I Called Random People in Sweden to Find Out Where They Would Take Me for Lunch

Sweden has a phone number. Do you realize what this means? When I found out the country could be reached by a simple call, I had to dial and take advantage of the fact that I could ask anything to anyone. The Swedish Tourist Association has put willing residents on a country wide hotline to connect callers who want to talk to the actual people of Sweden. As a way to commemorate the 250 years since the country first abolished censorship, this personal touch is a welcomed approach to tourism promotion beyond the images and storied campaigns typical of a destination’s casted bait. Talk about making the most of what you already have: this is not a constructed reality — it is reality.

What do you talk about when the entire country is at your disposal? You talk about food, the one thing everyone can relate to. Consider this an investigation into Swedish food culture, where each conversation eventually built up to the question: “If I came to Sweden tomorrow, where would you take me for lunch?” A simple question, yes, but a much better ice breaker than topics of the weather. Lunch is relatable and doesn’t have the same expectations that dinner would present. It is unassuming and casual enough to get a sense of place that the preparation involved with dinner arrangements doesn’t necessarily allow. I want to know where these individuals would personally eat as opposed to offering a suggestion of where it is thought foreigners should go. This is often the problem with implemented tourism initiatives, where tradition and identity are packaged up and sold, barely skimming the surface and leaving visitors feeling like they never truly get to know the place.

Every time someone answers the phone, I am met with a sing-song voice. Some have taken on their ambassador role with a friendly “You’ve reached Sweden!” and are rather prepared in terms of response, leaving an impression that they sincerely want to break any misconceptions callers may have about their country.

After a brief call with a concert goer in Malmö to confirm that this number actually works, I top off my Skype credit and start dialling. The automated voice informs,“You will soon be connected to a random Swede somewhere in Sweden”. These are the residents who picked up to answer my call.

Elias — Göteborg

Caught in the middle of birthday party preparations for her brother, Elias is certain she would take me to the island of Hönö near Göteborg. Unable to recall the exact name of the restaurant, I am assured that the view overlooking the sea is complemented by really good fish. She must get going, though. There is a party to attend to.

Jonas — Jönköping

Jonas has just finished eating breakfast with his wife after having checked out of their hotel room. It feels a little intrusive to be interrupting their Saturday morning with my call, but hey, they signed up for this. He is quick to respond that we would go to Pinchos, a tapas style chain nearby. Built on the principle of Basque Country pintxos, one can quite literally travel the world in small bites from kebab rolls to mini tikka masala.

It is also the world’s first app restaurant in which dishes are ordered and paid for only through the use of a mobile application. In-app gamification allows users to collect points for free tapas in the future. Highly impersonal, but very innovative. Leave it to the Swedes to test out new concepts.

Maria — Piteå

My next call has me visiting north, only 1 hour from the Finnish border to a town of 40,000. I am told, “We would not go to a restaurant. I would bring you to my mother”. Mothers know best and should I have the opportunity to show up tomorrow, we would be indulging in regional and traditional fare. If my visit were to take place in the winter months, we would be treated to palt, a mix of raw potatoes filled with pork and shaped into small balls. We would be so tired from eating that the local expression “paltschwiimen” meaning something along the lines of “slow death” would suit just perfectly.

In the summer, a fermented herring would take the plate. Native to the north, this method of preserving involves a year long process marked by the opening of cans the following August. Once opened, a distinct and special smell fills the air and the celebrated preserve is topped with tomatoes and sour cream to be consumed. This topping is something not all are a fan of, claiming it takes away from the awaited fermented fish.

We soon connect on Instagram, and Maria shares a photo of this specialty. Her landscape brought to life through story is now coloured by personal photos.

David — Dalarö

Somewhere in the archipelago just outside of Stockholm, David begins his call describing the light blue of the fading sunset he sees through his window. He is at home with his children and it is felt that he is enjoying his conversations with the world. A tall blonde working in global IT for H&M (how very Swedish of him), David recommends the in-house restaurant where he works. Daily commutes to the capital mean there are also plenty of Asian options for our lunch, of which Vietnamese is favoured. As a vegan, he goes on to explain the barriers being overcome in Swedish mentality regarding the decision not to eat animal products. It is a lifestyle choice that is still met with shock by some in this old farming country, where meat is still considered a necessary staple.

We compare notes on vegan favourites in Toronto, where he once visited on a trip to Canada and goes on to name drop a small outdoor retailer from my hometown where he once ordered a Canada Goose jacket. It seems we both like to go straight to the source when it comes to authenticity.

Anders — Öland

I then speak to Anders from Nybro who is currently spending time at his summer home on the island of Öland near the Baltic Sea. This narrow stretch of land connects to the mainland by what used to be the longest bridge in Europe. He has me slightly confused in explaining that this island is known for a certain minced pork dumpling rolled inside potatoes. Didn’t Maria claim the very same thing?

This is where my Swedish culinary knowledge starts to grow. Maria’s northern palt does in fact differ from Anders’ kroppkaka. Although they are both served with lingonberry jam and butter, kroppkaka is made with boiled potatoes and wheat, while palt is made with raw potatoes and barley.

Curious as to how I came across the phone number, he laughs enthusiastically at the automated message we foreigners are presented with as we dial Sweden. Sadly, we are disconnected mid-call, but I am left wanting to compare Maria’s mother’s palt with Oland’s kroppkaka, if only because the name is so damn amusing.

Markus — Mariefred

I catch Markus in the process of making snus in his oven, a process that takes 36 hours for the smokeless tobacco to be properly prepared. In the tiny town of 3700 inhabitants, a new street food joint has just opened up and apparently, it’s the place to be these days. Markus explains that beer is served alongside the typical hamburger and hotdog fare, something that is not typical for street food. He likes the place and emphasizes the beer once again. Out of nowhere, he goes on to tell me what is special about his town as if this is what he’s supposed to talk about when a stranger calls to ask about his country. I thank him for his time and leave him to his snus.

A few more attempts are made, but Sweden is sleeping now. I was starting to becoming well-versed in regional differences and Swedish pronunciation. Like characters in a book, each persona has enhanced my visual map of the country through their daily lives and stories. This peak inside leaves me wanting more and now I’m determined more than ever to find a way to get there and meet these people in person. We do have lunch plans, after all.

Originally published at eatenandtold.com on April 12, 2016.