Swedish food is typical to the Nordic cuisine, based on meat (notably pork and game), fish, dairy products, potatoes and bread, together with berries and wild mushrooms. Fresh fruit and vegetables are rather recent additions to the menu.
Traditional everyday dishes are called husmanskost (pronounced whos-mans-cost). Some of them are:
- Pickled herring (sill) is eaten with bread or potatoes for summer lunch or as a starter on the smörgåsbord, at traditional holidays.
- Many forms of salmon (lax), especially cured salmon (gravlax).
- Meatballs (köttbullar), the internationally most famous Swedish dish. Served with potatoes, brown sauce and lingonberry jam.
- Hash (pytt i panna) consisting of meat, onions and potatoes, all diced and fried. Sliced beetroots and a fried or boiled whole eggs are mandatory accessories.
- Pea soup (ärtsoppa) with diced pork, followed by thin pancakes, is traditionally eaten on Thursdays.
- Blodpudding, a black sausage made by pig’s blood and flour, eaten with lingonberry jam.
- Falukorv, a big baloney from Falun.
- Sweden has many varieties of bread (bröd). Many of them are whole-grain or mixed grain, containing wheat, barley, oats, compact and rich in fiber. Some notable examples are tunnbröd (thin wrap bread), knäckebröd (hard bread – might has a bland taste, but is nearly always available), and different kinds of seasoned loaves. Bread is mostly eaten as simple sandwiches, with thin slices of cheese or cold cuts. Some spreads typical to Sweden are messmör (whey butter) and leverpastej (liver pâté).
- Reindeer, ren, traditionally herded by the Sami people. Renskav is sliced, sautéed reindeer meat, preferably eaten with wild mushrooms, lingonberries and potatoes.
- Tunnbrödrulle, a fast food dish, consisting of a bread wrap with mashed potatoes, a hot dog and some vegetables.
- Kroppkakor Potato dumpling stuffed with diced pork, reminiscent of the German Klöße. Originally from Småland, there is also a variant from Piteå up north, known as pitepalt.
- Hard cheese (ost): In an ordinary food market you can often find 10 to 20 different types of cheese. The most famous Swedish hard cheese would be Västerbotten, named after a region in Sweden.
- Milk (mjölk) is commonly drunk during meals. Filmjölk is a Nordic yoghurt, eaten with breakfast cereal.
- Rose hip soup (nyponsoppa) and bilberry soup (blåbärssoppa), for recovery of heat and energy during winter sports.
Other Swedish favorites:
- Raggmunk, wheat flour, milk, egg, and shredded potatoes fried like thin pancakes served with fried pork (bacon) and lingonberries.
- Soft whey butter (messmör), breadspread with a sweetish, hard-to-describe taste.
- Caviar, not the expensive Russian or Iranian kind but a cheaper version made from cod roe, sold in tubes and used on sandwiches. The most famous brand is Kalles Kaviar.
- Julmust, stout-like Christmas soft drink. Available during Easter as well, by then known as Påskmust.
- Crayfish (kräftor), hugely popular around August, when Swedes feast on them at big crayfish parties (kräftskivor). Silly paper hats and lots of alcohol included.
- Surströmming; the world’s stinkiest dish. See Nordic cuisine#Ingredients for details for how to eat it without disgusting oneself or the surroundings.
- Semla, a cream-filled pastry traditionally eaten on Tuesdays in February and March, with start on Fat Tuesday.
- Rabarberkräm/Rabarberpaj rhubarb cream or rhubarb pie with vanilla sauce (other cakes or pies on fresh blueberries, apples, or just strawberries with cream or ice cream are also very popular in the summer)
- Spettekaka A local cake from Scania in south Sweden, made of eggs, sugar, and potato starch.
- Smörgåstårta A cold Sandwich layer cake, often with salmon, eggs, and shrimps. (Also often with tuna or roast beef) Swedish people often eat it at New Year’s Eve, or birthdays and parties.
- Lösgodis candy from boxes that you mix on your own, sold by weight, is one of the most popular candy among this candy-loving nation. A choice of chocolate, sours, sweet and salt liqorice are always offered.
- Swedish cookies and pastries like bondkakor, hallongrottor, bullar or cakes like prinsesstårta are widely popular. It used to be tradition to offer guest 7 different cookies when invited over for coffee. If you have a sweet tooth you should try chokladbollar, mazariner, biskvier, rulltårta or lussebullar.
As Sweden is stretched out between central Europe and the Arctic, there are many regional specialties. Among the more exotic are:
- Surströmming, a stinky canned fish popular along the Norrland coast.
- Spettekaka, a meringue-like cake from Scania.
As in most of Europe, inexpensive pizza and kebab restaurants are ubiquitous in Swedish cities, and are also to be found in almost every small village. Swedish pizza is significantly different from Italian or American pizzas. Sushi and Thai food are also quite popular. The local hamburger chain Max is recommended before McDonald’s and Burger King, for tasteful Scandinavian furnishing, clean restrooms, no trans fats and free coffee with meals. In parts of Norrland it is customary to eat hamburgers with fork and knife – available at Max. Another Swedish chain Frasses offers apart from all kinds of meaty burgers a tasty vegetarian alternative – a quornburger. Another type of fast food establishment is the gatukök (“street kitchen”), serving hamburgers, hot dogs, kebab and tunnbrödrulle (se above).
Highway diners, vägkrogar, have generous meals, but might be of poor quality, greasy and overpriced. If you have time, a downtown restaurant is preferable. Gas stations sell decent packed salads and sandwiches.
You can get a relatively inexpensive lunch if you look for the signs with “Dagens rätt” or just “Dagens” (Today’s special or literally meal of the day). This normally costs about 50-120 kr, and almost everywhere includes a bottle of water; soft drink; or light beer, bread & butter, salad bar and coffee afterwards. Dagens rätt is served Monday to Friday.
If you’re on a tight budget, self-catering is the safest way to save your money.
Vegetarian and vegan lifestyles are accepted in cities, less common in the countryside, where fishing and hunting are a national pastime. You should be able to find a falafel in any medium-sized town; or you may negotiate a price to only access the salad bar, as all well assorted eateries have one.
Swedish consumption of coffee (kaffe) is among the highest in the world. Drinking coffee at home or in a café, an act called fika, is a common Swedish social ritual, used for planning activities, dating, exchanging gossip or simply spending time and money. Swedish coffee is filtered and usually stronger than American coffee – but still not the espresso of France or Italy. Italian varieties (espresso, cappuccino, caffe latte) are available at larger city cafés. Sweden has several domestic café franchises (Espresso House, Wayne’s Coffee, Coffeehouse by George) with an international atmosphere, and a broad selection of coffees, sandwiches, and cakes.
One cup is around 25 kr, usually including a refill, påtår. Retailers like IKEA, Biltema, and City Gross sell coffee with refill at their cafés for 5 kr a cup.
The traditional Swedish café is called konditori, and every city and town has at least one. They offer warm beverages as coffee, tea and cocoa, and an assortment of cookies, pastry and perhaps also smörgås, the Swedish open sandwich, and fralla, the Swedish closed sandwich. The sandwiches offered can vary a lot depending on where you are in Sweden.
The most famous Swedish alcoholic beverage is Absolut Vodka, one of the world’s most famous vodkas. There are several brands of distilled, and usually seasoned, liquor, called brännvin. Brännvin does not have as high requirements on distilling as for Vodka and it is distilled from potatoes or grain. Liquor seasoned with dill and caraway is called akvavit. When brännvin is served in a shot glass with a meal it is called snaps (not to confuse with the German “Schnapps”). It is part of custom to drink snaps at occasions such as midsummers eve, Crayfish party, Christmas, student parties, etc. Often it is done together with a snapsvisa to every drink (a typical snapsvisa is a short, vigorous song; its lyrics usually tell of the delicacy and glory of the drink, or of the singer’s craving for snaps, or about anything in a cheeky way).
Punsch (not to be confused with punch) is a traditional sweet liqueur made from a combination of water, lemon, sugar, spirits and arrack, unique for Sweden and Finland. It can be served both warm and cold, usually has 25% alcohol by volume (ABV) and 30% sugar, and is by tradition often served at Thursdays together with pea & pork soup and pancakes. It grew very popular during the 18th and 19th centuries, generating a strong punsch-culture with numerous special punsch drinking songs, and maintains a strong precence in Swedish student culture.
If visiting Sweden in December or January a typical hot drink is glögg (similar to mulled wine or Glühwein). It is often served together with ginger bread and lussebullar or at the julbord (Christmas buffet). The main classic ingredients (of alcoholic glögg) are red wine, sugar, spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, and bitter orange, and optionally also stronger spirits such as vodka, akvavit, or brandy. There is also non alcoholic versions of glögg.
Sweden does produce some outstanding beers, and there has been a rise in the numbers of microbreweries. If you are looking for great local beer keep an eye out for breweries like Slottskällans, Nils Oscar, Närke kulturbryggeri, Jämtlands ångbryggeri and Dugges Ale- & Porterbryggeri. You may have some trouble finding them, unless you go to a bar specialized in providing uncommon beer, or one of the well stocked Systembolaget, but you will find a few of them in every major city. Despite this the most common beer is the rather plain “international lager”. The beer you get in normal food shops is called folköl and has 2.8 or 3.5% alcohol. You are able to find a variety of different brands of beers in food stores, Swedish, English and even Czech beer. Sweden has a seasonal beer for Christmas, julöl. It is sweeter than normal beer and usually seasoned with Christmas spices, mostly it is of the beer type ale. All Swedish breweries make at least one type of julöl. Wine is popular, but the Swedish production is very modest.
Drinking alcohol in parks and public areas is generally allowed, with some obvious exceptions (playgrounds, schoolyards, etc.) or if notifications don’t state the opposite. Drinking at public transport stations is prohibited, with the exception of in restaurants or on trains or boats, and then only alcohol bought on location.
Establishments with permission to sell alcohol are violating their permission when selling alcohol “to go” (to be consumed outside the establishment). Establishments with permission to serve all sorts of alcohol will announce this as having fullständiga rättigheter (full rights).
Beer and lager up to 3.5% ABV is readily available in supermarkets at 10-15 kr a piece, but strong alcoholic beverages are, as in Norway, Finland and Iceland available over the counter only from the state-owned retailer, Systembolaget (also sometimes referred to as Systemet or Bolaget). They are usually open M-W 10:00-18:00, Th F 10:00-19:00, and Sa 10:00-15:00 , with long queues on Fridays and Saturdays, closing at the minute no matter how long the queue outside the store is, something the Swedes themselves joke about. They are always closed on Sundays. Most shops are of supermarket style. The assortment is very good, and the staff usually has great knowledge. Systembolaget does not serve customers already intoxicated or under the age of 20, and will most likely ask for identification from customers looking younger than 25. This also applies to any companions, regardless of who is making the actual purchase.
Beverages are heavily taxed by content of alcohol, some liquor is very expensive (vodka is around 300 kr a litre at Systembolaget), but the monopoly has brought some perks – Systembolaget is one of the world’s largest bulk-buyers of wine, and as such gets some fantastic deals which it passes on to consumers. Mid-to-high-quality wines often cost less in Sweden than in the country of origin; sometimes even less than if you were to buy the wine directly from the vineyard. This does not apply to low-quality wines or hard liquor, due to the volume-based tax on alcohol.
All brands are treated equally and there is no large-pack discount. Therefore, microbrews cost largely the same as major brands, and might be a more interesting choice. Beverages are not refrigerated. Drinking alcohol in public is usually allowed, with a few restrictions, such as shopping centres, playgrounds and public transport areas.