Flavours with meaning: Rediscovering traditional Swedish food

Kaj Szyszkiewicz, cook at Atelier Food, one of Stockholm's trendy restaurants

Kaj Szyszkiewicz, cook at Atelier Food, one of Stockholm’s trendy restaurants

Scandinavian sashimi, pickled herring, tapas and meat balls: Taking a closer look at the food scene in Stockholm, one year before the world cooking competition will take place there.

First it is only a very small note. A hint, not yet classifiable, but it reminds you of something. With the next bite it gets clearer; meadows, freshness, water, nature. One more bite. The flavours fill your mouth with a clear composition of herbs and the pure taste of vegetables and fish that is softly melting on your tongue. There is nothing extraordinary or experimental about this dish. A piece of white fish with vegetables, tomato sauce and wild rice, spiced with traditional herbs; as simple as it could be. But it feels like eating a concentrate of Swedish nature, more intense and delicious than ever before.

“We try to change the ingredients as little as possible,” explains Kaj Szyszkiewicz, a cook at the restaurant Atelier Food. “We don’t want to spend the money on manipulating the food, but rather on the quality of excellent products.” At Atelier Food, they offer traditional Swedish food with a modern twist, and the people love it. Half an hour into service the fish is sold out. Young hip blondes with leather jackets and boots are standing next to elderly business men in suits, ordering their meals at the purposely rough-painted counter. The daily menu is written by hand on posters and you can take your seat at small wooden tables, placed between sculptures, while waiting for your food.

One of Stockholm’s trendy restaurants serving Swedish dishes: Atelier Food

One of Stockholm’s trendy restaurants serving Swedish dishes: Atelier Food

Atelier Food is one of the many new foodie venues that have popped up in Stockholm during the last few years. “2012 was a record year for restaurants in Stockholm,” says Olof Zetterberg, CEO of Stockholm Business Region. “With the turnover growing by 4.5%, it was the highest growth for the last 10 years.” Stockholm’s restaurants are climbing up the world lists. The food scene here is vibrant, trendy, diverse, and getting a lot of international attention especially right now. Next year, in May 2014, the Bocuse d’Or, the “Olympic Games” of cooking, will take place in the city.

The trend: Back to the roots

“It is all about going back to the roots,” Nadia Nygren says, explaining that modern, fancy spots now cook traditional Swedish dishes. She is the PR and project coordinator of the initiative Sweden – the New Culinary Nation a government initiative which promotes Swedish cuisine. In her opinion, Sweden lost its identity a little “…With all the multicultural food around us, we forgot about our cultural heritage. Now we have started to rediscover it,” she says. So instead of Thai, Italian or Japanese, the hip restaurants offer more and more traditional food with typical Swedish ingredients and flavours such as dill, horseradish, salmon, berries or mushrooms. With nine climate zones and clean production, all the best products are right there at home.

Lunch at Atelier Food: Baked hake with tomato sauce, onions, fennel marinade, broccoli, endive salad and spinach

Lunch at Atelier Food: Baked hake with tomato sauce, onions, fennel marinade, broccoli, endive salad and spinach

“People are more conscious now about their food. They started thinking about what they really have and want to know where their food comes from,” says Nygren. The recent horse meat scandal has highlighted the public’s desire to know more about where their food comes from. For this reason, at Urban Deli, another trendy restaurant, all products are labelled and they only serve seasonal food. “Our philosophy is also to make unique things ourselves, for example our own sausages,” explains Viktor Rings, a cook at this rough concept space combining a market hall, a shop and a restaurant. “It is about trust now.”

Viktor Ringsö, cook at Urban Deli where everything is self-made, labelled and regional

Viktor Rings, cook at Urban Deli where everything is self-made, labelled and regional

Trend-setters embraced this idea, young people thinking that global food isn’t cool enough anymore, now lean towards traditional Swedish food, preferably made of regional products. The meals are clean and simple, but from such an excellent quality that it feels like tasting every single molecule with full intensity. It might be more expensive, but the taste is worth it, and the clear conscience on top is free.

Through all aspects of cuisine you can experience the trend of going back to your roots, back to nature. Having just won two more Michelin stars this year, the city of Stockholm is now home to eight starred restaurants. One of them is Lux, a place where they had already started the trend of going back to traditions 10 years ago. “There is a big difference between then and now,” says Henrik Norström, the chef of the Lux. “Now, more and more restaurants are cooking Swedish. Actually it is just natural to cook this type of cuisine here. But when we started it, it wasn’t.” He thinks that a reason for the trend might be that the Swedish identity of the people in Stockholm is getting stronger. Just as Nygren explained it, unsettled by globalization people feel lost and develop a desire to return to home, to roots. At Lux, they use traditional techniques to put Swedish flavour into their food, such as pickling fish. Because of the extraordinary presentation some people might not recognize the dish at first, but the taste is familiar.

Traditions + experiments = fusion

The trend of going back to indigenous Swedish food also has an experimental side, where restaurants push the boundaries of Swedish cuisine and culture. One of them is the Smak, a place that feels a bit like a secret. Inside it is dark and silent. Thick carpets swallow chef Jonas Svensson’s footsteps as he leaves the bright lights of the kitchen, passing racks of bottles and enters the restaurant. Glowing mysteriously and filled with liquids of different colours, the bottles strengthen the impression that this is a witch’s kitchen, a chemistry lab. “We work with the flavours,” explains Svensson. They offer small tasting courses (each based around a different taste; salty, sweet, sour etc.) which are meant to be combined, like experimental tapas. “Most of the people have a desire to try something new,” he says. But he has incorporated the developments of the last few years. Even at Smak, a lot of the flavours are Swedish and at lunchtime they serve typically Swedish food. For Svensson, it is all about fusion; “People are hot on the traditions, but they are tired of the old heavy meals, they want more freshness.” That’s why he followed a different concept at his other restaurant, Miss Voon. They serve Nordic food infused with Asian flavours. The Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology (SIK) has uncovered that there is, on one hand, a growing demand for locally produced food and traditional meals, and on the other hand, a desire for experimentation and new tastes.

Jonas Svensson doing flavour experiments at the Smak

Jonas Svensson doing flavour experiments at the Smak

This duality is an idea that is spreading within the city’s food scene. At Frantzén they combine Nordic roots with exotic elements, for example from Japan. And Mathias Dahlgren, probably the most famous Swedish chef, serves Scandinavian sashimi.  There is much anticipation about what kind of food will be presented at the Bocuse d’Or next year in Stockholm. “We want to show both sides of our food, the traditional and the multicultural, it should taste typically Swedish,” says Frida Rönnlund from Gastronomi Sverige, the organiser of the Bocuse d’Or.


Left: Serving food based on Nordic ingredients directly in the old town: Frantzén, owner of two stars in Guide Michelin and number 12 of the world’s 50 best restaurants; Right: People in Stockholm love their food, and eating outside

A mentality embodied by people like Caroline Tallving, the owner of 8t8, a food store in the most avant-garde neighbourhood of Stockholm, who serves up multiculturalism with lunch at her small noodle bar. Her Asian noodles are the base for fresh Swedish ingredients and together it is a perfect and healthy combination. “Stockholm has always been very trendy,” she states contentedly. “And now the people have understood that the best things are right here.”