Geographically, Sweden’s long expanse across various ecological terrains affords it peculiar diversity. While most countries depend on an east-west axis to stabilize agricultural demands, Sweden’s landscape spans five latitudes, making their cuisine refreshing and unique. Natural explorers (think Norse mythology and Vikings), residents have traveled extensively to bring spices and ideas from abroad, especially dabbling in the Far East. The result is a natural union of Sweden’s fresh berries, seafood and pickled foods alongside global tastes of Africa, Asia and, as many of their native chefs are now proving, America.
The smörgåsbord (literally, “bread and butter table”), for example, draws fitting parallels to the all-you-can-eat habits of American folk. With a Swedish spread, however, you’ll find an array of delicacies, from strömming (Baltic herring), Swedish meatballs and tunnbröd (thin, white crispbread) to åkerbär (a rare berry resembling a raspberry), Janssons frestelse (Jansson's Temptation) and palt (dumplings). While the dishes can get racy–reindeer meat and långmjölk (sour milk)–you’ll still have a delicious meal well beyond the $5.99 Denny’s highway special.
Known largely in this country for IKEA and, for some hideous reason, ABBA, the Swedish invasion has been a slow infusion. In New York City alone five restaurants—ranging from traditional to progressive–have opened doors recently. Arguably the most popular, Aquavit (named for a flavored, distilled liquor, also called Snaps) has consistently garnered stellar reviews since 1987, an outstanding accomplishment in the transient restaurant world. Executive chef Marcus Samuelsson’s constant meddling with tradition is a big reason for this.
Born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, Samuelsson spent many years cooking on ships, affording him the opportunity to bring the world to Swedish cuisine, or vice-versa. “Traditional Swedish is different from what I do but it stems from there,” he says. “I cook for New York; I work in a global city with very cosmopolitan clientele, so therefore you have to bring in global ingredients. I start with the three cornerstones [seafood, game and pickling], and use my aesthetic: different types of textures, cooking in different temperatures in order to create new and interesting flavors that I think would be interesting to my customers.”
Browsing Aquavit’s menu is like thumbing through a secret doctrine of culinary ecstasy. Starting with House Smoked Salmon (Poached Quail Egg, Goat Cheese Parfait, Osetra Caviar), moving to Hot Smoke Arctic Char (Saffron and Vanilla Flavored Eggplant Purée, Octopus Salad, Tomato Broth), and finally Lobster and Tuna (Melon, Ginger Reduction, Water Chestnuts, White Curry), the enthusiast is enthralled. Of course, let us not forget the essential dessert. Maybe Hazelnut Parfait (Chocolate Sorbet, Sake Sabayonne, Raspberries) or Passion Fruit and Horseradish Granite with Cucumber?
Therein lies a necessity of Swedish cooking: Berries. The same reason pickling is necessary–namely the cold climate forcing residents to preserve food–results in a plethora of
Herring and Beetroot Salad (Sillsallad)
· 2desalted herring fillets
· 3 medium-sized boiled potatoes
· 1 large pickled gherkin
· 1-2 cooking apples
· 2 tbs finely chopped onion
· 450 g/1 lb (approx. 15) pickled beetroot
· 3 tbs beetroot liquid
· white pepper