. She writes on a number of Swedish topics, including culture and cuisine.
Images licensed via Shutterstock