Monday, February 13, 2012

Food and Fun at IKEA

My first trips to IKEA, I have to say, were less than stellar; I am on record as actually having called the place "a circle of Hell that Dante never envisioned."  The crowds, the noise, the lack of windows, my utter inability to navigate without getting lost, having been bored while accompanying others on missions of their own ... oy.  IKEA, to me, was nothing but a source of stress.

But then my friend Sassa, a native Swede, invited me on a food tour; she wanted to show me the fabulous items she'd grown up eating.  Sassa is intensely - and justly - proud of her country's cuisine, which showcases the beauty of fresh, simple ingredients and lets their flavors shine without a lot of complication.

Well, an opportunity for food, fun, and friendship?  Of course I accepted!

And so Sassa, my BFF Wendy, and I went on a Girls' Day Out to IKEA, the primary importer of Swedish foods in this area.  And you know what?  I had a fabulous time!  IKEA is now a place where I can truly say I've enjoyed myself - it has been redeemed!

Wendy saved our table - yes, we managed to find a free table in the cafeteria on the weekend! - while Sassa and I gathered up some goodies.  Some of the items, like hot dogs and french fries, were there solely to appease American children; we had no use for them.  Other items, however, were authentically Swedish and thus found their way onto our trays.

Sassa recommended the gravlax - salmon marinated in salt, sugar, dill, pepper, and spice - which came with a thick and tangy mustard-dill sauce and a light salad.  It was rich, meltingly tender, and deeply flavorful without being overpoweringly "fishy."  Wendy is not usually a fan of fish, but even she was won over by the subtlety and luxury of the dish.  (And as a side note, this could even have been a Frugal Floozie Friday feature given that the gravlax cost only $4.99.  The entire rest of our meal - a sweet treat plus beverages - totaled less than $5 as well.)

Our dessert was a fragrant apple cake.  Its shortbread crust was tender and almost bread-like, rather than resembling crumbly cookies; and the apples were sweet, spicy and just crisp-tender (with a bit of extra emphasis on the "tender").  Sassa pointed out that it's typically Swedish to serve a light vanilla sauce as an accompaniment to cake, rather than serving ice cream as is done in the U.S.  I was polite and shared with my friends, but must admit that I probably ate two bites of this for every one that they did!

Lingonberries are a beautiful red fruit with a tart flavor that is somewhat reminiscent of cranberries; they are most noted for being made into jam, but at IKEA there is also a ruby-colored lingonberry-flavored juice drink that is sweet and very refreshing.

Another drink that is classically Swedish is a beverage made with elderflowers, which come from the elderberry tree.  It came in a juice box and was very lightly flavored - almost a bit like a lightly brewed, sweetened green tea.  It was unique and distinctive, and yet also not entirely unfamiliar.  Sassa told us that it's common to take a bunch of elderflowers and soak them in lemon and water for three days before straining the liquid and bottling it.  She said that the tree's berries aren't typically used until after the first frost, which then intensifies their sweetness when cooked into a syrup.

After our light lunch, we meandered through the store a bit admiring the simple beauty of Scandinavian design, the vibrant colors of household accessories, and the inexpensive pricing that seduces a shopper into buying a little of this ... one of those ... oh, and that too! ... because it's all just so enticing and accessible and aesthetically distinctive.  This was the first chance I'd really had to peruse and investigate, rather than being on a single-minded mission.  And it was fun!

But our primary purpose was to learn about the food, and so we then found ourselves in the small grocery section tasting chocolate samples, inhaling the fragrance from the famous cinnamon rolls, and listening to Sassa offer us the proper and beautiful pronunciation of glögg [glOOg] - the famous spiced wine punch.

Sassa told us that the anchovies from back home are distinctly different than the ones available in the U.S., so I made sure to buy a can of them.  (Just as it is with the rest of the items in the store, if you meander around the grocery section of IKEA your head spins as you see 83 different things you want to get!)  The anchovies are a critical ingredient in many dishes from Sweden and - of course! - I intend to try a few new recipes.  Scandinavian shrimp are sweeter than what we usually have access to, so a bag of them came home with me as well.

A mix for a beautiful, dense, dark brown bread was available; all I needed to do was add water to the carton, shake vigorously, let it rise a bit and then bake it.  This is not my usual m.o., but it was admittedly much easier than hunting down the rye flakes, linseed, and barley malt I would have needed to make my own authentic multigrain loaf.  The bread's slightly sour flavor was exceptional when served simply with sweet creamy butter; combining it with the lovely Ost Lagrad cheese, which is firm and also a bit sour, made an ideal breakfast the next morning.  (Needless to say, I'd rushed home from the store and immediately baked the bread so I could play with my new ingredients and enjoy my treats!).

I couldn't leave the store without a jar of the famous lingonberry jam.  And although it's not pictured (I'd already opened the vacuum-sealed bag), I bought some espresso to use in the wonderful new machine Jeremy gave me for Christmas, because coffee is an essential part of Swedish culture.  Sassa told us that coffee parties are a lovely social gathering at which it is traditional to serve seven different types of sweets, from pastries to cookies.  In the past, it was the quaint social custom that a guest would be invited to partake of the goodies three times before finally succumbing to temptation; it would have been considered rude to leap in any sooner.

Many, many thanks to Sassa, who was a most charming hostess, for the grand tour of Swedish foods!  I came, I saw, I ate, I learned, and I had an absolutely wonderful time!


Jenn said...

I can't say I've ever had a good time at IKEA.. than again, I never went for a food tour there!! I do know I've gotten there early to find a line waiting outside JUST for the food court. Would have never thought of it as the place to go for breakfast - or any meal for that matter!

Candace said...

Oh, how wonderful! I want some of the gravlax for breakfast this morning. The aromas from the cafeteria were enticing on my first and only trip to Ikea. I was thinking meatballs. Yum! Sadly, I didn't make it in there nor did I look at the grocery section. I'm feeling another trip to Ikea coming on this spring. Wish it were closer!

Karen Harris said...

So glad you've had a change of heart about IKEA. It is definitely one of my little getaways when I'm bored and missing a near European experience. Gotta love those lingon berries!

Cranberry Morning said...

I think one's impression of IKEA depends upon why you're there. At least that's my theory. When I went with my brother and his family, it was fun. I had no agenda, no time limit, and we had a good time (although I still resent being directed through a store by those arrows on the floor). When I went on a mission to find a particular item, I hated IKEA. Getting anywhere fast seemed impossible. I think IKEA was made for browsing, slowly. Then you're not quite as aware of the fact that you're being managed. BTW, I am glad you had a good time and found some good food there. :-)

tree town gal said...

Fun - glad we all can benefit from you Swedish food-guide! Your notes on IKEA made me laugh. It is not a place for me to be if I'm feeling the least bit tense. You can quickly get in and out if you have a mission; however, you need a fabulous sense of direction and use their shortcuts (so you don't have to follow all of the arrows!). Glad you carved something worthwhile out of the IKEA experience.

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