Sweden has come a long way from the days of beige-on-beige fish and potato platters. Not only has immigration and EU influence introduced new flavours to the Swedish menu, a wave of bold young chefs has been experimenting with traditional Swedish fare and melding it with various other influences. The result is a vibrant dining scene on par with some of the best food destinations in Europe.

Classic Cuisine

Traditional Swedish cuisine is based on simple, everyday dishes known generally as husmanskost (basic home cooking). The most famous example of this, naturally, is Swedish meatballs. Other classic husmanskost dishes, largely built around seafood and potatoes, include various forms of pickled and fried herring, cured salmon, shrimp, roe and pytt i panna (potato hash served with sliced beets and a fried egg on top), which may be the ultimate comfort food. Open-face shrimp sandwiches are everywhere, piled high with varying degrees of art. The most thorough introduction to all the staples of Swedish cooking is the smörgåsbord, commonly available during the winter holidays.

One speciality food that not many visitors (and not all that many Swedes, either) take to immediately is surströmming. It’s a canned, fermented Baltic herring opened and consumed ritually once a year, during late August and early September. It may be wrapped in tunnbröd (soft, thin, unleavened bread like a tortilla) with boiled potato, onions and other condiments, all washed down with ample amounts of snaps (a distilled alcoholic beverage, such as vodka or aquavit). Surströmming may be an acquired taste, but it has a legion of hard-core fans, mostly in northern Sweden. It even boasts its own festival in the village of Alfta. Cans of it make excellent souvenirs, as long as you wrap them well to avoid the truly nightmarish possibility of a leak into your suitcase. (And check with your airline first – flying with surströmming is not always allowed.)

The prevalence of preserved grub harks back to a time when Swedes had little choice but to store their spring and summer harvests for the long, icy winter. The landscape similarly influences menus in various parts of the country; you’ll find regional specialities wherever you travel, from Västerbotten pie to saffron pancakes (both delicious!).

Wild game features strongly in Swedish cuisine, particularly in the northern part of the country. Traditional Sami cooking relies heavily on reindeer, whether cured, dried, roasted or preserved as sausage or jerky. Elk and moose are also fairly common. Particularly in Sami cooking, game is often served with rich sauces that incorporate wild berries.

Other northern specialities include ripa (ptarmigan) and Arctic char, a cousin of salmon and trout. The mild-flavoured char makes a seasonal appearance on menus all over Sweden in summer, and is absolutely worth a try, especially for the various inventive methods of preparing it. A chefs' favourite, the sturdy fish is a blank canvas that can handle all kinds of interesting treatments.

Speaking of berries, another uniquely Scandinavian taste is that of the hjortron (cloudberry). These grow in the marshes of Norrland and look a bit like pale raspberries, but their flavour is almost other-worldly, and Swedes consider them a delicacy. They’re often served as a warm sauce over ice cream. If they strike your fancy, you'll find any number of places selling jars of cloudberry jam to take home. (There's also a sweet hjortron liqueur.)

Other traditional foods worth trying include toast skagen (toast with bleak roe, crème fraiche and chopped red onion), the classic köttbullar och potatis (meatballs and potatoes, usually served with lingonberry jam, known as lingonsylt), and nässelsoppa (nettle soup, traditionally served with hard-boiled eggs). Pea soup and pancakes are traditionally served on Thursday. Seafood staples include caviar, gravad or rimmad lax (cured salmon), and the ubiquitous sill (herring), eaten smoked, fried or pickled and often accompanied by Scandi trimmings such as capers, mustard and onion. Tucking into a plate of freshly fried Baltic herring with new potatoes and lingonberry sauce from an outdoor table overlooking the sea is a quintessential – and easily achieved – Swedish experience.

Swedes are devoted to their daily coffee ritual, fika, which inevitably also includes a pastry – often kanelbullar (cinnamon buns) or kardemummabullar (cardamom rolls). Almond paste (marzipan) is a common ingredient in pastries, such as the princess torte, a delicate cake with a lime-green marzipan shell commonly available at bakeries. Gourmet konditori (old-fashioned bakery-cafes) and cafes offer their own variations on all the standard cakes and cookies – best to sample several.

Contemporary Tendencies

Essentially, contemporary Swedish cuisine melds global influences with local produce and innovation: think baked wood pigeon with potato-and-apple hash or cauliflower ‘cornet’ with white chocolate and caviar. Locals have rediscovered the virtues of their own pantry. The result is an intense passion for seasonal, home-grown ingredients, whether apples from Kivik or bleak roe from Kalix. Equally important is the seasonality of food; expect succulent berries in spring, artichokes and crayfish in summer, and hearty truffles and root vegetables in the colder months.

Another growing obsession is a predilection for sustainable farming, small-scale producers and organic produce. Increasingly, restaurants and cafes pride themselves on serving organically grown and raised food, as well as actively supporting ethical, ecofriendly agricultural practices. Practically all the coffee served in big chain hotels is certified organic (labelled krav or ekologisk), for example, as is most of what you’ll find alongside it on the breakfast buffet.

Not surprisingly, this newfound culinary savvy has affected the tourist trade. Gastro-themed itineraries and activities are on the rise, with everything from Gotland truffle hunts to west-coast lobster safaris, while numerous tourist boards stock culinary guides to their respective regions.

Festive Flavours

Around Christmas, many restaurants start offering a julbord, a particularly gluttonous version of Sweden’s world-famous smörgåsbord buffet. Among the usual delicacies of herring, gravlax, meatballs, short ribs and blodpudding (blood pudding) are seasonal gems including baked ham with mustard sauce and Janssons frestelse (hearty casserole of sweet cream, potato, onion and anchovy). Julmust (sweet dark-brown soft drink that foams like a beer when poured) and glögg (warm spiced wine) are also Yuletide staples. The best accompaniment to a warm cup of glögg, available at kiosks everywhere in winter, is a pepparkaka (gingerbread biscuit) or a lussekatt (saffron bun).

During Sweden’s short, intense summers, many people hit the countryside for lazy holidays and alfresco noshing. Summer lunch favourites include various inlagd sill (pickled herring) with knäckebröd (crispbread), strong cheese like the crumbly Västerbottens ost, boiled potatoes, diced chives and cream, strawberries, plus a finger or two of snaps and some light beer ‘to help the fish swim down to the stomach’. Towards the end of summer, Swedes celebrate (or commiserate) its passing with kräftskivor (crayfish parties), eating kräftor boiled with dill, drinking snaps and singing snapsvisor (drinking songs).

For those with a sweet tooth, the lead-up to Lent means one thing: the semla bun. A wickedly decadent concoction of a wheat-flour bun crammed with whipped cream and almond paste, it was traditionally eaten on fettisdagen (Fat Tuesday). These days, it undermines diets as early as January.

Drinks

In the early days, when Stockholm was a rough port town full of stumbling sailors, alcohol taxes were levied according to where you happened to be when you fell down drunk or threw up. (These days, the same method can be used to decide which bars to frequent – or avoid.) Liquor laws and customs have changed a bit since then, motivated not least by Sweden’s need to conform more closely to EU standards. But there are still a few guidelines to navigate when pursuing adult beverages in Sweden.

Öl (beer) is ranked by alcohol content; the stronger the beer, the higher its price and, generally speaking, the more flavour it has. Light beers (lättöl; less than 2.25%) and ‘folk’ beers (folköl; 2.25% to 3.5%) account for about two-thirds of all beer sold in Sweden; these can be bought in supermarkets. Medium-strength beer (mellanöl; 3.5% to 4.5%) and strong beer (starköl; over 4.5%) can be bought only at outlets of the state-owned alcohol store, Systembolaget, or in bars and restaurants. ‘Systemet’, as it’s often called, is also the only place (other than bars and restaurants) to buy hard liquor or wine.

Much like North American domestic brews, the everyday Swedish beer produced by mass breweries like Falcon, Pripps and Spendrups is notable only for its lack of distinctive flavour. Happily, the range of good microbrews available has drastically improved in recent years. (Look for Jämtlands brewery’s Fallen Angel bitter, anything from Nynäshamns Ångbryggeri or the Wisby line from Gotlands brewery.) Imports from the rest of Europe are also much easier to find than in pre-EU days. In bars and restaurants, domestic brews such as Spendrups cost anywhere from 50kr to 70kr a pint, imported beer closer to 75kr, and wine or mixed drinks around 98kr to 120kr. Pear and apple ciders are also common, frequently in light-alcohol or alcohol-free versions.

Sweden’s trademark spirit is brännvin, of which Absolut Vodka is the most recognisable example. A particularly Scandinavian subsection of brännvin, called aquavit and drunk as snaps, is a fiery and strongly flavoured drink that’s usually distilled from potatoes and spiced with herbs. (A small shot of aquavit is sometimes called a nubbe, and it’s often accompanied by drinking songs.)

The legal drinking age in Sweden is 18 years; this applies to buying beer in grocery stores and any kind of alcohol in bars and restaurants. The minimum age to buy alcohol at a Systembolaget store is 20 years. Many bars and clubs impose higher age limits for admission.

Of course, the beverage you’re most likely to encounter in Sweden isn’t even alcoholic. Coffee is the unofficial national drink, with an ever-increasing number of cafes ditching the percolated stuff for Italian-style espresso. The daily ritual of coffee and a pastry (fika) is an easy and rewarding one to adopt during your visit. (Tea is also readily available.) And saft is cordial commonly made from lingonberries, blueberries or elderflowers, though the word can refer to ordinary apple or orange juice as well.

Resources

  • Culinary Skåne (http://matupplevelser.skane.org/en) A network of restaurants and growers that produces a regional guide to produce, cuisine and epicurean events.
  • Swedish Institute (www.sweden.se) Provides a detailed discussion of Swedish food; follow the ‘Lifestyle’ tab.
  • Äkta Sylt (www.aktasylt.se) A website devoted to lingonberry jam, its preservation and marketing; in Swedish.
  • Vår Kokbok A classic Swedish cookbook from the ’50s, akin to Betty Crocker's books in the US.

Where to Eat

Hotels and hostels offer frukost (breakfast) buffets that typically include yoghurt and cereal, several types of bread, pastries, crispbread and/or rolls, with pålägg (toppings) including butter, sliced cheese, boiled eggs, sliced meat, liver pâté, Kalles caviar (an iconic caviar spread), pickled herring, sliced cucumber and marmalade. Several coffee chains (Wayne’s Coffee, Espresso House) dot the landscape, offering reliably decent cappuccinos and lattes along with breakfast pastries, salads and sandwiches.

A hearty lunch has long been a mainstay of the workforce, with cafes and restaurants usually serving a weekday lunch special (or a choice of several) called dagens rätt at a fixed price (typically 85kr to 125kr) between 11.30am and 2pm Monday to Friday. It’s a practice originally supported and subsidised by the Swedish government with the goal of keeping workers happy and efficient, and it’s still one of the most economical ways to sample top-quality Swedish cooking. The dagens rätt usually includes a main course, salad, beverage, bread and butter, and coffee or a light beer or soda.

For a lighter lunch, head to a konditori, where staples include substantial pastries and the delectable smörgås (open sandwich), an artfully arranged creation usually topped with greens, shrimp or salmon, roe, boiled egg and mustard-dill sauce. Most cafes and coffee shops these days serve hearty, good-value salads that include grains or pasta with lettuce and vegies in an enormous bowl (typically costing 85kr to 100kr).

Etiquette

For the most part, table manners in Sweden are the same as those in the rest of Europe. On very formal occasions, wait for the host to welcome you to the table before beginning to eat or drink. Aside from a proper skål, don’t clink glasses (it’s considered vulgar), and in formal settings refrain from sipping your wine outside of toasts until the host has declared that everyone may drink freely.

Make sure you're wearing clean socks when dining in someone’s home, as you’ll generally be expected to take off your shoes in the foyer. (It’s not uncommon to bring along a pair of house shoes to change into.) Swedes are typically quite punctual, so make an effort to arrive at the agreed-upon time rather than ‘fashionably late’. (It's not unheard-of to arrive several minutes early and walk around the block until the appointed time, rather than risking a late arrival.) And don’t go empty-handed; a bottle of wine or flowers will make the right impression.

Cheap Eats

Street snacks are the cheapest, quickest way to fill up in Sweden, particularly in cities but also on beaches, along motorways and in campgrounds. A snack kiosk with a grill is known as a gatukök (literally, 'street kitchen'). In the world of Swedish street food, hot dogs reign supreme – the basic model is called a grillad korv med bröd, grilled sausage with bread (hot dog in a bun), although you can also ask for it boiled (kokt). Adventurous souls can request a mind-boggling variety of things done to the korv, chiefly involving rolling it up in flatbread with accompaniments from shrimp salad to mashed potatoes or coleslaw to fried onions. Kebab restaurants are another good bet for tasty, quick and cheap eats. And the range of available street foods continues to grow – it's now easier to find anything from churros to Thai.

Opening Times

Restaurants generally open from 11am to 2pm for lunch, and from 5pm until 10pm for dinner. Cafes, bakeries and coffee shops, as well as more casual restaurants, are likely to be open all day, from around 8am until 6pm.

Tipping

Tipping in Sweden has been described as 'totally random' – it's becoming a little more common, though it isn't expected outside of fine-dining restaurants. A service cost is always figured into the bill, but if you’ve had excellent service, a 10% to 15% tip is a suitable complement.

Self-Catering

Easily found in Swedish towns and villages, the main supermarket chains are ICA, Coop Konsum and Hemköp. Plastic carrier bags cost 5kr at the cashier.

Supermarkets across Sweden have prepared foods for quick snacks, but making your own meals is easy if you’re hostelling or camping. Produce in standard supermarkets is fine but you'll be better off seeking out fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables at market squares such as Hötorget in Stockholm as well as at rural farm shops and roadside stands.

Vegetarians & Vegans

Vegetarian and vegan restaurants and buffets are common in cities, and veg-friendly options exist in nearly all restaurants even in rural areas.

Essential Food & Drink

Scandinavian cuisine, once viewed as meatballs, herring and little else, is now at the forefront of modern gastronomy. New Nordic cuisine showcases local produce, blending traditional techniques and contemporary experimentation.

Swedish menu essentials:

  • Coffee To fit in, eight or nine (OK, four) cups a day is about right; luckily, the region’s cafes are a delight.
  • Reindeer & Game Expect to see reindeer and other delicious game on the menu, especially up north in Sami cooking.
  • Fish Salmon and cod are ubiquitous and delicious, and smoked, cured, pickled or fried herring is fundamental. Tasty lake fish include Arctic char and pike-perch.
  • Alcohol Beer is everywhere, and improving; but try a shot of brännvin (aquavit) with your pickled herring, too.

The Basics

Sweden's restaurants are one of the highlights of travelling here; booking a day ahead is usually fine, although for top-end restaurants in Stockholm and Gothenburg it's best to book a few weeks in advance.

  • Cafes Some of the nicest food to be found in Sweden comes from humble cafes, be they coffee shops or vegetarian buffets. The daily special is usually delicious and good-value.
  • Restaurants Sweden's restaurants range from spectacular full-immersion dining experiences to your basic meatballs-and-potatoes homey fare.
  • Hotels For breakfast buffets, hotels are often your best deal, and non-guests are generally welcome.