All countries have food clichés — that is, dishes everybody thinks about when they talk about a country. Scandinavia is no exception. One of Scandinavia’s food clichés is meatballs. Why are Swedish meatballs so famous? And why the Swedish ones and not some, or all, of the other kinds of meatballs eaten throughout Scandinavia? Is it because Ikea serves small, round meatballs in light brown gravy with lingonsylt (lingonberry jam) in all its megastores around the world?
Stereotypes in food are as boring as they are in people. The Scandinavian food culture is diverse and seasonal and has much more to offer than meatballs. And when it comes to meatballs, there’s a lot more to it than just Swedish meatballs. Ikea is properly the best-known Scandinavian brand with a global reach, except maybe for ABBA. The Ikea food store and its restaurants both sell and serve Swedish meatballs produced by a Swedish food company. They are promoted in all Ikea catalogs and on its website.
Is that the only explanation for the celebrity of Swedish meatballs? Or is it because of the large number of Swedes who immigrated to the U.S. in the 19th century. Clearly, they brought the recipe to America. Did the famous Swedish Chef in “The Muppets” ever do meatballs? Did well-known Swedish-raised chef Marcus Samuelsson?
Meatballs part of food culture in Scandinavia
It is difficult to answer all these questions. Instead, I will try to highlight some of the other Scandinavian meatballs and give a few other recipes that can outsmart the Swedish meatball.
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In Scandinavia, minced meat is a big part of everyday meals. I would estimate it is eaten once or twice a week in many households. There are different regional recipes and traditions, from kjøtbullar, frikadeller and krebinetter to a variety of meatballs in sauce with vegetables.
Danish meatballs (frikadeller) are made from equal shares of minced pork and minced veal combined with a mixture called fars, which consists of finely chopped onion, eggs, flour, milk, salt and pepper and maybe a little bit of spices like nutmeg or juniper. Frikadeller are not round like a ball, but have an oval shape. They are pan-fried in butter and served according to tradition with boiled vegetables and potatoes and often no gravy. If there is gravy, it can be just melted butter from the pan, and it is always served on the side.
In my own recipe for frikadeller, I use freshly chopped thyme. My grandmother taught me to use sparkling water instead of milk, which makes the meatballs lighter. The best way to serve them in winter is with baked root vegetables and parsley pesto. In the summer, they can be served with summer cabbage pan-fried in butter with a bit of chili flakes and small new potatoes. Another classic meal is to serve frikadeller cold the next day on rye bread with pickled beetroots.
Frikadeller can also be made with 100% fish, often mixed with fresh herbs such as dill or tarragon. This is also a very traditional dish.
Recipes for vegetarian frikadeller became trendy in the 1970s with all the micro-macro food and the vegetarian movement. Instead of meat, the meatballs can be made with beetroot, split peas, carrots, leftover boiled vegetables — the combinations are endless. It’s a great way to make use of the lonely vegetables left in the back of the fridge.
Then there are all the different meatballs in sauce or gravy, again with equal shares of pork and veal and similar to frikadeller but boiled instead of pan-fried.
A classic Danish recipe is meatballs with celeriac and white gravy made with lots of nutmeg: Boil the meatballs in salted water and bay leaves. When done, use some of the stock to make a white sauce based on a roux and add leeks and big chunks of celeriac. Let the sauce simmer until the celeriac is soft, then add in the meatballs again. Both fresh thyme and tarragon go well with these meatballs. I like to serve them with boiled spelt or rye grains.
Another classic, and actually one of the most popular dishes in Danish households, is meatballs made with curry powder based on a recipe from about 1935. The spice mixture is from England, but the idea of the meatballs and gravy is Danish. The classic recipe has no vegetables, just meatballs and gravy served with rice.
This recipe is a bit more up-to-date and has lots of vegetables and ginger.
Meatballs in Curry Sauce
Serves 8, or a family of 4 for two days
For the meatballs:
1 pound minced pork
1 pound minced veal
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 cup milk or sparkling water
½ cup plain wheat flour
2 tablespoons curry powder
5 teaspoons flaky salt
Freshly ground pepper
Water for boiling
2 bay leaves
For the sauce:
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
4 tablespoons freshly grated ginger
2 tablespoons curry powder
2 tablespoons plain wheat flour
1 cup double cream
2 leeks, sliced
4 carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks
2 apples, cored and sliced
Salt and pepper
1. Combine the minced meats, onion and garlic in a bowl. Add the milk, flour, curry powder, 2 teaspoons of the salt and some freshly ground pepper and mix together.
2. Add the eggs and mix again for about 5 minutes so that the mixture is as light and fluffy as possible.
3. Heat 8 to 10 cups water in a pot. Add the bay leaves and the remaining salt to the water and bring to the boil. Meanwhile, use your hands to shape half the meat mixture into little balls about three-quarters of an inch (2 centimeters) wide.
4. Plop the meatballs in the water and let them simmer for 20 minutes.
5. Remove the meatballs from the water with a skimmer and place on a tray.
6. Shape and cook the other half of the meat mixture and then cook the same way.
7. Set all the meatballs aside until the sauce is done, reserving 3 to 4 cups of the cooking liquid.
8. In another pot, melt the butter. Add the onions, garlic, ginger and curry powder and cook for a couple of minutes.
9. Add the flour and stir well.
10. Add ½ cup of the meatball cooking liquid and stir until smooth. Pour in more of the cooking liquid as necessary until you have smooth gravy, and bring to a simmer.
11. Add the cream and return to the boil. Reduce the heat, add the meatballs, leeks and carrots and simmer for 5 minutes.
12. Add the apples and continue cooking for 3 minutes.
13. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with rice.
Top photo: Meatballs in Curry Sauce. Credit: Lars Ranek