Like many North Americans, my first exposure to Swedish meatballs—or, let's be honest, Swedish cuisine entirely—came after several hours of wandering through showcase living rooms crowded with brightly colored furniture. The cafeteria, much like the rest of IKEA, was ruthlessly functional and too cheap for an early twentysomething to resist. There, not far from the pink-domed princess cakes, were employees ladling out the main attraction by the half dozen. Slightly spongy, disturbingly homogenous, and perched atop a textureless fluff of instant mashed potatoes, the meatballs were both bland and forgettable. I naively assumed that the real deal in its native land would automatically be better.
Not necessarily, as I found out on a recent trip to Sweden.
"Some of the meatballs here are cheaper than cat food, so they're kind of scary," Donna Jones, the manager at Meatballs for the People, tells me one summer afternoon in Stockholm. "Basically, one of our owners wanted to know more about what's being put in the processed foods you buy today. Swedish meatballs are a staple part of the diet. A lot of kids grow up on them and a lot of people still eat them at least once a week. So he investigated meatballs that you buy at the supermarket and found out that many were only 30 percent meat."
Until recently, traditional Swedish food wasn't getting a whole lot of love. As stylish New Nordic restaurants with their never-ending processions of lilliputian courses flourished, less sexy staples like meatballs languished on the cultural backburner. Admittedly, husmanskost, loosely translated as "house owner's food," isn't the easiest sell in the age of Instagram. In lieu of microgreens and miniature garnishes, these calorically dense dishes are often simply served and plated, a full spectrum of beige heavy on gluten, meat, carbs, butter, and all sorts of other things snubbed in recent years. Historically, this was the kind of hearty fare a husband might find waiting for him at the end of a long day in the fields. It only started appearing on restaurant tables around the turn of the last century, and even then, it was more likely to be served in a smokey krog (tavern) than on a crisp, white tablecloth.
And yet, in a city that offers everything from sashimi to foraged degustations, chefs are starting to revisit this sort of unpretentious home cooking. Local celeb Fredrik Eriksson has made a career out of championing updated renditions of husmanskost in front of the camera. His restaurant, Långbro Värdshus, and others such as Tradition and Prinsen, are serving old-school Swedish dishes with tremendous success. These restaurants aren't reinventing the wheel—you won't find deconstructed herring salad with lingonberry foam here—but instead elevating local staples with better materials and a little extra TLC. Given the renewed interest, it seemed like the perfect time to give the humble meatball another look.
Situated in a trendy area of Södermalm dubbed SoFo, Meatballs for the People was the most obvious spot to begin my search. As its name implies, the place is all about Sweden's national comfort food. At any given time, guests can order more than a dozen different varieties of meatballs, ranging from the standard beef-pork blend to lamb, reindeer, venison, salmon, rooster, turkey, wild boar, or a falafel-esque vegan number with chickpeas. Since opening as in 2013, the eatery has gone through more than 120 different recipes. While some of the chefs' additions are far from conventional—think: Champagne in a duck liver variation or truffles in a veal one—the place steers clear of the starches, binders, and preservatives used to pad out processed versions. Guests can order their choice of protein with shiitakes or salad, but I stick to the classic preparation. My gamey moose meatballs come cuddled up to a silken potato purée with a burst of house-pickled lingonberries.
"There's no crap," Jones tells me. That means ensuring that the meat, all of which is organic or hunted, is traceable and adheres to rigid standards. Employees from the restaurant visit the farms in person to double-check that everything is up to scratch. "It's not only about having a good-tasting meatball. It's about looking after the animals and making sure everything's done the right way. Every time we get a delivery, we get these pieces of paper which tell us all the information about the animal. We only work in 20-kilo batches, so when you buy a package of meatballs, all that meat is from the same animal. If you've got two pigs, they're going to taste different, because they always do."
As much as I like the namesake dish at Meatballs for the People, to get a sense of husmanskost in its original form, I decide to visit a krog that has never seen the likes of a craft beer bottle. Up north in Vasastan, Tennstopet sports an aesthetic that would veer into hipster territory if it weren't so refreshingly free from irony. A glowing neon sign welcomes my dining companion and me into a dimly lit, dark-wood room decorated with the heads of a forest's worth of woodland creatures. Men hunched over their brews are digging into plates of dense rye bread piled high with mayonnaise and pickled herring. We follow their lead and nibble through one before ordering a mound of springy, spiced meatballs in a sea of gravy. After plowing through a portion that could easily feed a small family, the waddle home is a struggle.
"Husmanskost is farmers' food and it's heavy. It was originally for people who were working out in the fields all day, so they needed the energy. Quite easy, not that complicated, but made from the ground, made from scratch," Juha Harmaala, the general manager at Pelikan, my next stop, tells me. "You see all these food trends coming and going here in Stockholm. New restaurants are opening all the time, selling amazing food, but once in a while the Swedes like to go back to this homestyle cooking."
Although located only a short stroll from Meatballs for the People, Pelikan is as old-school as it gets. Despite coming under new management three years ago, the restaurant has kept or lovingly restored much of its 1904 décor. With its yellow walls, tiled floors, and fading murals, it has the swagger of an aging saloon. It's also one of the most expensive spots serving husmanskost in the city. Dishes here appear on fine china and, with the exception of a couple minor tweaks and upgrades, make few concessions to current trends.
"This place used to be just men drinking beer and liquor and smoking," he tells me over a heaping plate of the restaurant's meatballs. Until the 1980s, the building didn't even include a women's toilet. But while they've toned down the testosterone, the company has been careful to maintain the spirit of the place. "This was really a working-class area of Stockholm, and beyond this it was forest. Södermalm in the 70s, you could buy a flat here for no money. Now you have this 'SoFo' area and we're supposedly the hipster part of the city."
He has a point, and in a block crammed with design stores and third-wave coffee shops, the proud Pelikan seems almost defiantly anachronistic. Everything from the vintage Gamle chairs to the menu—don't even think about asking for French fries here—is Swedish. Though other dishes like the 12-hour braised pork knuckle or the fried herring are popular, the meatballs are by far the bestseller. The kitchen rolls 120 to 150 kilos of ground beef and pork per week by hand. Rich with cream, gently spiced, and the size of a child's fist, they're as close to the Platonic ideal as one can get.
"There are a hundred ways of serving meatballs in Sweden," he says. "But this is our way and we've stuck to that."