A modern take on the Swedish classics

Swedish comfort food, or husmanskost as the Swedes call it, is making a comeback lately, but it has never really gone out of style. Who doesn’t crave a plate of meatballs, delicately spiced with allspice, coated in a rich, creamy sauce that’s made from the beef drippings, and nestled near a heap of mashed potatoes with a scoop of sweet and tart lingonberry jam.

Today’s chefs are making husmanskost lighter and in some cases, like at Tradition, even taking out the lactose. On television and at his restaurant, Långbro Värdshus, celebrity chef Fredrik Eriksson is famous for his healthy takes on modern classics. Eriksson even has a whole cookbook related to herring, advocating that Swedes eat more herring and less imported fish, and he presents a number of modern variations – like herring with oranges and cracked black pepper, and another with apples and freshly grated horseradish.

The trend of lightening up husmanskost actually began in the 1940s, when restaurateur Tore Wretman bought several Stockholm establishments – Riche and Operakällaren among them – and began switching out lard for oil and going easy on the cream. City people no longer needed the high calorie content required by their country relatives, he reasoned. Nor did they seem to mind the change. Wretman quickly became one of the most respected figures on the food scene and by the time he died in 2003, he had penned more than a dozen cookbooks, founded a group of gastronomic academics, and hosted both radio and television programs geared to “the novice at the stove”.

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#1 Meatballs

Meatballs have become synonymous with Swedish food the world over, as well as the symbol for husmanskost. Literally the “house owner’s food,” husmanskost is country cooking: hearty, home-cooked meals from a time when people plowed the fields. These recipes became standardized by the restaurant scene of the early 1900s when many of the “krogs” (taverns/pubs) were places where primarily single men living in the city went get a drink and a hot meal.

Although everyone will tell you that their grandmother’s meatballs are the best, Restaurang Prinsen’s “hand-felled” meatballs are renowned. An article in the Swedish daily paper, Dagens Nyheter, reports that the meatballs here are made with a blend of 80% beef and 20% pork, minced onion, bread crumbs, veal stock and cream and cooked in a cast iron skillet. “The gravy has hints of mustard and black currant,” they write, and “the house-pressed cucumber pickles are made according to the restaurateur Peter Nordin’s father-in-law’s recipe.” The dish is served with “fresh lingonberries and a French-inspired, potato puree… and on some days, up to 250 portions leave the kitchen.”

Ready for a twist on the classics? Next time you’re in Stockholm check out Meatballs for the people, “the city’s first meatball boutique,” featuring fourteen different types of organic meatballs – including rooster, moose, ox, wild boar, pig, salmon, reindeer, turkey and vegetable. If you are looking for some delicious meatballs in Gothenburgh, your best bet would be Smaka. It is a classic but unassuming and cosy little restaurant in the Vasastan neighbourhood.

Pre-made meatballs have actually been around for some time. In fact, many Swedes and trust “Mamma” Scan. One of Europe’s leading producers, Scan uses only Swedish meat – and they’ve been making meatballs for more than 60 years.

#2 Skagen

Although one would think that Skagenröra began as a Danish or west coast delicacy, this classic salad of fresh shrimp, mayonnaise, dill and red onions was invented by Tore Wretman when he took part in the sailing competition “Runt Skagen” in the 1950s. While you will still find Toast Skagen on the menu at Riche and Teatergrillen, the freshest version may still be on a sailboat – or on shore in nearby Gothenburg.

#3 Janssons Frestelse

If Gothenburg had an equivalent to Tore Wretman, it would be Leif Mannerström. Recipient of many culinary awards and Michelin stars, Mannerström is such a local celebrity that he has a tram car named after him. He earned his reputation while running Gothenburg’s venerable seafood “warehouse,” Sjömagasinet, where many of his classics like, fish au gratin, still feature prominently.

Today the place to sample Mannerström’s food is at Kometen, a hub for husmankost featuring massive portions of kåldolmar (cabbage rolls), Wienerschnitzel and Wallenbergare. “I wanted to carry on the tradition,” said Mannerström when asked what made him, at age 70, take on the kitchen at Kometen in 2014. “You can’t have only crossover restaurants everywhere”.

Kometen is the kind of place where Janssons Frestelse is the first item on the menu. While it may never be clear whether Jansson was really Janzon, according to Mannerström, there is only one way to make this famous home-style casserole. In fact, he says, “It is inauthentic and almost criminal” to use any type of fish other than sprats , in Sweden called ansjovis, and waxy potatoes are also a must.

#4 Gubbröra

If you see the term “S.O.S.,” on a Swedish menu, don’t panic. S.O.S. is the Swedish acronym for butter, cheese and herring. At Gubbhyllan, the historic restaurant inside the open-air museum Skansen, Chef K.C. Wallberg appropriately serves his S.O.S. plate with gubbröra – a mixture of hard-boiled eggs and sprats. Wallberg also adds a few modern touches like potato and sour apple, for a little zip.

Traveling Chef Anthony Bourdain made Pelikan internationally famous when he stopped by to try their gargantuan, beer-braised pork shank, but they were already nationally known for their meatballs, their S.O.S. and their gubbröra made with sprats and eggs, seasoned with chives, dill and parsley atop dark rye bread. Pelikan, like Mäster Anders and Kvarnen, was one of Stockholm’s first restaurants, all of which were operated by a group in the 1920s that aimed to influence tavern life by requiring food be ordered with one’s schnapps. So eat like 1920s wholesaler and get the whole package: grogg, gubbröra, pork shank, dessert and plenty of schnapps.

On the west coast of Sweden you will find the some top notch S.O.S or Gubbröra, any kind of sill as a matter of fact, at Salt och Sill on Klädesholmen.

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#5 Biff Rydberg

While Stockholm’s first hotel was demolished in 1914, Hotell Rydberg stood long enough to give its name to the beloved classic, Biff Rydberg. Often thought of as the luxury version of Pyttipanna (hash), Biff Rydberg should be made with perfectly seared bites of beef tenderloin and sautéed onion, served alongside diced potatoes with a mustard cream and a raw egg yolk and sometimes, fresh horseradish makes an appearance on the plate. According to the White Guide, Wärdshuset Ulla Winbladh serves Stockholm’s best Biff Rydberg, with “an unbeatably delicious mustard cream,” but many will tell you that Restaurang Prinsen, located not far from the site of the former hotel, is one of the best places to sample the dish.

#6 Wallenbergare

Restaurang Prinsen dates back to 1897, and it was run entirely by women proprietors until it was taken over by Anders Sandrew in 1952. Wallenbergare was his Anders’ favorite dish, and they serve it to this day. “We hope that he’s sitting up there among the clouds, gladdened by how we lovingly make his favorite dish,” writes Leon Nordin in a brief history of the restaurant.

Wallenbergare is a patty made out of ground veal, cream, egg yolks, salt, pepper and breadcrumbs. Wallenbergaren should be seared very lightly, so that it is still light and airy on the inside and barely brown on the outside. It is often served with boiled or mashed potatoes, lingonberry jam and green peas. The dish is named after the sheriff Marcus Wallenberg (1864-1943), whose father was the doctor and cookbook author Charles Emil Hagdahl. At Restaurant Sture in Malmö, you can sit amidst the classic decor with wooden paneling under the glass ceiling and enjoy a local, aged Österlensk steak or Wallenbergare, prepared according to Grandfather Julius Carlsson’s original recipe.

Can’t find Wallenbergare at a restaurant near you? Take home Leif Mannerström’s version, which is now being produced by the ready-made meals company, Dafgårds.

#7 Biff à la Lindström

Like Wallenbergare, Biff à la Lindström is a patty, but this one is made with ground beef, onion and potato, and studded with beets and capers. Many Lindströms lay claim to its namesake: there was a Maria Kristina Lindström who sold beef in Stockholm in the mid-1800s; and Adolf Henrik Lindstrøm was a Norwegian cook and polar expeditioner who participated on three treks to the poles with Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen. But it is First Hotel Witt in Kalmar, which dates back to the 17th century, that shouts loudest. According to the hotel’s website, on May 4, 1862 Lieutenant Henrik Lindström visited Kalmar and asked the Hotel Witt to procure the ingredients for a Russian dish he used to eat in St. Petersburg. He then instructed his friends on how to make it, and the result has been served at the hotel to this day.

#8 Stekt strömming

Restaurang Tranan is another nearly century-old Stockholm restaurant justly famous for their meatballs, though you probably won’t see them on the menu. What you will see on the menu, however, is fried herring with mashed potatoes. It’s been a house specialty since they opened in 1929.

Herring, often associated with the pickled variety, is also beloved by Swedes when fried whole and served with Dijon mustard and/or horseradish, mashed potatoes, lingonberries and pressed pickled cucumbers, or red onions and dill. While “stekt strömming”, pan-fried, can be found on the menus at famous establishments like Kvarnen, the concept of getting your herring to-go is popular throughout the country. In Gothenburg you’ll find the Strömmingsluckan and in Stockholm the Strömmingvagnen, both local institutions. (At Strömmingsluckan you can also opt for an ocean “Wallenbergare”).

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#9 Pea soup and pancakes

According to Liseberg’s web site, peas were a favorite food as far back as the Middle Ages, and the tradition of eating them in the form of soup and only on Thursdays came about due to the Catholic practice of fasting four days a week. Why pea soup became connected with pancakes seems to be a great mystery, but old traditions die hard so sometimes it’s best to celebrate them gloriously. That’s what Gothenberg’s theme park does. They host a pea soup and pancake buffet every Thursday: accompaniments for the soup include chunky pieces of corned beef, pork sausage, pork chops, sprigs of marjoram and thyme, and three varieties of mustard; and for the pancakes there are three different kinds of jam and whipped cream – and even a whipped cream infused with punsch, an arrack-flavored Swedish liqueur traditionally served with pea soup and pancakes.

#10 Raggmunk

Swedes take their potato pancakes seriously. Raggmunk, as it is called when served with bacon and lingonberries, dates back to the early 1900s: “ragg” refers to the shaggy edges and monk is a synonym for cake. The key to a delicious Raggmunk? Use “old” potatoes (not fresh or new and waxy potatoes) and cook the cakes in the bacon grease until brown.

Raggmunk is the official dish of the region of Östergötland, and even has a society dedicated to it called The Friends of Raggmunk. On their web site they review and rate restaurants’ renditions. Most recently, they gave Magnus Ladulås in Stockholm’s Old Town four out of five points (or, erm, lingonberries). Grodan in Stockholm also makes a delicious rendition, browned to perfection around the edges, and served with thick slabs of crispy bacon and lingonberries.

Raggmunk with longonberry jam. Photo: Susanne Walström
Raggmunk with longonberry jam. Photo: Susanne Walström

#11 Kroppkakor & pitepalt

Genuine husmanskost is based on local ingredients, and therefore varies throughout the country. In Gothenburg the fare is more seafood-oriented and in the north, arctic char, moose and reindeer replace herring and beef dishes. But some dishes reappear throughout the country with only slight variations – one of these is the potato dumpling, which dates back as far as the 17th century.

In the south these sizable balls of stuffed potatoes are called kroppkakor. At Ninnis Kroppkakor on the island of Öland, Ninnis has been dishing out kroppkakor for 23 years. On a popular summer day, Eva” Ninni” Petersson sells 2000 dumplings out of her little hut. A pig farmer and potato grower, Petersson’s dumplings vary according to the season, since she uses a blend different potato varieties depending on the harvest. While the traditional version has pork and onion in its center, Ninnis also makes a vegetarian version with a mushroom filling.

Up north potato dumplings are made with barley flour instead of wheat, and called palt, or Pitepalt, named after the city of Piteå. There’s actually a Palt Academy in Piteå that holds tastings and Paltzeria is palt ground zero, featuring “the world’s largest palt menu.” Order your palt fried, boiled or made with creamy mashed potatoes or go for the local favorite, “black and white,” in which the black variety contain blood.

Many Swedes still make husmanskost at home using recipes like the ones found on Sweden.se – or they buy ready-made meals from producers like Scan, Dafgårds and Johans kök. But today Swedes eat out more and more frequently, which explains the increase in restaurants like Tradition, where you can get healthy, modernized versions of almost all of the classics mentioned here. And when no dish costs more than 300 SEK, you can take comfort from the home-cooked flavors, the calorie-count, and the pricing