How Moving to New York from Sweden Changed My Approach to Cooking

Cover detail from Smorgasbord by Johanna Kindvall

Editor's Note:

Johanna Kindvall is a Swedish illustrator who divides her time between Brooklyn and Skåne in the south of Sweden. Her work has been featured in various books and magazines. She also writes an illustrated cooking blog, Kokblog. Here, Johanna shares what it was like to move to NYC from Sweden, and talks about the differences in food culture.

On a sunny day in the afternoon I sit down on my stoop with a cup of coffee. I sip my coffee while watching Brooklyn life go by on the street, and hat with a neighbor or wave hello to a stranger. In cooler weather, I take my coffee into the kitchen or sip it while sitting on the daybed in my studio. I talk with my husband about our projects or whom to invite to our next dinner party. Sometimes we share a cake. In Sweden we call these daily coffee breaks fika.

When I moved to NYC from Sweden in 2003, I immediately felt at home. I was amazed how New Yorkers in general are friendly and spontaneous; they are liable to say hello and start talking to you on the street or in the subway at any moment. When you are lost, there is always someone around to offer help. New Yorkers showed me a behavior that was new to me. Swedes are friendly but if you are a stranger, you will have to take the first step.

When it came to other things, I found New York to be like a Swedish smörgåsbord; it offers endless dishes for anyone to enjoy. Moving here changed my cooking experience into something more interesting and challenging, whether I was cooking something from my past or trying out something new. When I found NYC’s pickled herring rather plain, I simply replaced the sad onions with fresh new ones and spiced it up with some mustard, dill, and a dollop of sour cream. In this way I could indulge in a Scandinavian delight in no time. And when served on dark rye bread topped with slices of hard boiled eggs, I created an unstoppable hunger for my pickled herring among my friends. They quickly showed the same appetite for other Nordic treats too, like knäckebröd (Swedish crisp bread) topped with gravlax or hot-smoked mackerel with horseradish sauce and pickles.

Until then, I had never thought that Nordic cooking was that special! Living abroad taught me to appreciate its light and well balanced flavors of sweet, sour, and salt. A simple potato can be allowed to show off when served with fresh dill and a generous amount of butter. Northerners tend to rely on good quality ingredients; when cooked properly not much else is needed. Spiciness comes in the form of nose-burning hot whole grain mustard or freshly grated horseradish. Both are faithful companions on any charcuterie platter or can easily lift a hopeless sauce into something more appetizing.

I also noticed that traditional Swedish cakes or cookies are enjoyed by those who normally don’t have a sweet tooth, as they find them less sweet than they really are, perhaps because many home baked Swedish cakes are often undressed, without any decorative frostings. If you want something extra it’s more common to serve cakes with heavy whipped cream or a bowl of berries on the side.

The wonderful satisfaction I saw among my friends when serving them anything from gravlax to meatballs was the main reason I started to write (and draw) about traditional Nordic food. It has never been because I missed it myself. In New York, I can easily find anything I want to eat, and with a few tweaks (if needed) I’m easily cured from any potential cravings. So, when I’m asked what I miss about Sweden, I don’t think about anything edible or even about the Nordic way of living. Apart from my friends and family, the thing I miss the most is the freedom of nature. In the Nordic countries we have something we call allemansrätten (all man’s right) which means as long as we respect the animals, trees, and plants, we can walk into the wilderness, swim in lakes, and forage for berries and mushrooms even if the forest belongs to someone else. That’s what I sometimes miss when I sit on my stoop and sip my coffee.