Tag Archives: sweden

Food in Scandinavian Culture

Lunchtime at a café in downtown Stockholm, Sweden.

Having had the opportunity to live with a Danish host family over the last two months, I have come to recognize that the Scandinavian relationship with food is quite different from that in other parts of the world, especially the United States. Here are a few adjectives that I would use to characterize this Scandinavian culture of eating.

Scandinavian cultures place a lot of emphasis on time spent with the family, as evidenced by their work days, which typically end in the mid-afternoon. Families will often go to extreme lengths to make sure that everyone can be home for dinner together each night.

Perhaps the most informative way to look understand this emphasis on togetherness is through the Danish concept of hygge. The word is typically considered to be un-translatable, but perhaps the closest word we have in English is “cozy.” Hygge is a verb (sometimes even reflexive) and a noun, and can also be used as hyggeligt, which is an adjective describing the state of hygge.

Linguistic properties aside, hygge is a very important concept to the Danes, who strive to achieve it in nearly all aspects of life. Hygge is characterized by a warm sense of tranquility and calm, especially in a group. You can’t be hyggeligt when someone is missing! So, of course, there is a tremendous emphasis on inclusiveness in society generally, which even extends to meal habits and the importance of being together during meal times.

Home Preparation
By and large, Scandinavian dinners are prepared from scratch at home, and this is especially the case in family units. This norm likely comes from a variety of social and cultural influences.

Most simply, it is simply a result of the high cost of eating at restaurants. To give you a sense of the cost, one could expect to pay at least the equivalent of $10 (USD) for a modest meal at McDonald’s, and it is quite rare to find a sit-down restaurant with meals for anything less than $30 (USD); based on my travels, I can also say that this is not only true in Denmark, but also in Oslo, Helsinki, and Stockholm. Those prices even make New York look reasonable!

But perhaps more importantly than simple economics, cooking at home is simply more hyggeligt. The delicious smells from the kitchen slowly intensify as dinner approaches, and as you sit down to dinner the whole family has the satisfaction of sharing from a common source of food lovingly prepared by one of the family members.

As a side note, fitting with Scandinavia’s progressive attitudes towards social matters, it is typical for both partners to share cooking responsibilities, or for the task to be delegated on the matter of simple preference rather than gender roles. When dating, men will often invite women to their homes for a homemade meal to show off their cooking skills. The goal for these suitors is to make complex meals but act as though it were no effort at all. Special schools have even formed in a lot of the larger cities that specifically cater towards adolescents for this reason.

Everything about food is taken very casually in Scandinavian cultures, with an emphasis on leisure and relaxation. Cooking at home is a good example of this mentality: cooking is a very leisurely activity, only to be undertaken by those who have the time and mental energy to devote to its execution.

The meals themselves are also consumed at a leisurely pace, with plenty of conversation lasting long after the food has finished. It is not uncommon to sit at a Danish dinner for an hour or longer.

This is not to say, though, that there are not ‘rules’ during Danish meals. There are some strictly regimented idiosyncrasies of Danish meals. Here are a few:

  • Toasts are usually offered after a few bites have been taken already, rather than at the very beginning of a meal.
  • Glasses are not usually clinked at toasts; it is more common to make eye contact with each of the other members of the table.
  • Smørrebrød sandwiches (to be covered in a later post) are eaten with a fork and knife and are consumed in a certain order (fish first, then meat).
  • Every meal ends by thanking the cook.

Yet despite these ‘rules,’ Danish meals are still a very casual affair, even at dinner parties

The emphasis on leisure extends far beyond the home, as well. The concept of ‘to go’ is not well understood in Denmark; as a symbol of this lack of understanding, there is not a commonly used Danish term for the concept, so people just say ‘to go’ in English. When people do buy food ‘to go,’ it is usually to take it somewhere else to eat. Around hotdog stands, you will often find crowds of Danes standing around and eating the hotdogs they just purchased. It is quite uncommon to see people carrying cups of coffee on the street. Food is to be leisurely enjoyed to the Scandinavians, not eaten quickly on the way from one place to another.

One also finds this emphasis on leisure in the café culture. Like much of Europe (and indeed, most of the western world), people will gather at cafés for hours to leisurely chat with friends over coffee and a pastry. Perhaps nowhere is this better expressed than in the fika in Sweden, which Amanda excellently covered in her first Fika Friday post.

As I mentioned previously, in Danish households, it is customary to end every meal with the phrase tak for mad (pronounced “tock fo mel”), which literally translates to, “thank you for the food.” This simple, almost formulaic phrase, though, is just one manifestation of a deep-seated reverence for food. As I have written, Scandinavians take their time to focus on the food they are preparing and consuming, and almost always do so in the company of others. Very little is wasted, generally through carefully tuned proportions that end up being the perfect amount of food for the table.

The romantic, and probably somewhat valid, explanation for this thankfulness and reverence is the paucity of material abundance in the cold and rough Nordic regions, which causes people to be more thankful of what they do have. Alternatively, maybe it has something to do with the historical (and continued) importance of agriculture in the Scandinavian economies. Regardless of the ‘real’ reasons, though, I cannot help but hope that this overall mentality towards food becomes a more important part of Stateside culture than the lip service we pay at Thanksgiving.

So, what do you think of the Scandinavian way of eating? Let me know in the comments!


Danes and Danishes

A natural place to start in our exploration of Scandinavian food cuisine is with the pastry that has, in English, become synonymous with Denmark: danishes.


Ironically enough, the Danes call danishes “wienerbrød,” which literally translates to “Vienna bread.” Unsurprisingly, the name comes from the pastry’s origins in Austria. As the story goes, the mid-1800s brought massive baker strikes in across Denmark. To stay in business, bakeries hired foreign workers who, unfamiliar with Danish recipes, made pastries and bread from their home countries. One of these became especially popular among Danes, who tweaked the recipe and gave the pastry the name Vienna bread.


Although obviously an homage to these origins, the name can also be understood within the context of the booming agricultural trade in Denmark at the time. The increase in trade led to an influx of foreign goods, many of which were considered exotic and exciting. The name, then, also gave the pastry an exotic flair.


It might go without saying that danishes in Denmark are nothing like the prepackaged food-shaped-objects living for months at a time in vending machines across the United States. Danish wienerbrød has a delicate and flaky texture, with a generous amount of filling, often either chocolate, custard, or some type of high quality fruit jam. It’s difficult to look graceful while eating a genuine danish, but it is well worth the humiliation if you ever have the opportunity to try one.


While wienerbrød is quite ubiquitous in bakeries all over Denmark (and all of Scandinavia, for that matter), they are far from the only pastries gracing shop windows. The options, in fact, are too numerous to mention in such a short post, but here are some of the most significant (and, in my taste, delicious).


Fastelavnsboller is a pastry that is almost exclusively available in late winter. It is the traditional food item to accompany a holiday called fastelavn, which is similar to Halloween in the US. Children dress in costumes and knock on houses in their neighborhoods one Sunday afternoon in early February. When the door opens, the children sing a song in which they ask the homeowners for buns (festelavnboller, in fact!) to eat, although often small amounts of money are given instead. Some sources say that the tradition started as a socially sanctified way for less fortunate families in Denmark to receive public food support as food supply dwindled after a long, cold winter. However, its proximity to lent may also indicate that the sweet is a holdover from the Fat Tuesday tradition that officially subsided when Denmark became Protestant in the 15th century.


The pastries come in many varieties, and there is an especially large diversity when all of Scandinavia is considered (as all have similar traditions). Danish fastelavnboller are generally sweet pastry buns filled with cream and a bit of jam, and topped with more cream frosting or chocolate. The buns in other Nordic countries, however, tend to be more like normal wheat rolls.


A favorite among Swedes is the kanelbulle, or cinnamon bun. Americans are generally familiar with cinnamon buns, but it may come as a surprise to many that they have roots in Scandinavia, especially Sweden. Little information is available about the pastry’s specific origins, but it seems to be clear that by the 1920s they were hugely popular all over the world. Today, the buns often play a prominent role in the Swedish cultural institution of fika (which Amanda is exploring in her blog series “Fika Fridays”).


Scandinavian cinnamon buns are typically smaller and not quite as sweet as those Americans are accustomed to. They also often include cardamom, and instead if icing, large sugar crystals are often out on top of the buns. IKEA offers very reasonably priced Swedish-style cinnamon buns in their restaurants and food sections, if you happen to find yourself at one. This coffee and kanelbulle were only 10 DKK, or about $2!


Hindbærsnitter is a pastry that, despite its convoluted name, has quickly found a place in my heart here in Denmark. Its original attraction is its surface similarity to Pop-Tarts, but unsurprisingly they are so much tastier. The name translates to raspberry cutting, alluding to the jam filling. This filling is between layers of thin shortbread. On top, there is usually white frosting or glaze and rainbow sprinkles. Yes, it tastes as good as it looks.


So, now we’ve explored Danishes in Denmark, along with other local pastry favorites. Any questions? Do you have a favorite Scandinavian pastry? Let me know in the comments!

Fika Fridays: What the Fika?


For Amanda’s first post of the season, she will spend the italics section of her post feeling a strange, out-of-body experience as she briefly wonders if her life is being narrated by herself  OR Amanda explains what she means by fika.

Last spring, I read a magazine article that talked about how, in Sweden, people take “fika” breaks.  Fika roughly means “to drink coffee with friends on a small break with a little snack” (or something along those lines) as in “Would you like to fika with me?” and “I had a great fika this afternoon.”  I remember thinking, this is incredibly charming.  I instantly realized that this is what the break rooms are really meant for in corporate buildings.  We are meant to take breaks from our work at approximately 10:30 and 3:45 to enjoy the exhilarating refreshment of a caffeinated beverage compounded with the sugary rush of a small chocolate roll!  I get it!  I. WILL. FIKA!

Fika seems to be like a more elaborate version of the Yiddish nosh.  Fika is a bona-fide social institution in Sweden (people don’t play when it comes to their breaks).  According to Culinary Cultures of Europe by Stephen Mennell, the fika is an important part of everyday Swedish life as it provides a chance to say hi to your mother, take that cute guy from the elevator on a date, and tell your buddies about your new motorcycle.  Even government employees are known to take breaks from work to fika.  Fikas are what we Americans traditionally think of as the “coffee date” (ie precursor to the tension-filled drinks or high-pressured stakes of dinner), but function even better as “non-date dates.”

This being said, the fika is no light-hearted matter if you’re a host…

Continue reading Fika Fridays: What the Fika?