Local Knowledge: Smorgasbord. What Is It?

Local Knowledge: Smorgasbord. What Is It?
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This signature Swedish spread which consists of a lavish spread of hot and cold dishes had Elvis Presley himself craving for more

V. Venkatesan
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01 Min Read

“I’m just wild about smorgasbord,” warbled Elvis Presley in his 1966 movie Spinout. “I got a cravin’ for smorgasbord.” The object of The King’s adoration – and manifest gastronomic excess – is Sweden’s signature spread and, for sure, something of a culinary stereotype. The smörgåsbord is traditionally a lavish, 40-dish buffet of hot and cold dishes - from Baltic herring to smoked reindeer - followed by a choice of desserts and coffee. Lexicographic evolutions may have invested that mouthful of a word with many hodgepodge connotations, but in truth the smörgåsbord is anything but a mishmash: in fact, a sense of ritualistic order governs the dining tradition.

It’s customary to begin with sill(herring), prepared in many ways: fried and pickled in vinegar and chopped onion, or marinated in mustard, or with red onion and sour cream. This is usually followed by other seafood: jellied eel, smoked fish, and raw picked salmon. A particular favourite is the gravad lax: salmon marinated in sugar, salt and dill, and served with a cold sweet-and-sour mustard sauce. Diners then proceed to the cold dishes: baked ham or liver paste, accompanied by vegetable salads. Hot dishes, often Swedish meatballs, are next in line, backed up by cheese and crackers, and perhaps a fruit salad.

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The Swedes are known to be bullish on potatoes, which are eaten along with meat stews or sliced meat; grilled or baked trout, char or salmon; or herring. The potatoes may be boiled, baked, or sliced with onion and anchovy, then oven-baked with lots of cream.

There’s also usually a selection of types of bread, including sweet dark rye bread, tunnbröd (thin barley crispbread) and knäckebröd, a hard bread made from wheat or rye.

The smörgåsbord reinforces the importance of three distinct flavours in Swedish cuisine: the sour, the salty and the sweet. Rather than compete, the nuanced flavours balance one another. Yet that sense of balance doesn’t always manifest itself in the diners: some kings just went “wild about smorgasbord.”


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