Lagom: The Swedish art of eating harmoniously

Steffi Knowles-Dellner is a Swedish food stylist, author and blogger.
She tells us about her new book ‘Lagom: The Swedish art of eating harmoniously’.

1. How did you come to write your first book?

For a long time, I’ve felt that Swedish food has been misrepresented outside of Scandinavia. The view seems to be that it is mostly very rich, hearty food like meatballs, herring, potatoes. Or at the other end of the spectrum, that it is all quite high end New Nordic cuisine with some quite unusual foraged ingredients (ants comes to mind!) And while classic dishes like meatballs, gravadlax, herring are definitely part of our food heritage and we are fond of foraging, for me, that image didn’t paint the full picture. What I see when I go back home is that people are really interested in food and in a wide range of flavours. It’s a lot fresher and lighter than it is given credit for and this was really my starting point for the book.

2. Tell us a bit more about your food philosophy and style of cooking

For me, Lagom seemed like a good way to describe the Swedish attitude to food because I think Swedes have achieved something in their eating habits which a lot of other nations struggle with: a balance or harmony. The Swedish diet is very varied with a healthy mix of whole grains, lean protein (lots of fish but also game), a focus on vegetables, berries, fermented dairy – all things that have been hailed as part of the healthy Nordic Diet. However, they also have a really sweet tooth and understand that life has to be lived and enjoyed and food is part of that. So for example, we have a single word to describe the act of sitting down with a cup of coffee and something sweet like a cinnamon bun: fika.
We have a rich heritage of classic recipes (the kind that mormor or granny can make with her eyes closed) and also typical Swedish traditions – like preserving and foraging. But we have also really embraced new ideas and influences. We’re not afraid to reach for some spice or to use unusual ingredients and combinations. It’s this healthy balance that to me encapsulates Lagom.

3. What sort of recipes can we expect to find in the book, and do you have a favourite?

There’s a really wide range of recipes in the book – some are twists on traditional Swedish dishes, whereas others will be more surprising. One of my favourite examples of something that is surprisingly Swedish is the taco phenomenon for Fredagsmys (Cosy Friday)! This is when you’d gather together with friends or family, hunker down and watch a film. Normally you’d have some really relaxed, more indulgent food and tacos are definitely the most popular. Lots of punchy flavours: guacamole, lime, coriander – not things you’d necessarily associate with Scandinavia, but this has become a classic Swedish dish. I’ve got a version with venison and grilled guacamole and quick pickled red onions in my book.

Generally, I’d say Swedes are not afraid of mixing things up – there’s a lot of flavour in their dishes, this is something that comes quite naturally to them: so there’s loads of herbs, spice and citrus. For example, in my book there is a section called ‘Ok, let’s talk about meatballs.’ which has three recipes for meatballs but none of them are traditional – there’s a lamb and lentil version with lots of cumin and fennel but also spicy pollock dumplings in a thai red curry noodle soup.

4. ‘Lagom’ is a big trend at the moment, as a Swede can you tell us what it means to you?

Lagom doesn’t really have a direct translation in English, but it basically means not too much, not too little. A sufficient amount or just right. You can be lagom warm or lagom tall. It has been called the goldilocks principal, but it’s actually so much more than just a quantifier. It goes deep into the heart of our national psyche. Lagom is about fairness and consensus and an aversion to anything too ostentatious. One definition of lagom is average or in the middle.
We have a lagom attitude towards our economy, our stance on gender equality, you can find it in our distinctive seasons, our appreciation of quality, innovation, progress and design. The Volvo is a classic example – it’s the most lagom car: practical, dependable, not too flashy. Swedes even joke about how lagom they are, they’ll roll their eyes and say ‘lagom är bäst,’ ‘lagom is best.’

5. What is your top tip for a ‘lagom’ lifestyle?

Stop worrying so much and enjoy!

Photography – Yuki Suguira

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