Did the Turks Influence Sweden's Classic Meatballs?

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Judi Lembke

Who would have thought a controversial-Swedish king being exiled to the Ottoman Empire would lead to the creation of one of Sweden’s most famous dishes? It turns out the humble Swedish meatball—beloved by Swedes, mocked by the Swedish Chef, and sold in every IKEA in the world—isn’t very Swedish at all; those glorious little balls of pork, veal, and ground beef actually have their roots in Turkey.

King Charles XII

The first time meatballs were mentioned in print was in Kajsa Warg’s 1754 cookbook, but how they ended up one of Sweden’s most famous delicacies is a story in and of itself.

King Charles XII was the only surviving son of Charles XI and Ulrika Eleonora the Elder. When his father died in 1697, young Charles took the throne at the tender age of 15. He was absolute monarch of Sweden for 18 years, but despite being well-prepared for his future role as king and his intelligence, Charles XII’s propensity to be headstrong led him to pursue a disastrous invasion of Russia in the early 18th century. That invasion (like most other invasions of Russia) resulted in an enormous loss of life—and left Charles incapacitated. Sweden’s status as a great power was gone and as a result, Charles was forced to flee Sweden with a small entourage in tow to the Ottoman Empire.

Köttbullar – boulettes de viande – meatballs
King Charles XII in Bender

As time passed, though, the Turks became tired of Charles’s scheming ways and running up enormous debts with local merchants. Eventually, some of Bender’s townspeople attacked the Swedish colony, captured Charles, and put him under house arrest. Charles used this time to play chess and study the Ottoman Navy. His resulting sketches and designs led to the famous Swedish warships Jarramas and Jilderim.

In between scheming, drawing, and bilking locals out of money, Charles also ate well and studied the food. When he finally returned to Sweden five years after his exile, he brought back a meatball recipe that was to become a favourite among Swedes.

Snacks

Charles preferred to eat his meatballs as a snack with drinks or coffee—an unusual kind of fika, no doubt. This tradition held while meatballs were still mainly eaten by the upper class, but the introduction of the meat grinder and wooden stoves in the mid-1800s led to ordinary households quickly taking meatballs to their hearts—although as a main meal, not a snack.

Today, Swedish meatballs are served with potatoes (either boiled or mashed), lingonberry jam, and cream sauce. Alternatively, if people are in rush or want to please their children, they serve meatballs with spaghetti in—yes, this is true, ketchup. They’re a true staple in Swedish homes, even having a place of honour on the julbord (Christmas table) and Easter spread. So this ordinary and rather humble dish with the fantastic history is both a staple of week-night suppers and more exalted occasions—and remains a favourite with Swedes of all ages.

Kåldolmar

And what became of Charles? Well, he was eventually killed in battle after attempting to invade Norway.

While historians may see Charles as a bit of a war-mongering buffoon, they also admit he was a visionary in some ways as he promoted domestic reforms well before their time. His stay in present-day Turkey also led to Sweden’s introduction to coffee and the famous kåldolmar (meatballs wrapped in cabbage), so maybe he wasn’t all bad after all.

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