What makes meatballs Swedish?
Did you ever wonder why Swedish meatballs are Swedish?
Other regional meatballs reflect their nations tastes notes so clearly they might just as well come garnished with mini national flags: the Italian meatball will taste of tomato and basil; the Spanish meatball of smoked paprika and red pepper; the Moroccan meatball might include tomato and harissa; the Indian meatball will come with curry sauce and yoghurt… So how is it that we can tell if this type of meatball is Swedish?
Is it the cream in the sauce? Sweden is obsessed with dairy products – could this be the essential Nordic ingredient? Allspice is a dominant ingredient, but it’s not native to Scandinavia. Allspice does have a certain spruce-like woodiness. Is it the scent of Nordic pines that remind us of Sweden? The sweet red, but bitter, lingonberry is an essential accompaniment – happily this ingredient is native to arctic tundra – but how different is this to eating North American meat with cranberries? Does the grey blandness of the meatballs and gravy remind us of a de-saturated landscape in a Scandinavian crime drama? We can imagine how this type of comfort food could easily sooth the weary soul of Swedish crime detective Kurt Wallander, as he ruminates over another grizzly murder in Ystad.
Perhaps it’s the experience of eating the meatballs in the all-pervasive Swedish environment of IKEA that creates the distinctive Swedish character. As you navigate your way along the prescribed blue and yellow path, toil and traipse through endless propped dioramas of trendy Swedish furniture, become both stimulated and bamboozled by unpronounceable Swedish brand names, finally seeking refuge and sustenance in the restaurant at the end of the path, you acquiesce – as have millions before you – and order a plate of köttbullar. As you tuck into this plate of creamy heaven you will have convinced yourself that these meatballs are as Swedish as a Billy the bookcase.
What will help is a few more interpretations of the Swedish meatball. Take a trip to some of London’s Swedish eateries. Anna Hegarty’s restaurant has closed (see below) but Lisa’s in Portobello Road serves meatballs in the style of Anna’s, as does Cooper and Wolf’s ‘traditional’ meatballs. Fika in Brick Lane offers a lamb meatball flavoured with dill, a more obvious Scandinavian taste. ScandiKitchen on Great Titchfield Street serves theirs with beetroot and pickled cucumber – which conveys a classic Swedish heritage.
As we begin to discover how this meatball fits into the Scandinavian culinary scene we can now stick our mini Swedish flag into the meatballs and happily pronounce them Swedish. And as we pass through Swedish Hej Coffee in Bermondsey to take stock, we confidently order their version of Swedish meatballs – ‘viking balls’ – and will know that the provenance is as obvious as if they were wearing little horned-viking hats.