It’s thought that meatballs were brought to Sweden by King Charles XII. After a disastrous attempt to invade Russia in 1709, he fled in exile to the Ottoman empire. There he fell for a dish very similar to the Swedish meatballs we now know and, when he returned from exile five years later, he took those meatballs back with him. The meatballs grew in popularity and eventually became so closely associated with the country, that they took on the ‘Swedish’ name. But it would be disingenuous to write about Swedish meatballs and not mention that bastion of storage, that flatpack palace: Ikea.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Ikea brought the Swedish love for meatballs to the rest of the world.
When Ikea restaurants were opened in 1959 (a year after the stores themselves), they focused on serving classic Swedish dishes. Although meatballs didn’t join the menu until 1985, once there they quickly gained a cult following. Today two million meatballs are eaten in Ikea stores every single day. Perhaps that’s less surprising when you learn that 30 per cent of Ikea visitors are there purely for the food rather than the furniture.
To be honest, I’m not surprised. I still have flashbacks to the first trip I took to Ikea with my now-husband when we were trying to furnish our first home together. Arriving at lunchtime, we decided to head to the café first, rather than at the end of the shopping trip. Without that reward to sustain us through the perils of furniture shopping, our relationship encountered various crisis points as we faced down dining chairs we didn’t need (or did we?), dawdled in hallway storage (we barely had a hallway), and tried to pass through the house plant section without bankrupting ourselves (unsuccessful). I would like to say we didn’t have a full-blown argument looking at fold-away beds, but, well, we did. We learnt the hard way that there’s a reason that the café tends to be located at the end of the shopping route. It’s a miracle we survived.
The meatballs have now diversified into chicken and vegan varieties, and are available to buy in big packets for the freezer, alongside the daim bars and cinnamon buns. But they’re so easy to make, and completely delicious – dare I say it? Even better than Ikea – and you don’t even need to brave the flat-pack hoardes or the jam-packed car park. The ingredient list is chunky, but really all you’re doing is squishing the mixture together with your hands or a wooden spoon, then moulding them into small balls.
Swedish meatballs are smaller, generally, than Italian or Italian-American cousins, and are also softer in texture, thanks to the grated onion, milk and breadcrumbs. The combination of beef and pork mince brings both flavour and tenderness, and nutmeg and all spice bring a warm depth. The sauce is rich and silky, made from a roux-based gravy, with beef stock, cream, and mustard.
Serve with mash and lingonberry jam, if you have it – if you don’t, cranberry jam or jelly is a good substitute, or redcurrant jelly will also work well too. If you want to go full Ikea, though, you’re going to have to make your own Swedish flag on a little cocktail stick, and plant it in the centre of your plate.
Makes: Enough for 4
Takes: 20 minutes, plus 20 minutes resting time
Bakes: No time at all
For the meatballs
300g beef mince
300g pork mince
85g fresh breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons cream
½ onion, coarsely grated
¼ teaspoon all spice
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon white pepper
¼ teaspoon fine salt
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley1
1 tablespoon oil
For the sauce
2 tablespoons plain flour
400ml beef stock
2 tablespoons cream
1 teaspoon English mustard
1 teaspoon soy sauce
- In a large mixing bowl, mix together the breadcrumbs, milk cream, egg, and seasonings. Leave for 20 minutes to allow the breadcrumbs to absorb the liquid.
- After the 20 minutes, add the grated onion, both minces and parsley.
- Heat the butter and oil together in a large non-stick frying pan over a medium heat.
- Divide the meatball mixture into scant tablespoons, and roll them gently to form balls – the mixture will be soft, so it can be easier to do this with damp hands.
- Once the butter has melted, fry the balls in batches: don’t overcrowd the pan, or the meatballs will steam rather than brown. Gently shuffle the meatballs as they fry until they are golden all over. Set to one side while you make the sauce.
- Melt the butter in the pan that you fried the meatballs in. Once melted, stir in the flour, and cook until it sizzles and just begins to smell nutty.
- Add the beef stock bit by bit, stirring to create a thick, smooth sauce. Reduce the heat to low, and stir through the cream, mustard and soy sauce. Taste for seasoning: the stock and soy will likely mean you don’t need to add further salt, but do check.
- Gently return the meatballs to the pan, and turn in the sauce until piping hot. Serve straight away.