Confession: prior to working on this article, I had not eaten an actual hot dog in 16 years. It wasn't a conscious decision. I couldn't tell you about my last Oscar Mayer, because it was hardly significant enough to note. It was just that in a world filled with superior sausages, those flaccid, anemic-looking pups wallowing in filthy water didn't appeal. Brick-red merguez crisped in its own fat? Sign me up. Lemongrass-scented sai ua (Northern Thai sausage) with a side of sticky rice? I'm there. Bulging Thüringer Rostbratwurst, dainty little Nuremberg sausages, or just about any greasy hunk of charcuterie from my current home base, Germany? Done. But tasteless, textureless tubes of mystery meat with a nickname referencing either their resemblance to a dachshund or the possibility that they might contain one didn't really make it seem like I was missing much.
Swedes do not share my sentiments or snobbery. In fact, few countries can match the Scandinavian nation's level of enthusiasm for this ultra-processed protein. Where else on Earth would produce a song like "Varm Korv Boogie" ("Hot Dog Boogie"), the 1972 hit by Owe Thörnqvist? Korvkiosks (sausage stands) are scattered throughout Stockholm and remain popular with all generations. The local obsession started back when German migrant workers helped develop the Falukorv in the 17th century, but it didn't reach full-blown mainstream status until 1897, when vendors at the General Art and Industrial Exposition of Stockholm, or Stockholm World's Fair, sold them. Some claim that these early hawkers on Djurgården, the leafy, park-covered isle in the city center, were ladies with boxes hung around their necks, while others insist they were corpulent men with hot dogs balanced on their bellies.
Whatever the delivery method, locals were hooked and soon set about making this foreign import their own, which is how Sweden's gleefully deranged version was born. Wieners are more or less a blank flavor canvas, one that many countries have attempted to gussy up to suit their national palates over the years. Chileans top theirs with avocado and cilantro sauce; Thais wrap it in a saccharine crepe with margarine and chile sauce; Colombians go all out with pineapple, cheese, and, in a stroke of brilliance, potato chips; Americans roll it in batter and deep-fry the whole damn thing, because that is just what we do.
Sweden's approach reaches new heights of either demented lunacy or genius, depending on your point of view. A tunnbrödsrulle consists of a couple of your garden variety pork-beef dogs swaddled in a buttered tunnbröd (northern Swedish flatbread) with mayonnaise, mashed potatoes, fried onions, raw onions, and shrimp salad with more mayonnaise, just for good measure.
Maybe it was sheer morbid curiosity, but I had to have it.
If I was going to get back into the hot dog game, I figured I'd dip my toes in the water gently. After touching down in Stockholm, I went south to Södermalm to visit Teatern, a chef-driven food court launched at the tail end of last year. Despite its location in a drab shopping mall, the place sports some impressive stalls and slick branding. You can have ramen in flavors like "Seafood Ninja," pizza from a formidable-looking oven, and all manner of baked goodness from an outlet by Daniel Roos, the pastry guru behind Sweden's royal wedding cake. The hot dogs at Korvkiosk are not your grandpa's korvs, probably because they're the work of Magnus Nilsson. At only 32, the chef has already penned The Nordic Cook Book, a daunting 700-recipe tome, and earned two Michelin stars for Fäviken Magasinet, often labeled the most remote restaurant in the world. Only the truly dedicated make it out to the barn on a 20,000-acre hunting estate in Jämtland that houses his fine dining venue, currently hovering at No. 41 on the controversial World's 50 Best Restaurants List. Reservations are scarce, but those who do manage to score one of the dozen seats on any given date are treated to a hyper-seasonal menu of esoteric dishes like wild trout roe with pig's blood or scallops cooked over smoldering juniper. A single evening for two, with wine pairings and accommodation, will set you back a cool SEK 12,000 (approximately $1,440 USD).
So what was an avant-garde chef better known for breaking rules and theatrical touches—sawing bone marrow by hand used to be a popular trick in the dining room—doing running a sausage stand?
"I always wanted to do a place selling hot dogs," Nilsson tells me over a crackling phone connection. Cell service is spotty at best a couple hundred miles from the Arctic Circle. "It's the only really prevalent form of fast food that's distinctly Swedish. And it's fun for us to do something that reaches a bigger audience."
He knows exactly where to find that audience. The outlet in Teatern was packed when I visited, but true die-hards seek out these franks at the roving food truck of the same name. You'll mostly find it parked outside Trädgården, a thundering nightclub in Södermalm, until 5 AM, or providing much-needed fuel to ravers at music festivals in the summer months.
For a fraction of the price of anything at Fäviken, I got an artisanally made sausage courtesy of Undersåkers Charkuteriefabrik, Nilsson's personal factory in Jämtland. It came with a generous scoop of räksallad, which the website cheerfully describes as "shrimp-salad made with shrimp"—evidently not a given elsewhere. It was delicious, the sausage snappy, the bun buttery, and the räksallad, well, mayonnaise-y, but what's wrong with that? I started to think I might have been missing out for 16 years. What's more, it may have been a yuppified take on the varmkorv, but it didn't feel like it had abandoned its street-stall roots. For all his fine-dining credentials, Nilsson isn't above a trip to an old-school korvkiosk.
"We didn't want to change it too much or make it into something else," he says. "That was the whole point of it. We're doing the same thing as others, but just making it really well. It's all from our area. All of the pigs come from a pig farm which is located about 20 minutes away from the charcuterie place. We buy the whole production, so we have pretty good control [from] start to finish."
Much as I liked it, making a beeline for the only haute (sorry) dog in town felt like a bit of a cop-out. To delve deeper into korv culture, I decided to visit one of the oldest stands in the city. Günter's Korvar has been catering to patrons in the residential neighborhood of Vasastan for just shy of four decades. It has no website—and only an infrequently updated Facebook page—but I could already spot the line from up the block. Günter prefers ballsier condiments than mashed potatoes and mayo, meaning an order here comes in a toasted, hollowed-out baguette loaded with chile-spiked chimichurri sauce, sauerkraut, mustard, and ketchup, with your choice of 20 different types of sausage ranging from Turkish lamb sucuk to Hungarian kabanos. There's even a vegan korv, if you really must.
"I'm not sure if this counts as Swedish," said one of the two Stockholmers standing in front of me in line. I'd worried that something this famous might have been reduced to tourist trap status over the years, but they were quick to reassure me. Aside from a pair of selfie-snapping teenagers, as far as I could tell I was the only out-of-towner. "Everybody here loves it. It's just one of those places that everybody knows and visits."
Günter himself doesn't mess around when it comes to business. Special requests or anything that might slow down the process are greeted with a ferocious scowl. After one bite of blisteringly spicy sausage though, I wasn't about to complain. Fiery, fatty, crispy, garlicky—it's the kind of food you'd want to come home to at the end of a long, drunken night, but could also comfortably swallow sober. So addictive was it that I went back, trying in total four different sausages. The korv is a korv, but even though it wasn't quite as gutsy as the Argentine chorizo, paprika-scented Austrian Tiroler wurst, or the turmeric-tinted currywurst, I still wolfed it down. Frankly, an eraser would taste pretty good if given this treatment.
After a week in Stockholm, my bloodstream was swimming with nitrates, but my enthusiasm had yet to wane. I still hadn't tackled the tunnbrödsrulle though, so with hours to go before my flight, I steeled myself up for one last hurrah and headed to Torsgrillen, a frills-free kiosk not far from Sankt Eriksplan that's been in the business since 1948.
With a great deal of pointing and the help of a passing Swede, I managed to communicate my order: everything. The woman behind the counter eyed me skeptically, then shot a glance at my impromptu translator as if to ask, Is she sure?
Smiling, she handed me a colossal bundle barely contained by aluminum foil and clearly on the verge of collapse. I'm not usually the type to describe things as "epic," but I'm not sure there's another word that conveys the sheer scope of the thing. Like other great, late-night foods—the döner, the fully loaded falafel, the burger oozing taxi-yellow Velveeta—there's really no way to approach the tunnbrödsrulle other than to dive in face-first. To eat one is a sloppy, shameful affair best undertaken far, far away from the company of others.
In the end, I fought hard, but the tunnbrödsrulle won. I'll be back again someday for round two, preferably with enough booze in my system to make this seem like a sane idea.