An All-Ikea Meal


Photo by yoppy/Flickr CC

Yes, Ikea is a Swedish furniture store. And, yes, there is a Swedish cafeteria on the premises that is much appreciated by many. But there is also a market devoted to Swedish food, and the task I set for myself in the week between Christmas and New Year's was to make a dinner for five people entirely from foodstuffs purchased at the Ikea Swedish Food Market. I'm Scandinavian, so I was prepared to do this thing.

It began in true Viking fashion because to get to Ikea in Brooklyn from Manhattan, you travel by boat--Ikea provides free water taxi service on the weekends (during the week it costs $5.00, but that counts as credit towards any purchase). The lovely trip through New York harbor provides views of the Statue of Liberty, Governor's Island, all the bridges--Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, and, in the distance, the Verrazano.

When food writers write about Scandinavian food, they tend to wax (and wane) about the freshness and naturalness of the cuisine and describe it as close to nature. That's true--fish from the ocean and all that--but it is not quite the real picture. My two main entrée ingredients were frozen meatballs and frozen potato flakes, and there was something properly Scandinavian about that. In fact nothing I bought was fresh. Everything was preserved food. That is perhaps the true essence of Scandinavian eating: food that can last longer than you do. There are stories of farmers with storehouses containing edibles that go back more than one generation. How else would people get through the winter? Or survive a long sea voyage?

That is perhaps the true essence of Scandinavian eating: food that can last longer than you do. How else would people get through the winter?

For appetizers I served laks (what we call lox), from Bergen, Norway; senapssill (herring in mustard sauce), from Sweden; and sill i dillmajonnäs (herring in dill mayonnaise sauce), from Kladesholmen, on the West Coast of Sweden. The herring was terrific--sweet and tender, it met with approval from everyone present. Along with the herring I served a cheese: Morfars Brannvinsost, which translates into "Grandfather on my mother's side's burning wine cheese." It is made in Sweden with aquavit. It was a good, strong cheese but no one could taste the aquavit.

To go with all of this I bought mjukt Svensk tunnbrod--soft Swedish thin bread, also known as Swedish Arctic bread. It is soft, it is thin, and it is white, but what it has to do with the Arctic is mysterious. It comes from the Polar Bakery in Bredbyn, Sweden, which is not even above the Arctic Circle. The Tunnbrod was flavored with fennel seed which made it smell really nice. I also served crispbread, or knackebrod, with the first course. (If you try to pronounce this please remember there is no vowel between the "k" and the "n" and the "k" is pronounced.) Rye crisp is a knackebrod, so my guests were not unfamiliar with it. Knackebrod is much heartier than rye crisp and more flavorful.

What my guests didn't know but I was quick to tell them is that the Vikings ate this bread and it will last a long time. I once read about a tin of knackebrod found in an attic above a defunct bakery that had been produced for the 1897 Polar expedition of S. A. Andree, the most optimistic and foolish of explorers, who traveled by balloon and once went to Finland by accident. His polar expedition was unsuccessful and he and his two companions died, unlike the knackebrod in the tin above the bakery, which was still edible 50 years later.

The final ingredient in the appetizer course was gurka inlagd--sliced gherkins. They also came from Sweden and were very important because there were no vegetables available at the Ikea market. The sweet pickles would have to do. I had hoped to find at least a can of red sour cabbage, but, alas, that was not to be. I had also hoped to find dried whole yellow peas, which when soaked overnight, cooked, and served with butter are delicious. But there were none.

So the main course was simply the frozen meatballs, heated in the microwave; the frozen potato flakes, with milk and butter added to turn them into mashed potatoes and also heated in the microwave; and gravy, a powdered substance labeled Graddsas which was from Hungary (surprise!), had directions written in English and Spanish, and to which I had to add water and cream, stir and simmer. The milk, butter, and cream had to come from my local market, by the way, because Ikea doesn't sell those. The last item on our plates was a dollop of sweet lingonberry preserves--very traditional.

Okay, the meatballs were really great, and the potatoes were as good as mashed potatoes get. My guests liked the gravy. I didn't. Cream gravies are just not my thing. My Norwegian mother made meatballs often when I was growing up and added a little nutmeg to them, which sends them way over the top and is fabulous. She made a brown gravy with onions that was also superior to the cream gravy from Hungary. In her honor I thought I might try adding a little nutmeg to that cream gravy, but there wasn't any in the house and maybe it wouldn't have worked anyway. I have to be a little nitpicky about the lingonberry preserve. I have found that cranberries are better. They have a little more tartness and hence more personality.

Ikea doesn't sell any liquor so we had to wing it with wine--white wine with the fish course and red wine with the meatball entrée. If I was being really strict about this dinner I would have served aquavit and beer. It was sloppy of me not to. Mea culpa, mea culpa. But no one seemed to mind and we did polish off a lot of wine.

There was a large assortment of possible desserts available at the Ikea food market--cakes, cookies, and candies. I chose the "quick frozen" almond cake with dark chocolate--tarta mork choklad--made in Sweden. It is a thin, crunchy almond cake topped with a chocolate layer made up of 60 percent cocoa solids. To serve I defrosted, but left it chilled as instructed. The cake was a success all around.

I also bought something called punsch roll,a marzipan-covered marzipan roll that has been dipped into chocolate at each end. The marzipan on the outside is green and the marzipan on the inside is brown and flavored with punsch liquor. Very Scandinavian. I ate two of them. Mea culpa, mea culpa. And, to go with the dessert course Ikea sells coffee, both regular and espresso.

Ikea's food market also gives out a recipe card for Jansson's Temptation, a potato creation involving anchovies and cream. With this dish, you're on your own. They didn't sell it ready-made. It involves peeling potatoes and has to be baked in a 300-degree oven for 1 to 1 ½ hours and I didn't attempt it. Okay, okay, mea culpa, mea culpa. But now I think about Jansson. Who was he? Was he the chef who invented this temptation, or was he a poor soul who tried desperately to resist the potato casserole with anchovies in it and walked the streets of Stockholm fighting the temptation? And did he ever give in? I guess I'll have to attempt it next weekend to find out why it is so darkly irresistible.

So, I went to Ikea. I bought, I defrosted, I heated up, I served, and what did it all mean? Well, for one thing, I discovered you can make a satisfactory dinner entirely from foodstuffs bought at Ikea, but there is only one real entrée: the meatballs. There is a wide assortment of appetizers and cheeses and lots of desserts. I would definitely return to buy more of these. Also there are lots of breads and crackers. By the way, the prices are low in keeping with Ikea's policies.

And, I also learned not to use the microwave and the toaster oven at the same time, because the circuit breakers are activated.

Another thing I learned was that this meal called for a lot of plates and a huge assortment of different size forks, so I have another piece of advice: if you want to keep your kitchen clean, eat out!

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Alfa-Betty Olsen is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and television writer. More

Alfa-Betty Olsen is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and television writer. After graduating from The State University of Iowa in Iowa City, Olsen returned to New York and worked with Mel Brooks on The Producers and was the casting director of that film. She then worked with Marshall Efron on the landmark PBS series The Great American Dream Machine followed by an Emmy-winning career writing for television with Efron. They have also written many film scripts. Other Olsen-Efron collaborations have appeared in The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Esquire, National Lampoon and Spy. Their seven published books include several children's books, most recently Gabby The Shrew (Random House), illustrated by celebrated New Yorker cartoonist, Roz Chast.

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