NB: This article has been published in Travellive Magazine, issue of March 2015 as “Fika: A Swedish Cultural Experience” (translated by the Editorial Team).
If you’re looking for something that authentically distinguishes Sweden’s way of life from that of its Scandinavian neighbours, it’s fika.
Fika is related to the Swedish concept of the lagom lifestyle, which (roughly) means “just enough” in English.
Swedish people consider lagom a guideline for their lifestyle, behaviour, etiquette, and even cuisine. They are not as icy as Finns or as bustling as Norwegians; nor are they as laid-back as people in Denmark, known as “Italy of the North”. It’s the lagom lifestyle that makes Sweden the only nation in Northern Europe to offer a distinctive way to enjoy coffee.
Aspects of fika
The Swedish fika is not only a way to enjoy coffee, but also displays the arts of social etiquette and enjoying life in this peaceful kingdom.
It does not include as much ritual as the Japanese art of drinking tea. It is different from the way Americans drink takeaway coffee – the industrial pace of life in the US rarely affords the time to sit down and appreciate a hot drink. Fika is not ordering a Starbucks takeaway and drinking it hustling down the street.
Interestingly, descendants of the Vikings could include so much subtlety into a simple word. In this respect, Swedish is a little like Vietnamese.
In Sweden, you can hear, see and feel the atmosphere of fika everywhere and at any time, from luxurious cafes in classy city centre hotels to small places in narrow lanes that only the locals know, in homes and offices, from sunny summer days to rainy, snowy winter.
If you are invited to a Swedish house, you can enjoy fika with aromatic cakes baked by your hosts. In Swedish businesses, you can fika with colleagues during breaks to improve your relationships, which can be quite superficial in this country famous for its individualism. Even a shy guy can make a date with his girlfriend by inviting her for fika.
The Swedes have many reasons to fika with each other.
History of fika in Sweden
Coffee was imported into Northern Europe from the 17th century onward. Not until the 18th century did it become a favoured drink of noblemen and the rich.
Unfortunately, King Gustav III of Sweden did not like this delicious drink. He promulgated many strict rules to oppose the consumption of coffee, including high taxes, penalizing those who dared drink coffee.
He ransacked his kingdom to seize coffee making equipment.
However, coffee addicts knew that once they had tasted coffee, it was very difficult to give up their fascination. Just the aroma of coffee in the air would bring to mind that vein-stretching caffeine buzz.
Nowadays, it is marvellous to drop by a small bakery (konditori) in the city centre, order a hot cup of black coffee and press your hands around the cup to feel its warmth. It feels like holding your sweetheart’s hand.
Today, fika has become an indispensable characteristic of Swedish daily life. Aside from the coffee itself, an interesting variety of cakes is served with fika. All are called fikabröd, which means “cakes accompanying fika”. The most popular cake is rolled kanelbullar, which is so famous that the Swedes spend the whole of 4th October celebrating it.
For St. Lucia’s Day in mid-December, kanelbullar is replaced by lussebullar. In April, when Europe is preparing for Lent, semlor made with fresh cream, is served.
A friend of mine from Hanoi was used to drinking Thai Nguyen green tea in Vietnam. After six months of living in Sweden, she has become a fika addict. Even Swedish people, who are accustomed to fika from an early age, smile like a child in a candy shop when they talk about fika outdoors in the summer. The simple invitation “Let’s fika!” makes them beam with joy.