Studying abroad in Sweden offers a unique look into a culture and cuisine that is not completely obvious to outsiders. When choosing a study abroad program, I wanted to go somewhere that wasn’t mainstream and that wouldn’t be on my must-travel-to-immediately list. Ironically, I chose Stockholm and within a few days realized that this country was completely underrated by the average student looking to study abroad. When people think of one-of-a-kind study abroad experiences, immediate thoughts go to Paris, London and Madrid, but Sweden offers an experience unlike any other.
By nature, Swedes are low key. They are quiet and modest, but at the same time are responsible for incredible innovations in technology and design with inventions such as the invisible bike helmet, GPS, and the pacemaker to name a few. But you will rarely hear them brag about creating these life-changing products.
True to their culture, their food is also low-key but brilliant. Subtly decadent and made with simple ingredients that yield outstanding flavors, Swedish cuisine is refined, yet accessible. Their signature dishes include aspects of their Nordic origins along with modern, unexpected twists that make Swedish food both traditional and innovative, familiar yet adventurous.
To make sure you get the full Swedish experience, here are the top 10 Swedish culinary experiences that you have to indulge in while studying abroad:
To the Swedes, the Lingonberry is a berry that has multiple uses and basically goes with and enhances every and any dish. A sweet, but tart taste, Lingonberries are often made into an exquisite jam that is used on everything from porridge, yogurt, meatballs to even pickled herring.
For the study abroad student looking to eat authentically on the cheap, keep a jar of this handy in your bag along with some to-go yogurt cups for a culturally on-point, brown bag meal to eat before, in-between and after class.
For the student looking for their study-abroad replacement for their sweet, morning-coffee pastry, look no further than the Kanelbullar.
The Swedish version of the cinnamon bun, Kanelbullar has a sweet flavor accented with cinnamon and cardamom and is topped with pearl sugar. An always appropriate food item for breakfast, lunch, fika (see below) or dinner, Kanelbullar is so beloved by the Swedish people that they have a national holiday dedicated to celebrating this amazing pastry.
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Looking to make local friends quickly after you arrive to study abroad in Sweden? Invite one (or several) of your Swedish classmates for a fika and participate in a widely enjoyed Swedish tradition.
A state of mind more than an actual dish, Fika is the Swedish coffee break. It happens multiple times a day and is a crucial event for Swedish socializing and a key culinary moment. If you had to put a strict rule on it, Fika is generally (and slightly mandatorily) taken twice a day, once around 10 am and once around 3 pm where friends will come together to enjoy coffee, pastries, such as Kanelbullar or Semla (see below), and casual conversation.
Contrary to this description, Fika is not seen as a form of procrastination. In fact, Swedes credit Fika as the key to their societal success in innovation and creativity and see it as a time for a necessary reset during the work or school day.
I know what you are going to say, “Why are you recommending a sort-of whole wheat cracker?” Because this bread is a Swedish pantry-staple and a key ingredient for the Swedish-signature open-faced sandwiches, and because you're about to be a student on a tight budget, you might be eating this on a daily basis.
Made with numerous, classically Swedish ingredients, the most traditional toppings are the Swedish farmer cheese “Hushallsost”, cloudberry jam, ham, or smoked fish.
If you have signed up to spend the spring semester in Sweden, you will be greeted by minimal sunlight and long winter nights, which are quickly made-up for by the fact that you are in Sweden for Semla season.
Semla is a small wheat bun that is filled with almond paste and whipped cream and is nothing short of iconic and delicious. Semal is only served January through February as a Fat Tuesday decadent treat before lent and where you can get the best Semla has become a sport for Swedes.
Every Swede has a strong opinion on where you can get the best one and local papers will document taste-tests and food tours in search of finding the best Semla every season. Don’t be shy about embarking on your own search to fill time between classes!
As you get settled into your study abroad experience, the best way to toast to your new-found Swedish friends is with Aquavit.
The iconic celebratory liquor throughout Scandinavia, this is a great bread and butter gift if you find yourself invited to any Swedish celebrations. Remember to say “skol” when you cheers and look everyone in the eye, it is considered bad luck if you don’t.
Originally a Nordic spirit, Aquavit has a slight caraway taste and was originally thought to have healing powers. Throughout Swedish history, it has been used as a supposed cure for the Black Death and ironically, alcoholism, but it is now enjoyed as a celebratory shot amongst friends and family.
If you are in Sweden for your fall semester, you’ll be lucky enough to be there for Glögg season. Fun to drink and say, Glögg is mulled red wine that is served during the holiday season with a glass of schnapps (aka Aquavit). The Swedes add blanched almonds and raisins to make it distinctly theirs.
We can’t talk about Swedish food without talking about Swedish meatballs! Every Swedish family offers their own unique take, secret ingredients and cooking technique that makes this signature dish have an odd sense of variety and expectation amongst Swedes.
The widespread joke amongst Swedes is that the only essential ingredient for this quintessential Swedish dish is the Lingonberry topping. If you stay with a host family during your semester abroad, make sure to ask your host parents for their family secret ingredient!
Students looking to go a bit bolder with their traditional open-faced sandwich lunch can turn to Gravlax. Dill-cured Salmon that is served with spicy mustard sliced cucumber, Gravlax is perfect for Fika, a light lunch, study-snack or paired with some wine after a long day of classes.
Looking to impress your host parents? Bring them a platter of Toast Skagen. More extravagant than meets the eye, Toast Skagen is built upon a piece of bread that has been sautéed in butter and topped with a combination of prawns, mustard, and mayo and followed with a spoonful of red caviar.
Coffee shops generally serve a more informal version of this sans caviar, but you will often see this as a much-anticipated starter at Swedish dinner parties.
While Swedish cuisine fulfills some stereotypes of being filled with smoked fish and meatballs, the Swedes have done a marvelous job of providing unexpected, but delightful, spice combinations and a measured mix of subtlety and decadence. Food you can get easily hooked on during your study abroad experience, Swedish cuisine is best enjoyed on-location, so enjoy it as much as you can during your semester.
This post was originally published in August 2018, and it was updated in October 2020.