What the Swedes Know About Breakfast That Americans Don’t
American breakfasts are nothing if not brazen. You can’t throw an Egg McMuffin without hitting a nearby billboard heralding the newest gut-busting breakfast bandito, Cronut, or Grand Slam. It doesn’t matter where in the world you are, you can very likely ask for an all-American breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast, and orange juice and get it (though perhaps in a much smaller serving). Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but sometimes you yearn for an alternative—perhaps something a little quieter, a little less showy. Here is an alternative, one that comes to us from the country that brought us ABBA, icy blondes, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Consider, if you will, the Swedish breakfast.
On an extended trip to Sweden last year, I got to experience many wonders of the Scandinavian breakfast table which is—quite literally—a movable feast of breads, fruits, vegetables, and sour milk. Before my visit to the country, I wasn’t all that familiar with Swedish breakfast cuisine, save from the cinnamon rolls at IKEA sells. (And, yes, I realize that going to IKEA to experience Swedish culinary prowess is kind of like going to Rome and then eating exclusively at the Hard Rock Café.) Most Swedes don’t eat out for breakfast, instead preferring quiet mornings at home, which came as a shock after eight years in Manhattan, where I had the luxury of buying an egg and cheese breakfast sandwich on a roll on nearly every corner.
After talking to a fair number of Swedes and spending an ungodly amount of time lost in the aisles of local grocery store Hemköp, trying to figure out why everything from mayonnaise to caviar was sold in tubes, I gained some insights into Scandi dining. And they were all delicious.
This is, after all, the culture that gave us the Smörgåsbord (literally: “cold table”; actually: a buffet of endless varieties of hot and cold items), so it’s no wonder the Swedish breakfast takes a while to explain—there are just too many players. It’s kind of like trying to introduce every band member of Arcade Fire; you just accept that it’s going to take a long time, but each part (and person) is important to the overall experience.
While oatmeal or porridge may be the historical breakfast choice of everyone from Vikings to peasants, there are plenty of other traditions ingrained into typical Swedish fare. The most basic staple is filmjölk, a soured buttermilk. I wasn’t able to translate the first part during my first fateful visit to my Stockholm grocer, and thus took a big, hearty swig of the stuff before realizing my bitter mistake. But once the initial shock (and taste) was gone, I came to realize a thing that Swedes have long known—filmjölk, especially if it’s slightly flavored with vanilla or raspberry, is one of the tastiest things to pour over a heaping bowl of cereal or muesli. It’s tangy, tart, and adds a different taste dimension to the proceedings—like the buttermilk in biscuits or pancakes, but more so.
Then there’s the matter of crisp bread (knäckebröd), the heart and soul of Swedish cuisine for more than 500 years. I’d heard that if stored properly, the flat, simple bread made of rye flour can last for a full year, which could explain its bland, cardboard-like texture that makes Saltines seem like freshly-baked brioche. Still, flatbread isn’t meant to be eaten plain, and Swedes have found combinations that suit everyone. Boiled eggs, butter, cheese, peppers, cucumbers, and even caviar squeezed from a tube are all fair game to make your own open-faced breakfast sandwich. There’s lingonberry jam, too, if you want it—though most Swedes will tell you to save that for the traditional meatballs.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the tradition of strong coffee in Sweden. Swedes drink more coffee per capita than any other country besides Finland and the Netherlands, and for good reason. Social life is built around coffee culture, and throw in some pretty long, dark winters and suddenly, that third or fourth cup of coffee sounds like a brilliant idea. That meant me going out and investing in a little French press and boiling water over a comically small stove in my Stockholm apartment. Next, I shoveled in as much ground coffee as my stomach lining can handle (I prefer mine one step away from rocket fuel, with an extra side of Tums).
Swedes don’t mimic their southern European neighbors by serving any sort of pastry for breakfast, a point that, as a bagel-loving New Yorker, I found kind of strange. Why wouldn’t you have heaps of croissants and jam, especially in a place known for its café society? Also a puzzler: the famous Swedish pancake—a no-frills, crepe-like sheet of batter to America’s lifeboat-sized pillows, if you will—is more of a lunch item, often served with pea soup, a tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages. I can’t say that I was as much into pancakes with soup, and found it baffling, like people who keep trying to make “brinner” a thing, or pajamas-as-daytime-fashion. There is a time and a place, yes, but it is not here, it is not now.
But then, I was introduced to fika, the twice-daily ritual (used as a noun or a verb, in case you were wondering) in which you stop what you’re doing and go have coffee and pastries. And those pastries are mostly kanelbullar, a Swedish take on cinnamon buns, unfrosted and often with other spices like cardamom mixed in.
So as not to completely overdo it, pastries are absent from the breakfast table and fika serves as something of a second breakfast. Even if your breakfast is devoid of a buttery pastry, give it another hour or two until fika, then it’s bombs away.
Really, any culture that upholds a nationally adored institution that also lets me have pastries twice a day is fine by me. Listen, I’m okay with American breakfast fare, too, and delight in fluffy pancakes the size of monster-truck hubcaps, but when it comes to a meal done well and understated, I’m all about lagom—that’s Swedish for “just enough.”