The fame of the smörgåsbord (smorgasbord) -- a buffet-style feast -- is justly deserved. Using a vast array of dishes -- everything from Baltic herring to smoked reindeer -- the smorgasbord can be eaten either as hors d'oeuvres or as a meal in itself.
One cardinal rule of the smorgasbord: Don't mix fish and meat dishes. It is customary to begin with sill (herring), prepared in many ways. Herring usually is followed by other treats from the sea (jellied eel, smoked fish, and raw pickled salmon); then diners proceed to the cold meat dishes, such as baked ham or liver paste, which are accompanied by vegetable salads. Hot dishes, often Swedish meatballs, come next and are backed up by cheese and crackers and sometimes a fresh fruit salad.
The smorgasbord is not served as often in Sweden as many visitors seem to believe, as it requires time-consuming preparation. Many Swedish families reserve it for special occasions. In lieu of the 40-dish smorgasbord, some restaurants have taken to serving a plate of assietter (hors d'oeuvres). One of the tricks for enjoying smorgasbord is timing. It's best to go early, when dishes are fresh. Late arrivals may be more fashionable, but the food often is stale.
The average times for meals in Sweden are generally from 8 to 11am for the standard continental breakfast, noon to 2:30pm for lunch, and as early as 5:30pm for dinner to around 8 or 8:30pm. (Many restaurants in Stockholm are open to midnight -- but don't count on this in the small villages.)
A Swedish breakfast at your hotel might consist of cheese, ham, sausage, egg, bread, and perhaps filmjölk, a kind of sour-milk yogurt. Smörgas, the famous Swedish open-faced sandwich, like the Danish smørrebrød and Norwegian smørbrød, is a slice of buttered bread with something on top. It is eaten for breakfast or anytime during the day, and you'll find it at varying prices, depending on what you order and where you order it.
Unless you decide to have smorgasbord (never served in the evening) at lunch, you'll find that the Swedes do not go in for lavish spreads in the middle of the day. The usual luncheon order consists of one course, as you'll observe on menus, especially in larger towns. Dinner menus are for complete meals, with appetizer, main course and side dishes, and dessert included.
Generally, Swedish chefs tend to be far more expert with fish dishes (freshwater pike and salmon are star choices) than with meat courses. The Swedes go stark raving mad at the sight of kraftor (crayfish), in season from mid-August to mid-September. This succulent, dill-flavored delicacy is eaten with the fingers, and much of the fun is the elaborate ritual surrounding its consumption.
A platter of thin pancakes, served with lingonberries (comparable to cranberries), is the traditional Thursday-night dinner in Sweden. It often is preceded by yellow split-pea soup seasoned with pork. It's good any night of the week -- but somehow better on Thursday.
Swedish cuisine used to be deficient in fresh vegetables and fruits, and relied heavily on canned goods, but this is no longer true. Potatoes are the staff of life, but fresh salads also pepper the cuisine landscape, especially in big cities.
The calorie-laden Swedish pastry -- the mainstay of the konditori (cafeteria) -- is tempting and fatal to weight-watchers.
Drinks -- Kaffe (coffee) is the universal drink in Sweden, although tea (taken straight) and milk also are popular. The water is perfectly safe to drink all over Sweden. Those who want a reprieve from alcohol might find the fruit-flavored Pommac a good soft-drink beverage, but Coca-Cola is ubiquitous.
The state monopoly, Systembolaget, controls the sale of alcoholic beverages. Licensed restaurants may sell alcohol after noon only (1pm on Sun).
Schnapps, or aquavit, served icy cold, is a superb Swedish drink, often used to accompany smorgasbord. The run-of-the-mill Swedish beer (pilsner) has only a small amount of alcohol. All restaurants serve lättol (light beer) and folköl, a somewhat stronger brew. Swedish vodka, or brännvin, is made from corn and potatoes and flavored with different spices. All brännvin is served ice-cold in schnapps glasses. Keep in mind that aquavit is much stronger than it looks, and Sweden has strictly enforced rules about drinking and driving. Most Swedes seem to drink their liquor straight. But mixed drinks, especially in urban areas, are now more commonplace. Either way, the drink prices are sky-high.