Sweden is known as the largest Scandinavian country and its climate and location are largely responsible for the development of its cuisine. In the olden days, the Swedes stocked their food supplies as a preparatory step before the long cold winters by preserving meats, fishes, fruits and vegetables.
Scandinavia was inhabited more than one thousand years ago by the Vikings. It was the Vikings who were some of the first ones to develop a method for preserving foods. In preparation for a long distance journey, many of the foods were dehydrated, salted and cured. Today modern-day technologies like using the refrigerator, freezer, ozone spray drying and use of chemical preservatives has eliminated the need for such traditional preservation methods of foods. Swedes still continue salting, dehydrating (smoking) and curing many of their foods, particularly fish.
The Vikings embarked on raids all across Europe during 800AD to 1050AD. Over time, various foods such as French sauces, soups and tea from England and honey cakes from Germany were brought back to the Scandinavian territory and incorporated into their regular diet. Swedes still find soups a great way to use their leftovers.
These days restaurants in Sweden tend to serve more international dishes than their traditional ones. Historically, Swedish cuisine has not been popular but may be responsible for introducing fruit soups, smoked meats, cream sauces and herring. The Swedes use a variety of methods to store and preserve prepared food items for longer durations. During our study, as part of the International Exchange Programme of Parvatibai Chowgule College, I came across several traditional and modern techniques of food preservation practices that have been passed on from generation to generation. These techniques involve simple refrigeration, oven drying and pickling along with the use of preservatives like sodium benzoate, salt, sugar, etc.
Various types of spices and nuts are stored in huge wooden cabinets in tightly packed closed containers to avoid rancidity and breads are wrapped in plain paper to avoid spoilage. Swedes experience extremely cold climatic conditions from the months of November to March, which makes it necessary for them to preserve various types of meats. The sample survey conducted by our group showed that 88 per cent Swedes use these methods of preservation. Another unique aspect of their preservation method is the piling up of meat outside their homes in open spaces which gets frozen. Thin slices of the meat are cut and used as and when required, a practice followed till today. The growth of microorganisms that are responsible for change in the flavour, texture, pH, oxidation-reduction potential, redox potential of food items, is curbed due to the lower temperatures (0°C to 15°C). Even fruits and vegetables like onions, potatoes, bananas, green apples, garlic, ginger, etc, are stored in open spaces of apartments and villa’s exposed to outer environmental conditions to maintain their texture and avoid food spoilage.
Pickled herring is used in a classic recipe called Glassblower’s herring and is also popularly known as Glasmastarsill. Dried salted herring (fish) is pickled using vinegar, water, sugar, bay leaf and all ground spices, red onion, carrot and salt. Small fish like salted sardines and smoked whitefish are also pickled this way and consumed as a traditional appetiser. Almost 83.64 per cent Swedes include this dish in their regular diet.
Vinegar-cooked salmon commonly known as Inkokt lax in Swedish, is mostly prepared using boiled salmon, together with onion and carrots, in a mixture of pickling liquid containing water, vinegar, salt, sugar and few spices like bay leaf, cloves and cinnamon. This dish is consumed chilled along with mayonnaise spiced with dill (locally known as ‘shepu’ baji, a rich source of iron and essentials minerals) and lemon.
Gravlax is a Swedish dish consisting of raw salmon, cured in salt, sugar and dill, which is usually served as an appetiser, most commonly prepared by fishermen during the middle ages. The fishermen preserve salted and fermented salmon by burying it deep inside the sand. These days fermentation is no longer used in the production process but instead the salmon is buried in a dry marinade of salt, sugar and dill and cured for a few days. Moisture turns the dry curing into a concentrated brine which can also be used as a part of sauce.
Swedish hard bread commonly known as Knäckebröd is a crisp, hard bread prepared using Swedish rye (a grain closely related to barley and wheat), both finely ground or coarse. This hard bread is rolled out to thin, flat cakes with a blunt spiked rolling-pin, leaving a pattern. The rolled out cakes are then baked at a very high temperature (250°C – 300°C) for a short while and then allowed to air dry which helps preserve the bread for about three months. Knäckebröd is baked and stored in big wheels with poles in the centre of the ceiling hung upside down. Swedes consider this the healthiest bread and snack on them at any time of the day.
The study conducted through this International Exchange Programme has enabled the understanding of the fundamental differences in food preservation techniques used in India and Sweden. These differences stem mainly from the differences in climatic conditions, which result in changes in parameters (ph, texture, colour, odour, taste, etc.) of food due to the inactive state or over activity of microbial life.
(Writer is an assistant professor, department of biotechnology, Parvatibai Chowgule College of Arts and Science Autonomous, Margao)