Last week I finally found a supermarket in Sweden that sold hummus. It was an exciting day, and the fact that I got so excited got me thinking about Swedish cuisine and the depths it has reduced me too.
I view Swedish food the same way I view Swedish design: Unusual, sometimes outright ugly, but always simple and practical. It fulfils its purpose. Nothing is wasted on superfluous needs like taste, aesthetics or any other requirement other then the basic need to keep one alive and relatively healthy.
The typical Swedish sandwich is a good example. This will often consist of a piece of bread, a slice of cheese (no margarine) topped with a piece of capsicum or slice of ham. That’s all. Two, absolute maximum three toppings and that’s your sandwich. Anything else is just being overly lavish. Of course there are some flash fancy cafes can offer something a little more ambitious but judging from the lunchboxes in my various work places, two toppings is the norm. Other popular dishes include pasta (just plain pasta, sometimes served with meatballs but no sauce), potatoes (again just plain boiled potatoes, sometimes with dill) and crisp bread.
In part this functionalism stems from Sweden’s impoverished past when trying to stay alive and survive the winter was more important than using the right spices. People weren’t fussy, and happy to eat any vegetable they could manage to grow in the harsh Nordic climate. Any meat or fish they could get their hands on was either salted or pickled to last as long as possible. Thus Swedish cuisine was designed to provide basic nutrients with little thought given to flavour or variety.
We’re long past those times now, but Swedes like to stick by their traditions. Today at anytime of the year they can buy fresh fish, but they keep eating pickled herring. They are offered a huge array of different vegetables but they stick to potatoes and turnips. The one addition the modern Swede has allowed into their kitchen is tomato ketchup. They add it to everything and anything: pasta, rice, eggs, whatever. People pour it over their meals like I pour milk over my muesli.
For all theses reasons or more, even in the most cosmopolitan and multicultural cities in the world, you’re unlikely to ever come across a Swedish restaurant. Not even in Sweden! Yet ironically the only Swedish word that has managed to force itself into the Swedish dictionary is one that specifically relates to food: smorgasbord.
However there is one important exception to these principles of culinary functionalism: the Smörgåstårta (pictured left). In my view this one dish surpasses Ikea and Henrik Larsson as the best thing Sweden has ever produced. In English this translates as Sandwich-Cake and that’s pretty much what it is: a massive sandwich the size of a cake. Four layers of bread, each stuffed with creamy filling, and then topped with any number of different garnishes. Unfortunately they involve a lot of work to prepare and too expensive to eat regularly. Generally they are saved for special occasions. Smörgåstårtas are so popular that a Swedish policeman recently got into trouble for extorting smörgåstårtas as bribes. That should give you some idea of what people will do for a tasty meal here.