Learn more about traditional Swedish foods from native Swedes and families with strong Swedish heritage. Recipes are included so you can try them yourself!
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How to Enjoy Swedish Food
In Sweden, it isn’t just what you eat, but how you eat it. According to Swedish-born Jan Jonson, the best family meal times are social times. “A meal could take three hours,” he says.
The Swedish smörgåsbord embodies this leisurely, shared approach to eating. Favorite Swedish Recipes describes the smörgåsbord as an old country tradition where each guest would bring a food item to share. The food was then placed on a long table, and guests would serve themselves.
Image by David J
Fika is another Swedish food pastime. “Fika is basically getting together with friends for open-faced sandwiches, saft (water and a concentrate of juice), and tea, along with desserts sometimes” says Dee Wilhite.
Even the act of preparing Swedish meals at home is a social affair, often involving the entire family in the kitchen.
Have Some Swedish Fish (Not the Candy)
In some parts of the world, the phrase “Swedish fish” conjures images of a gummy, red candy. But actual fish dishes have been central to Swedish menus for centuries. The country has an extensive coastline and boasts numerous lakes and rivers, including the enormous inland Lake Vänern.
Jan and his family’s favorite foods include fish, especially salmon, found in the country’s cold rivers. However, his most memorable Swedish dish is the salted, sour, fermented herring, or surströmming. “It stinks up the whole house, your skin, your clothes, everything,” Jan notes. After moving to the United States, Jan’s parents would continue to order it from Sweden. “The can was bulging from the fermentation when it arrived.”
Sweden’s national website also mentions the infamously smelly surströmming. “The dish has become increasingly popular, even among gourmets. . . . A well-prepared fermented herring doesn’t taste the way it smells. On the contrary. The taste is simultaneously rounded and sharp, spicy and savoury.” You can buy it canned or make your own.
Popular Swedish Desserts
So strong is the Swedish sweet tooth that in the mid-1950s, health officials began advising Swedes to limit their consumption to once a week. Thus was born a tradition of “Saturday sweets.” However, decadent traditional desserts are still available year-round—and pretty much any time of the day or week in the country’s many bakeries.
Over 20 million servings of one dessert alone—semlor—are served every year in Sweden, especially on Shrove Tuesday and the weeks leading up to Lent. Dee describes semlor as traditional sweet rolls made with almond paste, powdered sugar, and milk and topped with whipped cream. According to the Jonsons, “Swedes love their cream and butter. They don’t sweeten the whipping cream, and they use a lot of it. Any dessert is lathered with whipping cream.”
Image by Steven Depolo
Chocolate is also a favorite ingredient in many Sweden desserts. Dee recommends Swedish sticky chocolate cake (kladdkaka), “a rich and gooey chocolate cake that is very common and amazingly delicious.”
In honor of the birth of the Swedish princess Märtha, a Princess cake (Prinsesstårta) takes center stage during the third week of September. Jan describes this treat as layers of cake with fresh fruit and jam, pastry cream, and stiffly whipped cream between the layers. The entire cake is then wrapped in marzipan. (Here’s a recipe from Swedish-raised chef Marcus Samuelsson.)
Other Swedish desserts are seasonal too. Cinnamon Bun Day in Sweden is October 4, a good day to try these yummy, spicy buns. During the month of December, saffron buns and gingersnaps appear in bakeries and home kitchens. There are many different occasions that can satisfy your Swedish sweet tooth.
If you haven’t found a Swedish food you’re eager to try yet, check out our favorites below. Connect with your Swedish heritage by cooking up some of these traditional recipes!
Swedish pancakes can be thin like crepes or made heartier with potatoes. However they’re made, they are definitely a staple.
Swedish Meatballs are a huge tradition in Sweden and can be bought from almost any local store. But you can also make them at home!
So popular are chocolate balls in Sweden that they have their own holiday. They are also great for any day you need a special treat.
Swedish potato pancakes can make a light or hearty meal. If you’re looking for crispy, buttery goodness, find it with raggmunk.
Many thanks to our writers and the Swedish families who donated recipes!
- Sunny Morton
- Glen and Debbie Greener
- Jan and Betty Jonson
- Dee Wilhite
- Rebecca Wood Haggard