Getting to know the Swedish kitchen with Rachel Khoo
Publish date: 12 November 2020
Stinky fish, meatballs in a creamy sauce… and what else?
We had a chat with cook and author Rachel Khoo to get an ex-pats perspective on which flavors and traditions stand out in the Swedish kitchen.
Let’s be honest; Swedish cooking is relatively obscure. True, Scandinavian cuisine and chefs has risen in prominence in the last couple of years. But Swedish food was for a long time synonymous with rancid fish and a muppet talking gobbledygook.
So, knowing how to approach it might seem a little daunting. Especially if your point of reference are videos of people retching and gagging while opening up cans of fermented herring.
Chef, author and tv-personality Rachel Khoo moved from London to Stockholm in 2017. She admits to not being overly familiar with the Swedish classics beforehand – save for the meatballs and cinnamon buns – but has since gotten to know the evergreens better, and chronicled them in her latest book “The Little Swedish Kitchen”.
We could think of no one better to get an outsiders perspective on the highlights of typical Swedish food!
What did you know about Swedish food and cooking before moving here?
– Not much beyond Swedish meatballs, gravlax, and cinnamon buns.
Which ingredients or spices would you say define Swedish cooking?
– Dill and cardamom but also the preserving methods whether it’s pickling, smoking or preservation in brine.
Are there any specific ingredients or flavor combinations that you’ve started to use more since moving to Stockholm?
– I love “knäckebröd” [Swedish crackers and crispbread] particularly the ones which a have a sourdough base and use hardy flours, like rye. It's actually something I miss when I travel. There's something very satisfying about eating them, the crunch, the flavor. And you can top it with something as simple as a good quality butter – or lots of it if you're like me – and a sprinkle of salt.
…and are there any that you can’t wrap your head around?
– “Lutefisk” [a traditional Nordic fish dish with air-dried or salted whitefish in lye]. My mother-in-law makes it every year for Boxing Day. The texture and flavor are not the most exciting. Good thing my mother in law makes a delicious creamy sauce to go with. Sprinkle plenty of ground allspice on top, a generous dollop of Swedish mustard and then it's pretty tasty. But on its own, it's very bland.
Nordic cuisine, in general, has had a renaissance the last couple of years. Why do you think that is?
– I guess it could do with it being pretty unknown internationally unlike say Italian or French.
The backbone of Nordic cuisine comes from dealing with challenges, and there's something very modern about Swedish food in the way it uses seasonal and local produce. Growing produce in the Nordic region isn't easy. The short growing season obviously results in having less native produce available as a cook. That is limiting, but having restrictions also gives chefs and cooks a creative edge. You have to push yourself in the kitchen to come up with ways of preserving ingredients to last longer or finding ways of cooking the same ingredient so you end up with different results.
Take for instance the cabbage, not the most glamorous of all vegetables but available all year round in Sweden. Obviously, you could simply boil it, which is probably why it has a bad reputation. When I was writing The Little Swedish Kitchen I tried to find different Swedish-inspired ways of cooking it. For instance, I put wedges under a grill so the leaves become charred and sweet, and pair that with a Swedish mustard vinaigrette. A very simple method but with pretty delicious results.
What would you say Sweden’s greatest addition is to the world of food and beverages?
– Surstömming [the infamous fermented herring]. No, I'm joking! Impossible for me to say.
What dishes would you recommend that someone should try to get a decent overview of Swedish-cooking?
– Swedish food is more than just eating a dish. I think you have to experience it. For instance, the Swedish “fredagsmys” [roughly translated to “Friday coziness”] where you get home from work on Friday, put on your tracksuit bottoms (or whatever 'loungewear' you might have) and eat some comfort food.
In Sweden, Friday evening is supposed to be tacos. Yeah, I know, not very Swedish. But I guess it's a bit like the Brits enjoy a curry on Friday night. I do a pretty delicious taco pizza with the leftovers the following day.
Another one, which is probably better known, is 'fika'. The idea of taking the time to have a coffee and a bun is something I absolutely love. Especially considering everyone is always rushing around. Taking the time out to enjoy a moment with friends and family is what I love about food. It's essentially why I cook because it can bring people from all different backgrounds to the table.
In essence, I find Swedish food is a bit like the Swedish word 'lagom'. Lagom, there's no direct English word but I think the easiest way to explain it when something is just right/finding the perfect balance. Swedish food is one that is about balance. It can be comfort food like Swedish meatballs, mash and lingonberry jam, indulgent with sticky cardamom buns but it can also be clean and simple like frying some foraged mushrooms and having them on a piece of rye knäckebrod.