Header image courtesy of @365curry (via Instagram)
Occupying one of the northernmost latitudes of the world is bound to be grating on the senses. Days spent shrouded in darkness entirely without sunlight may lead to lapses of judgment and, dare we say, sanity. That is a possible explanation behind Sweden’s affinity for coming up with the zaniest food creations. Drawing raised eyebrows, pinched noses, and incredulous stares—these are some of the weirdest food items the Swedish are responsible for gracing the world with. Taste them at your own risk...
Surströmming is a traditional Swedish dish that introduces unsuspecting foreigners to a smell unlike any other, with its fragrance being said to be one of the smelliest in the world. Spawning herring are captured in the Baltic Sea, subsequently undergoing a brine-filled fermentation process of at least six months, then left in a can for more fumes to build up. It is most often enjoyed (if this word is even applicable) at surströmmingsskiva (fermented herring parties) in the latter weeks of August until September.
In a way, the dish represents the resourceful nature that Swedish people had to draw upon to survive winters with limited supplies and harsh conditions. Early records of their consuming fermented fish date back to over 9,000 years ago, with surströmming dating back to the 16th century. Legend has it that the first wooden barrels of half-rotting herring were offloaded to the Finnish by scamming sailors who were out of salt and low in brine. Surprisingly, the Finns were very fond of the rank, resulting in the accidental discovery of a twisted delicacy.
Traditionally served on a crispy tunnbröd (thin crispbread) with sprinkles of sliced onion and dill, atop a bed of mashed potatoes and sour cream, the intense fishiness—undercut with its signature acerbic tang—is made somewhat bearable. Wash it down with a neutralizing glass of cold fresh milk, or sanitize your tastebuds with a stinging shot of schnapps. Catch the notes of overflowing diaper bin, or perhaps the hint of battery acid.
It’s hard to imagine messing up a dish as simple as pizza, which is one of the few items seeming to universally fall under the tenet of “when it’s good, it’s good; when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good”. Somehow, by way of the lawlessness that is their culinary imagination, the Swedes have stepped up to the plate, delivering a monstrosity that will leave anti-pineapple-on-pizza advocates with an even greater foe to overthrow—bananas on pizza.
No stranger to wacky and unconventional pizza toppings, bananas with curry is for sure one of, if not, the most infamous combination. Not long after the first shipment of bananas arrived at its shores in 1906, the fruit was revered as an exotic delicacy. Other than serving as a welcome addition to familiar favourites like pannkakor (traditional Swedish pancake), its status as a strange yet fascinating foreign product made it an easy shorthand for conveying a “continental” air. When questioned if they genuinely like the sweet-savoury clashing of tastes, it is theorized that the banana’s sweetness helps to absorb the flavours of hefty pizza, like how lingonberries achieve the same effect when paired with meat.
Starting with a thin crust base slathered with tomato sauce coated with a type of smoked hard cheese, the pie is then peppered with ham slices and rounds of sliced ripe banana, dusted off with curry powder. If you are brave enough to try a slice, consider rewarding yourself after with a serving of the much more palatable kebab-pizza, which features delicious shawarma meat on a thin crust.
Before he became the king of YouTube, Felix Kjellberg—better known as PewDiePie—was a hot dog stand worker in Gothenburg. Reminiscing his time at a roadside korvkiosk (Swedish street food stand), he released a recipe video introducing millions of international subscribers to the classic Swedish tunnbrödsrulle.
A characteristically Swedish reworking of the hot dog, it has earned the antithetical descriptor of “hideous loaded goodness” from the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. The wrap is composed of the semi-sweet tunnbröd (flatbread) forming a pouch around a grilled or boiled sausage, buttressed with mashed potatoes, räksallad (mayonnaise shrimp salad), crisp onions, lettuce, and the buyer’s desired condiments. It is reportedly the brainchild of Elov “Loffe” Bråtfors, a trailblazer in the Scandinavian hot dog scene who popularized mashed potato machines as a fixture of korvkiosken all around the nation. A genius drunk-food item, the tunnbrödsrulle is best enjoyed as an antidote to a night of cheery (heavy) drinking.
If you find yourself at a Swedish supermarket, you will notice a wall or shelf of colourful tubes hanging around the condiments aisle. This collection would usually feature spreads and malleable ingredients such as flavoured cheeses, pates, vegetable dressings, mustards, mayonnaises, and more. On a practical level, the food is able to last longer as the air-tight seal of the tubing allows fewer bacteria from the air to enter the container, making for less food-waste as well. It is much easier to carry the food around, with entire premade meals—and we mean fully solid dishes like boller i karry (Danish meatballs in curry)—being converted to a large sausage form log of re-heatable sludge.
This retro-futuristic medium for dispensing food was first popularized after WWII, which saw a period of technological development that came hand in hand with a sociocultural shift towards consumer culture. Several viable explanations of why this strange food processing format has such lasting power there hinges upon the Swedes’ penchant for practicality and the inherent tube-ability of their cuisine. Since the production of tubed packaging is efficient and utilizes less raw materials, it also appeals to the thrift factor that’s ingrained into the minimalistic Scandinavian spirit.
Possibly the most popular tubed item, Kalles kaviar is a spread made from fish roe typically used for bread and crackers. A type of comfort food of sorts, it is world-renowned as a symbol of Swedish cuisine, being stocked at IKEAs globally. The supposedly best way to savour its unique flavours is also the simplest way—squirting a sizeable trail onto a piece of knäckerbröd (dried rye crispbread) and popping the whole thing into your mounth.
Nordic cuisine has a world-famous reputation of being “fresh, pure, and simple”. With clean eating being so prominent, it was only a matter of time before the Swedes manage to get their hands on junk food to add a green twist. Deceptively beautiful, the smörgåstårta is a creation that’s usually all decked out. Presented as a delicate cake amongst a smörgåsbord (Swedish style buffet spread), it is a large mass slathered in white or pastel creams, with the first clue of irregularity being the colourful vegetables as well as herbs it is decorated with. Slicing into one would reveal alternating layers of bread, meats, sauces, and vegetables.
Versions of this loaf are also available in Finland (voileipäkku), Estonia (võileivatort), and Iceland (brauðterta). Nobody is quite certain of its actual origins, with the first records of it cropping up in 1934 in a local Småland newspaper without mention of an individual chef. Following the post-WWII lift on bread and dairy rationing, the dish was rapidly adopted into home cooking, becoming a top hit at parties and special events requiring buffet-style catering. Beloved by all, the 13th of November has officially been declared “National Smörgåstårta Day” by the group Smörgåstårtans Vänner—an association of about one thousand “friends of the sandwich cake” (a literal translation of the group’s name).
Why not spice up your next office party with a sandwich cake? Not only is the dish incredibly simple to assemble and transport, but it also allows for easy customizing, giving you the chance to whip up inventive—or to just plainly gross—food combinations to use as a filling. There isn’t a strict recipe set for the dish, though the components most used include things like seafood, cold cuts, cheeses, herbs, cucumbers, carrots, radish, and enhancers like lemon slices. Some tips would be to avoid using rye bread, for its lack of structural integrity, and to butter each side of the bread slices to prevent them from getting soggy.
Remember the episode of Peep Show that featured the horrendous “Moroccan pasta”? Enter its real-life equivalent—The Flying Jacob. Perhaps the most cursed item to have come out of Swedish cooking, this offence to the senses was rumoured to have a similar origin story that involved its original maker, an air-freight worker named Ove Jacobsson, hastily throwing together a gag-inducing mishmash of ingredients last minute to offer up at a dinner party that he forgot he was hosting. For whatever reason, his guests thoroughly enjoyed the dish, prompting him to submit his concoction to Swedish gastronomic magazine Allt om Mat (literally translating to All About Food). Since its initial introduction to the public, the dish has been cemented into the childhood memories of many, becoming a staple comfort food for the nation.
Essentially a casserole, it is made out of chicken with Italian seasoning alongside bananas baked in a chilli and cream sauce topped with roasted peanuts and crispy bacon. Set in a terracotta glaze, the multiplicity of the sauce complements the savoury of the chicken and bacon strips, all whilst being supported by the sweetness of the banana, as well as the crunchy kick of the nuts. This explosion of flavours is set against the backdrop of white rice and salad, its customary complements.
Conceptualized during an era that saw a rapid formation of the suburban middle class, the sociocultural climate of latter-mid 20th century Sweden was highly conducive to low-effort recipes that incorporated key facets of modern life. Looking to the ingredients as symbols, it is as if the chicken and bacon were representatives of the homely ordinary, whilst the uncommon banana and spicy peanuts carry implications of internationalism.