When I first moved to Sweden, my friends joked that there was no way in hell my chatterbox personality would mesh well with this notoriously reserved culture. Why couldn’t I have married a man from Argentina, or perhaps Brazil? Did I even like the food in IKEA? they joked.
Four years and countless cultural clashes later, I second their motion. Swedes and Filipinos are polar opposites in so many ways. Theirs is a culture that values independence; we move as a pack. Families here can go weeks, sometimes months without seeing each other; that’s not something that would ever happen in Manila without serious sulking (tampo). Filipinos thrill to drama and hyperbole; here, people have actually been known to say “Why did you say you loved that cake? Don’t you mean you just like it?” (That’s a direct quote.) We love to promise the moon, and Swedes would be more likely to warn you not to expect anything so you don’t get disappointed.
This is most likely because theirs is a culture that has had to endure difficulty and famine due to harsh weather conditions; and thus became used to preparing for the worst. They are masters of managing expectations and are always wary of overpromising and superlatives. One of the defining tenets of their culture is the term lagom, which means not too much, not too little; just right. Someone explained to me that the idea came from having been able to harvest, fish, or gather just enough for the day’s meal. Sitting around a fireplace, you were expected to take just enough so everyone would be able to have some; you didn’t want to be the jerk who took too much and left others hungry.
Lagom defines Swedish culture in so many ways, particularly when it comes to meals. When one eats at a restaurant here, the sizes are Western, but not American-sized (those are frowned upon as being excessive and would be met with a disapproving oj (pronounced “oy”). Even the classic smörgåsbord is tame compared to the Vegas-sized buffets Filipinos love. We’re talking perhaps two, at most four hot mains, with a salad bar, freshly baked bread and butter, and complimentary tea and coffee, with the occasional small cookies. Every place has a vegetarian option; and lately, more and more have begun offering vegan ones as well.
Salmon patties with potatoes and dill cream sauce: Swedes love their potatoes and they sure love their sauces.
So for instance, the average lunch menu during the colder months might consist of salmon patties with a dill cream sauce, baked squid in a horseradish and butter sauce, baked haddock fillet with a remoulade sauce studded with pickles. There might be Wallenburgare (or beef patties), or plum pork loin in cream sauce and applesauce, or fried salt pork with baked brown beans/onion sauce. And for vegetarians, there might be vegetable patties made of kale and potato in a chunky mushroom sauce. (As you can see, the Swedes love their sauces, especially ketchup. They drown just about everything in it, including pasta, much to the disgust of the Italians who’ve moved here.)
At Christmas, you have what is called a julbord or Christmas table. Again, I expected the same sort of groaning table one might have in Manila; but they keep it to about 6-7 classic dishes, including something wonderful called Janssons Frestelse, or Jansson’s Temptation. This is a creamy dish of the gratin sort, made with julienned potatoes, sliced onions, breadcrumbs, loads of cream and butter, and the kicker – anchovies (one large serving dish has about two small bottles’ worth). It’s worth the calories, I tell you.
Those dishes are considered fancier fare or helgdagsmat, reserved for celebrations, business meetings, or visitors. But the traditional daily fare, known as husmanskost, is much simpler, especially these days when you can just buy everything ready to heat at the nearest grocery.
When I asked my Swedish friend Kajsa to expound on husmanskost, she told me that husmanskost today is very different from the classic Swedish diet of yore. In the olden days, the classic Swedish dinner included such dishes as julkorv (Christmas sausage) with a mash of root vegetables such as rutabaga, carrots, and potatoes to a stew of pork and barley.
Beef patties with lingonberry jam, gravy, and – what else? – potatoes. A variation on the classic Swedish meatballs with mashed potatoes.
Pytt i panna: Literally “a little in a pan”, this dish is basically a mishmash of the leftovers you might have in the fridge, plus an egg on top for good measure.
Husmanskost today has changed dramatically; and while it still contains a lot of meat, more and more homes are going vegetarian and use meat substitutes like Quorn. But generally, modern Swedish home fare includes the classic Swedish meatballs with mashed potatoes swimming in thin brown gravy with a healthy dollop of lingonberry jam on top. A Swedish family may also have pytt i panna, or a hash made of leftovers. This includes potatoes, ham and onions chopped up into cubes and thrown into the frying pan, served with a fried egg on top. On Thursdays, pea soup with pancakes for dessert are traditional fare; ostensibly to prepare for fasting on Friday. And for some curious reason, tacos have owned Friday during the last decade or so. (If it’s not Mexican, exhausted parents may also opt for rare foreign influences like pizza, lasagna, kebabs, falafel, and sushi.)
I say “rare” because breaking into the Swedish repertoire is an impressive and nearly impossible feat. One does not simply add items to the bord (“table”), because Swedes know what they like and they don’t always take kindly to things that are seen as too newfangled or weird. Trust me, I had to struggle for a long time with people who thought salted caramel was a weird flavor because they couldn’t get past the thought of “salt”, and why something supposedly sweet should be salty.
Perhaps the other reason they set a simple table is because they frown upon excess in general. They actually have a curious expression called tårta på tårta, which translates to “cake on cake.” This stymied my Filipino soul – we LOVE dessert! The more the merrier, right? Right?
Well, apparently not in Sweden, because that expression means: there’s already one cake there, why would anyone need another? It may be seen as simply too much, which means you are possibly showing off; or worse, being too American. And that is decidedly not lagom.
That’s not to say they don’t do dessert; in fact, if there is anything Swedes and Pinoys have in common, it’s their love of sweets (and okay, singing).
Kanelbullar, or cinnamon buns. The Swedish version uses sugar pearls instead of raisins, nuts, and cream cheese frosting.
Swedes actually do like dessert so much that certain treats have their own dedicated days. There’s a day each for kanelbullar (cinnamon buns), pannkakor, waffles, godis (candy), and my personal favorite – semlor.
Semlor. Choose the ones with almond paste or vanilla cream; either way, you’ll die of happiness.
Semlor (singular: semla) are cardamom-spiced wheat buns with the tops cut off, filled with almond paste and peaks of whipped cream. So far, the only acceptable variations are those with vanilla cream instead of almond paste; or golden saffron buns instead of cardamom. People have tried to come up with newfangled versions like peanut butter and jelly, Nutella, and so on; but this just upsets the Swedes (“They’re messing with my childhood!” I heard someone exclaiming at a Friday fika).
Older generations have been known to eat semlor soaked in bowls of hot cream or milk, which is called hetvägg. In fact, Swedish king Adolf Fredrik, loved his hetvägg so much that he died from indigestion after eating 14 of them for dessert one night (though to be fair to the semlor, he had lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, kippers, and champagne before that).
Semlor day is Fat/Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday; and it’s common to see lots of people carrying around little to large pastry boxes for fika at work or home.