All foods have a cultural context. What it is made of, on what occasion it is eaten, perhaps the origin of its name, and so forth. And when that food gets exported to another culture, it makes for many questions and often, an unexpectedly fun exploration into that food’s home culture.
Volvo and H&M aside, IKEA might be the most well-known Swedish brand for the casual consumer, exporting Scandinavian design and home furnishings all over the world. It also pitches Swedish cuisine to new markets and audiences, from pallets of lingonberry jam to freezer stacks of this gratäng Jansson — “potato gratin with marinated herring”, explains the box.
But this being the United States — land of the cultural melting pot and frequently, seemingly foreign-sounding cuisines which in reality are purely American inventions — I wondered how “Swedish” this dish actually was, or whether it was a put-on like “Chinese chicken salad” and so forth.
So I posed the question online to my two Swedish contacts: Kevin, an American marine biologist turned craft beer brewer now living in Sweden, and Tali, who is an expert on Swedish culture, in that he is Swedish.
Me: Is this something Swedish people actually eat, Kevin, Tali? Any cultural significance? Or is this more like IKEA making stuff up for Americans?
Kevin: Yes! It’s called Jansson’s Temptation or Janssons Frestelse in Swedish. It’s quite good. Probably the only way to eat pickled sprats! In the U.S. they often substitute herring or anchovy. Very similar, small oily shoaling fish. We eat it every Christmas and maybe for Easter too. I don’t know about IKEA, but when my wife or her relatives make it, it’s fantastic! Usually with lots of cream.
Me: Thanks, man! I am guessing that the homemade Swedish version is waaaaaaaay much better. The IKEA version was super duper salty and fishy — like, the cream and potatoes were salty too, not just the herring pieces. And I like fishy foods. And would this be the right sprat: http://www.fishbase.org/summary/1357?
Kevin: Yes, it’s the European sprat, type species for the genus and the one that lives in the Baltic! It is a pretty fishy meal, though. And salty. But there is usually enough garlic, yellow onion and cream to balance it.
Tali: Also, it’s THE traditional late-night munchies dish, hence the salt!
Kevin: Yes! Usually eaten the presence of the Swedish meal trifecta: glass of wine, a pilsner and a glass of schnapps (a whiskey while you wait for food and and Irish coffee after the meal).
Tali: Which brings us to that wonderful word: blandmissbruk.
Kevin: Indeed! Translates to something like mixed abuse, right?
Tali: Indeed. Healthier than it sounds… sort of.
Me: It would seem that I need to get some blandmissbruk in before I dip into Janssons frestelse again?
Tali: Just make sure you have the “lagom” amount (see: Slate.com | Why Are Swedes So Quiet?).
Me: [….] (That’s me attempting lagom in this conversation.)
Kevin: Lagom isn’t something one attempts. It is a state of being.
And so, from a frozen box of fish and potatoes from IKEA, we learned about a traditional Swedish dish — one that is listed in Sweden’s official culture and tourism website and an “absolute legend on the Swedish Christmas table” according to The Huffington Post Food Blog. We traced the species in question to the European sprat (Sprattus sprattus), a schooling marine fish of the North Atlantic and Mediterranean averaging 5 inches (13 cm) in length, with more than 300,000 metric tons caught commercially each year (Whitehead 1985; Eero 2012). A species known in various languages as skarpsill, brisling, papalina, esprot, spratto, and çaça, then in the 18th Century was among the many creatures cataloged by Carl Linneaus — the father of modern biological taxonomy and a celebrated Swede.
We also learned that Janssons frestelse doubles as a great late-night snack if you’re war-weary after an intoxicating campaign defeating regiments of schnapps and other spirits — but also that you should engage in such blandmissbruk only sparingly, for one would do well to remember the Swedish ethos of lagum — moderation and humility for the sake of the society. And that lagum isn’t something one attempts — it is a state of being.
So let us meditate on that, and on these visions of Janssons frestelse across the globe:
FishBase Page: http://www.fishbase.org/summary/1357
Whitehead, PJP. FAO species catalogue Vol. 1.7. Clupeoid fishes of the world. An annotated and illustrated catalogue of the herrings, sardines, pilchards, sprats, anchovies and wolfherrings. Part 1 – Chirocentridae, Clupeidae and Pristigasteridae. FAO Fisheries Synopsis. No. 125 Volume 1.7 Part l. Rome, FAO. 1985. 303p.
– Ben Young Landis