Only occasionally is a food so linked to a country that just to think of the land is to think of the dish, but that is exactly the case with the Swedish meatball. The classic iteration, a combination of ground beef and pork, is precisely one inch in diameter, perfectly browned all over, subtly seasoned with allspice, and glistening with the butter it’s cooked in. I should know: As the granddaughter of Martina and Karl Fahlstrom, immigrants from, respectively, the Saland and Varmland regions of Sweden, I grew up on them.
My grandmother turned out meatballs, or kottbullar, by the hundreds, as did her companions at the Salem Lutheran Church in Moline, Illinois. My mother followed in her footsteps. I had meatballs for an after-school snack and—along with mashed potatoes, milky gravy, and the regulation dollop of lingonberry preserves—for dinner. There are those who maintain that a plate of Swedish meatballs should also be adorned with a heap of bread-and-butter pickles, or pressgurka, as they’re known in Sweden. Not so at my mother’s table. Oh, the pickles were always there, but in a separate crystal pickle dish, to be eaten at the diner’s discretion.
By the time my grandparents left Sweden in the late 1890s, kottbullar was firmly established as the national dish. The first printed recipe, in a cookbook penned by Cajsa Warg in 1755, doesn’t mention accompaniments: Potatoes weren’t widely consumed in Sweden until the first half of the 19th century, while the use of lingonberries as an accent for all kinds of meat dishes was then, as now, so ubiquitous as to be taken for granted.
Over the centuries, where Swedes went, the meatball rolled along. I’ve often wondered whether the appetite for the dish is still as keen in Sweden as it is in, say, Minneapolis, and so on a recent trip I was delighted to discover that Swedish meatballs remain an object of fierce devotion in their native land. They can be purchased prepackaged at any supermarket; they’re eaten in homes across the country, at any time of the day. When I visited the city of Goteborg, on the west coast, the lively cafes along the main avenue, Kungsportsavenyn, were all serving them. Farther south in the port of Malmo, parties of after-work revelers chased their beers with plain meatballs in the many brasseries lining the town’s two ancient main squares. Even in vibrant Stockholm, the capital, where there’s no shortage of innovative cooking right now, I could always count on finding the familiar constellation of meatballs, mashed potatoes, gravy, and lingonberries.
What I didn’t know until I traveled in Sweden is that beyond that time-honored presentation, the meatball often appears in another classic guise: on a sandwich made with dark brown bread, lettuce, and a layer of creamy diced-beet salad (rodbetssallad). The same sandwich is sold in the food stalls of every Swedish city’s central train station; early in my travels I fell into the habit of purchasing one to eat as my train—invariably on time to the minute—hurtled into the countryside. The beet salad is typically enlivened by a dash of cider vinegar and a grating of horseradish. In the full bloom of Sweden’s short summer, a sprinkling of fresh dill is often added, and in the brisk days of autumn, sometimes diced green apple.
Still, when it came to the meatballs themselves, all of those I sampled in Sweden were remarkably consistent, though standards of spicing and tenderness varied somewhat from cook to cook. In my family, we use equal measures of ground beef and pork, and the onion is added raw; minced finely enough, it readily cooks within the meat, and to my maternal kin the extra step of pre-sauteing would have been un-Swedishly inefficient. We eschew black pepper in favor of milder, muskier white pepper, which is more traditional in Scandinavian cooking; ground allspice and sea salt are the only other seasonings. The accompanying mashed potatoes are lubricated with plenty of butter and heavy cream, and the gravy is made with savory pan juices and yet more cream, still the pillar of Swedish cuisine that it was in the days when every rural villager kept a dairy cow. The tart lingonberries that balance out the dish are harvested wild in forested regions like Varmland and neighboring Dalarna and then preserved, traditionally with nothing more than sugar and a splash of water. (You can harvest yours at the nearest Ikea.)
Every Swede has his or her own secrets to success when it comes to making kottbullar, a birthright passed down from one generation to the next. Recently, watching the Swedish film version of the mega best seller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I smiled to see the protagonist, Mikael Blomkvist, advise his niece that when rolling meatballs, it helps to wet your hands. My grandmother advised the same.