Stories from Sweden: Food o’clock
[This is the sixth in a series of stories of my Erasmus exchange semester in Sweden. This series will take you through my amazing time in that country and through the several shenanigans I went through. Read more here, here, here, here and here.]
Food, as folks who know me well, know is nothing more than a means to an end for me and definitely not the end in itself. That said, it’s a very, very important means to me (read: I eat a lot) and I also do enjoy cooking.
Now, my foray into the culinary world was rather limited prior to exchange, but I was no stranger to making the basic daal-chawal, rotis and very basic curries/subzis. I knew I wasn’t a gifted chef, still am not, but I was fairly confident about surviving there. Part of me even looked forward to ‘living like the locals’ and eating what they did. If you’re thinking at this point that I’m going to insert a “But that’s definitely not what happened” then the joke’s on you because that’s exactly what happened and more.
The kitchen set up
As part of our living arrangements, we each got one shelf in a fridge, one in a freezer and one dry pantry space in the kitchen along with access to two stove tops with ovens, a toaster and a microwave oven as well. As mentioned earlier, 9:5 was the best and most well equipped corridor and as a result we had a huge collection of full sets of cutlery and plates and glasses and whatnot so there was really no reason not to spend time in that wonderful place.
While I came to the land empty handed, my fellow law schoolite, SJ, came quite well prepared. She had a little cooker and a host of desi spices. Initially, I was quite skeptical of using them, wondering where we’d get the kind of veggies that could go with these spices, but that changed over time.
Shopping for food
As known, ICA Väst was the holy grail of our student budgeted lives and the source of almost all our sustenance. Weekly trips were made to keep us healthy and fit (more like fat) for the long winter to come. A typical visit to ICA happened late on a weekend night but not too late so that one had enough time to put things away as well.
SJ usually had a single carrybag of food, while I had two hand bags and a small backpack. Like I said, food is an important means.
Here’s a list of what I’d usually buy (not all and not in every trip, but you get me):
- Potatoes — basically the national food of Sweden
- Rice — a staple of my own
- Eggs — standard stuff, can’t live without ‘em
- Bread — usual breakfast fare
- Muesli — I discovered my love for cereal and dried fruits over there. I did not like this breakfast dish before getting there
- Jam — to have with my muesli. Honestly, if you haven’t had this combination, you’re missing out. Apple jam was my favourite
- Tortillas — who had the time to knead dough and make rotis
- Butter — because that’s what I cooked all my meals in
- Frozen veggies — a mistake, because it was a mixed bag of different ones and together they were meh at best
- Frozen spinach — the best, because it helped make some very interesting dishes
- Daal — still don’t know what kind it was but it worked
- Rajma — google it if you don’t know what this is
- Milk (mjolk) — sometimes even chocolate milk by the carton. These are the joys of the first world that I really miss
- Cheese — lots of cheese [due to an adverse even when I was younger, I didn’t actually eat uncooked/ungrilled cheese for about 17 years, till I bit the bullet and had some in Sweden. Didn’t stop after that. I put cheese in everything, including steamed rice.]
- Falafel — a very good veggie alternative
- Juice — not too often, but every now and then
- Fruit — typically bananas and oranges (uhh why svenska, if apples are apel, why are oranges apelsin?) and sometimes berries too
- Random fresh veggies — depending upon what caught one’s eye
- Chicken — called kyclking and usually steeply discounted
- Cola — because I really liked it even if it were offbrand
- Chickpeas — because I am Punjabi and we need them
- Discounted stuff — the entrance always had clearance stock and that included chocolates, peanut packets, crisps and whatnot
You know that saying about a village needed to raise a child? Yeah, I’m that child and I’m eating all the food in that village, it’d appear.
Sharing is caring
One of the vibes that I’d got soon after moving to Flogsta, was that of rigidity. I think the meticulous nature of labelled shelves etc. made me think that folks weren’t the most share-y and whatnot and that meals would be mostly one’s own. Thankfully, 9:5 proved me wrong on that front, again.
Remember those spices that SJ had brought? Very kindly, she had given me carte blanche to use them as I pleased. And did I ever. SJ had a wider palette for meats and very often cooked those wherein these spices weren’t the most appropriate, but more-veggie me made full use of it. I’d be cooking my daals, falafel curries (yes, that’s a thing), spinach gravies and chhole with those spices and really brought my Indian-ness into the kitchen. In fact, I used those spices so much more than SJ and at the end of the trip sent her mum a thank you note. At one point, SJ and I got into a very good rhythm of cooking for each other when the other was unwell or stressed due to work or such. That worked amazingly for us and I’m glad we did that!
The sharing didn’t just stop between the two of us. Almost every time we would sit for a meal, someone else would also join in and there’d be an inevitable exchange of food. Every few days we’d also just potluck a dinner amongst us and that just opened up my world to foods from different places!
And the sharing didn’t just stop at the dining table either. At some point, we all just used each others’ pantries as we needed. Ran out of eggs? Oh just take a few from SJ’s cupboard. SJ needed rice? Help yourself to some. FO needed something to drink, mjolk carton on Tanmay’s fridge shelf. I can’t even begin to describe how homely this felt because no one ever kept tabs of what was being given or taken and we just made do and balanced it all out. It really did feel like living in one big, weirdly multi-national family.
I know I pose us as penurious students, but we did splurge fairly often on food from outside. Sometimes, one just did not want to cook at all. Luckily, most of the places around us were quite sufficiently suited to a student budget and that pleased us a lot.
Here’s places I remember we visited, at least once:
- Alan’s — the pizza/kebab place in our building owned by a nice Turkish chap who used to give us student discounts
- Capri — another pizza/kebab place where the workers were Bangladeshi and were very nice to give us some coffee while we waiting for our takeaway pizza
- Pub Hyttan —Smålands’ very own pub that served the best pub burgers in town and of course, had me behind the bar for that added flavour
- All of the other student nation pubs really speaking
- Burger King — because they had 5 kr deals and I needed to spend all my coins before I returned
- Max — the best franchise burger chain in the world, endemic to Sweden and Dubai. They too had a student discount which basically upgraded our drink to a large one and gave us a free dip (green and garlic, mhmmm) and was just like the most yummy burger ever
No way we’d have been able to show face back at home if we had not hosted our friends over for an Indian dinner. Sometime in the month of November, I think, we decided to host an elaborate dinner for our corridor as well as our friends and it probably took a week of planning to actually make it happen.
This essentially became us hosting about 15-ish people and hence we kept a small menu because there was the entire reputation of a nation resting on our shoulders and we didn’t want to ruin it. On constant Skype calls with our respective mums we frantically cooked our dishes — SJ making some excellent chicken and I, chhole and kheer for dessert. Dr SK also helped by making some coconut infused rice and warming up tortilla rotis and we had a smashing scene. I was looking forward to having leftovers for the next few weeks, but alas, there were none!
There you have it, food in Sweden was quite the ride and I brought back a lot more kitchen friendly skills with me that I’d thought I would. Food also gave me some very cherished rituals that I try and maintain even now, my favourite being a Saturday afternoon with a hot bowl of rice and daal, an episode of Burn Notice followed by a nap.
This entire experience of working so closely with food, truly brought home the meaning of the Sanskrit adage, अन्न ब्रह्म (annam brahma) which means that food is all — from food you emerge, through food you sustain yourself, and into food you return. I find this explanation to be quite poignant, reminding one that food really is the great leveler that sees no differences between those who eat it and has the magnetic ability to bring together people from different walks of life to enjoy. You really are what you eat.