When my great-great-grandmother left Sweden for the United States in 1892, she packed up her two kids, her most beloved possessions, including a coffee grinder and copper kettle, and a whole lotta courage.
Her husband had forged the way 10 years earlier and landed in Springfield, Mo. Karolina stayed behind, raising those children as a single mother, dreaming of a day when she and Gustav might reunite.
When he’d finally made enough money to send for her, Karolina, who lived most of her life on Gotland, an island in the middle of the Baltic Sea, knew generally where she was heading but nothing of what her future life in a landlocked part of middle America might entail.
Amid all that uncertainty, at least she would have coffee.
I know about Karolina’s coffee grinder and kettle because they are sitting on my grandmother’s mantel, where they have been resting for more than 50 years. Carolyn, Karolina’s granddaughter, is 86 years old now, living just 30 miles from where our Swedish ancestors settled in the late 1800s. She has been the keeper of Karolina’s things and also the story of how we got here.
In the 124 years since our matriarch arrived in the U.S., no one in my family had stepped foot on the island where she was born. Earlier this year, I decided it was time for that to change. A week after I announced plans for my trip, my sister, who has been known to go to great lengths for good coffee herself, called to ask, “Can I come?”
That’s how we found ourselves, bundled up in scarves and sweaters even though it was early August, sipping coffee in Stockholm.
Eventually, we would make our way to the small villages on Gotland to visit the 13th-century church where Karolina was confirmed and the farmland where her parents and siblings were born and buried. But first, we had to find lunch.
That first meal was, fittingly, at the Vasa Museum, home of the 17th-century ship that sank on its maiden voyage and was recovered, 95 percent intact, in the 1950s. The Vasa represents so much in Swedish culture: the transition from being a war-faring country to a pacifist one, its obsession with history and design, the ability to embrace failures so that you can learn from them. (The museum has a section dedicated to the ways in which early preservation efforts might have actually done more harm than good.)
At the museum cafe, we dined on smörgås, the open-faced sandwiches that are perhaps the most quintessential Swedish meal. Everywhere you go, you’ll find slices of rye bread topped with sliced meats, cold shrimp or cured salmon, sometimes with cheese, pickled vegetables or microgreens.
I imagine Karolina ate smörgås, too, but I doubt she had the option of hitting the pub for craft beer and carbonara, and I can’t imagine what she’d think of the french fries topped with thin slices of kebab meat smothered in chipotle yogurt sauce.
We did our best to eat as Swedish as we could, but globalization has changed what that means. Shawarma, pizza and burgers were far easier to find in Stockholm than Swedish meatballs or pickled fish. In Visby, the UNESCO World Heritage site and largest town on Gotland, we found Bad Wolf BBQ, a barbecue and Tex-Mex joint run by a Swede who once lived in Texas, and an international street food restaurant called Black One Love, where we had falafel and the same kind of fried shishito peppers that are on so many restaurant menus in Austin right now.
Like good backpackers, we shopped at markets to buy provisions for some of our meals. I’ve written about how much I love going grocery shopping no matter where I’m traveling, and Scandinavian supermarkets did not let me down — think of the small grocery market inside IKEA, but much bigger and with smaller carts.
I knew that Swedes have an affinity for Tex-Mex, but I was surprised to see just how much shelf space they dedicate to salsas, tortillas and fajita and taco spice mixes. As in most European countries, the yogurt selection is the stuff of dreams. We did find kombucha after about a week of hunting for it, but it wasn’t very good.
The jars of pickled fish weren’t nearly as smelly as I’d anticipated, and Sweden could give Spain a run for its money when it comes to pureed meats and seafood. (Inspired by the bocadillos that fueled so many adventures during my year abroad in Spain, I made a baguette sandwich with liverwurst and store-bought Swedish meatballs that will go down in history as one of my Best Ideas Ever.)
When we got to Malmö, Sweden’s third-largest city, we stumbled upon their big city festival. With large music stages set up in the squares and throngs of people crowding the streets waiting in line to buy food from dozens of food trucks representing cuisines from all over the globe, I felt right at home. Well, almost: A Texan expat helping run a “Texas-style burger” pop-up apologized for the upside-down Texas flags waving above the tent.
We strolled past trucks selling empanadas, bulgogi, Middle Eastern wraps, jerk chicken, Cajun chicken, fried chicken, carnitas tacos served on the kind of small tortillas you’d find at the most legit taco trucks in Austin, and a dish I’d never seen called langos, a fried, sweet Hungarian flatbread topped with small shrimp, caviar or crawfish.
Once we hopped across the bridge to Denmark, we checked into our Airbnb and promptly stopped by the porridge shop next door.
Grød first opened in 2011 and now has four locations around Copenhagen, with a fifth and first outside the capital opening later this year. How could a shop dedicated to porridge do so well? By serving really good porridge and having a broad definition of what that means. Over the course of two days in Copenhagen, we had three porridges at Grød: a breakfast oatmeal with caramel and apples and two savory dishes that blurred the line of what porridge is: a tomato and Parmesan risotto and a curried lentils served with yogurt, cilantro and toasted almonds. Even at $6-8 a pop, I’d buy them again in a heartbeat.
Sharing those bowls of porridge with my sister capped off a week of unforgettable travels together. We hadn’t spent this much time together since we were kids, and I’ll never forget sitting in Tivoli Gardens, the famed amusement park in the middle of Copenhagen, sipping on beers and waiting for the fireworks, telling her that even though we love our kids very much, we’d better start planning another trip for just the two of us.
The next day, Chelsea started her long journey back to Idaho, and I consoled myself by heading to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art about 25 miles outside Copenhagen.
I met up with my Danish friend Nils, who lives in Austin but was visiting his mother. It was a much-needed dose of reality but in an unreal place. The museum is built on a hill overlooking the sea and, in the distance, Sweden. We sat there, next to two striking Alexander Calder sculptures, drinking an afternoon coffee and talking about the differences between life in Austin and life in Scandinavia, the challenges of living so far from the other places we call home and how a place that combines nature and art in such a beautiful way can leave such a mark on your soul.
As Nils headed back to the city, I headed toward the buffet in the museum cafe. I usually travel by myself, so it was fitting to have my final meal accompanied only by the thoughts in my head.
It was also the most elaborate and authentic Scandinavian meal of the trip: roasted potatoes with butter, parsley and mustard sauce; salmon tartare flecked with bright orange orbs of roe; veal tenderloin and pork roast brightened with parsley pesto; barley salad with tomatoes and cucumber; fennel with smoked cheese and apple vinegar; raw cauliflower in a curry dressing; a melon salad with watercress; tarragon bread and seeded rye.
I enjoyed the meal out on the patio, perched high with a clear view of my homeland, a country that until this trip had been an abstraction, a distant story, a fading memory that my family had re-created in our imaginations.
But now that place and those ancestors who sailed away, never to return, don’t feel so far away.
Rye Sesame Pumpkin Seed Granola
This recipe is inspired by the oat-free granola I had in a Copenhagen coffee shop called Original Coffee. It’s reminiscent of the sweetened rye crumbles called ymerdrys that are served on a yogurt- or sour milk-based soup called ymer.
3 slices rye bread
3 Tbsp. honey, divided
1 Tbsp. sesame seeds
3 Tbsp. pumpkin seeds
Heat the oven to 250 degrees. In a food processor, pulse the bread until it start to form breadcrumbs. Add 2 Tbsp. honey and pulse several more times until the bread is evenly crumbled.
Place a piece of parchment paper on a baking sheet and spread the crumbs on top. Bake for 10 minutes and then stir. Bake again for another 5 minutes, stir again and then add the sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, a pinch of salt and final tablespoon of honey. Stir well and then bake for 10 minutes.
Remove from oven and taste the granola to see how crunchy the breadcrumbs have become. Bake for another 5-10 minutes, if desired. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 10 days.
— Addie Broyles
Chocolate Oat Balls
We saw these chocolate balls, called chokladbollar, in every cafe and market in Sweden. It’s a simple mixture of butter, sugar, cocoa and finely ground oats, rolled in a ball and coated with coconut. My favorite chokladbollar had a hint of espresso powder to infuse the oats with a taste of coffee.
2 cups rolled oats
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp. pure vanilla
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup finely shredded coconut
In a food processor, pulse the oats into coarse meal. Don’t grind too finely. If you don’t have a food processor, use quick cooking oats or the finest oats you can find.
In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the cocoa powder and vanilla and continue to cream until well blended. Using your hands, mix in the oats and salt.
Place the shredded coconut on a small plate. Roll about a tablespoon of the mixture into a ball and then roll the ball in the coconut until fully coated. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator or in the freezer.
— From “Fika: The Art of The Swedish Coffee Break, with Recipes for Pastries, Breads, and Other Treats” by Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall (Ten Speed Press, $17.99)
Creamy Salmon Tartare
1 cup Greek yogurt
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 organic lemon
1/2 handful dill, chopped
Sea salt flakes and freshly ground pepper
7 oz. skinless salmon fillets
2 Tbsp. roe (optional)
1 Tbsp. capers, chopped
1 small shallot, peeled and chopped
Parsley, for garnish (optional)
In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt, lemon zest and juice and dill. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Cut the salmon into cubes or small pieces, depending on your preference, and place in a medium bowl. Add the yogurt mixture, capers, shallot and roe, if using. Gently mix together, garnish with parsley, if using, and serve. Serves 4-6.
— Adapted from a recipe in “The Nordic Kitchen” by Claus Meyer
Swedish Meatballs and Gravy
We published this recipe for Swedish meatballs and gravy about a year ago, but it’s so relevant to this story, I couldn’t help but run it again.
For the meatballs:
2 Tbsp. butter
1 onion, grated
2/3 cup milk
4 slices of bread, torn into pieces
1 lb. ground pork
1 1/2 lb. ground beef
2 tsp. kosher salt
2 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
1 tsp. ground cardamom
For the gravy:
6 Tbsp. butter
1/3 cup flour
1 quart beef stock
1/2 cup sour cream
In a large, deep saute pan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat, melt the butter and saute the onions, stirring often, for 5-8 minutes. Set aside to cool. In a large bowl, soak the bread in milk for about 15 minutes.
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the onions in the bowl of a food processor and pulse a few times. Add the soaked bread and milk and pulse a few more times. Return the mixture to the bowl. Add the eggs, ground pork and beef, salt, pepper, nutmeg and cardamom.
Using your hands, mix the ingredients together, but do not overmix. Form 1-inch balls and place them on several sheet pans coated with cooking spray. Bake the meatballs for 12-15 minutes, until the outside of the balls have started to brown. They might not be cooked all the way through, but you’ll finish cooking them in the sauce.
Using that same deep-sided saute pan, heat 6 Tbsp. butter until it is melted and starting to foam. Slowly whisk in the flour and continue to stir until smooth. Continue to cook the flour and butter mixture, stirring often, for several minutes until the roux starts to turn light brown.
Whisk in the beef stock and bring to a simmer. Add the meatballs to the pot and lower the heat. Cover and cook on low for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and add the sour cream. Serves 8 to 10.
— Adapted from a recipe by Elise Bauer, SimplyRecipes.com
3 Tbsp. grain mustard, preferably Swedish style
2 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh dill
2 tsp. sugar
Stir together the mustard and vinegar in a small bowl, then whisk in the oil until an emulsion forms. Stir in the dill, sugar and salt, to taste. Serve over potatoes or with gravlax.
— Adapted from a recipe in “Fire and Ice: Classic Nordic Cooking” by Darra Goldstein
This creamy scalloped potato dish is comfort food to the max. The version we had in Sweden had salmon instead of the Swedish anchovies.
2 medium yellow onions
3 Tbsp. butter
2 lb. large waxy potatoes
1 (4.4 oz.) can Swedish anchovies
Freshly ground pepper
1 cup heavy cream
Halve the onions lengthwise, then cut them into 1/4-inch slices. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat, add the onions and saute until soft but not brown, about 10 minutes.
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Fill a large bowl with ice water. Peel the potatoes, cut them lengthwise into 1/4-inch strips and place in the ice water as you cut them.
Butter a 1 1/2-quart gratin dish. Spread half of the potatoes on the bottom of the dish. Top them with the onions and then the anchovies, reserving the anchovy brine from the can. Grind a generous amount of pepper on top. Cover with the remaining potatoes. Drizzle the potatoes with the anchovy brine from the can, then pour the cream evenly over the top.
Bake until the potatoes are tender and the top is crusty and brown, 50 to 60 minutes.
— Adapted from a recipe in “Fire and Ice: Classic Nordic Cooking” by Darra Goldstein
Tomato Parmesan Risotto
For the pesto:
1/2 bunch broad-leaf parsley
1/2 bunch basil
1 cup olive oil
1 tsp. cider vinegar
1/2 tsp. salt
For the tomato compote:
2/3 lb. tomatoes
1 clove garlic
4 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. cider vinegar
1 Tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
For the risotto:
1 small shallot
2 cloves garlic
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. butter
1 1/2 cups risotto rice
11 cups water, vegetable or chicken stock
1/2 cup dry white wine
3/4 cup roughly grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and cider vinegar, to taste
Make the pesto: Process the ingredients in a food processor and set aside.
Make the tomato compote: Clean the tomatoes and cut into rough squares. Chop the onion and garlic finely. Heat a pan with oil and fry the onions and garlic. Add the tomatoes, cider vinegar and sugar into the pot and boil until the tomatoes are tender and stick together. Season with salt, sugar and cider vinegar and set aside.
Finely chop the shallot and garlic and put into a pot with olive oil and butter. Saute at a very low heat until the onions are tender and translucent. Pour the water or stock into a separate pot and let it simmer over low heat. Add the rice to the onions and fry at a medium heat. Keep stirring until the butter has been absorbed. Add white wine and let it reduce. Add about 1/2 cup of the boiling stock every time the rice mixture has reduced. Stir frequently.
When there is about 1/2 cup of stock left, add the tomato compote to the risotto and let it reduce further. Add the Parmesan, season with salt and cider vinegar and serve immediately.
— From “Grød” by Lasse Skjønning Andersen