‘Dagens’ lunch specials – an unexpected window into Swedish society

‘I’ll have a cheese and ham sandwich, at the desk

For many, lunch is quite a boring meal. In the UK, my home country, office workers resign themselves to pre-packaged sandwiches from the local supermarket enjoyed (or tolerated, at least) at their desks, washed down with a packet of crisps and a bottle of Coca cola – a practice so widespread that it even has its own term – at the desk, a play on the phrase fresh, to eat outdoors (although Italians may take issue with that translation). By the way, here is one of my favourite-ever articles about British sandwich culture, if you’re interested.

Denmark, the country where I lived for two years before moving to Sweden, is very much a packed-lunch culture – although here the bread of choice is dark seedy rye bread rather than soft white, and sandwiches are famously open. If you’re lucky, your workplace has a subsidised canteen where you can typically choose from a lunch buffet of hot and cold food. Of course, the Danish tax service even has special rules on how these buffets are taxed.

The Swedish microwave obsession

Sweden, however, is different again.

I discovered this when my Swedish husband visited me at my old workplace in Denmark and disparaged our office kitchen for only having one microwave. His had five, shared between fewer people. This is because Swedes prefer to eat hot lunches, rather than cold, and most Swedes bring leftovers from dinner the night before, which they warm up at work. This, of course, carries its own unspoken etiquette. Is it okay to eat smelly food at work? Will your colleagues ever forgive you if you make the kitchen smell like fish for the rest of the day?

However, the most interesting aspect of the Swedish lunch culture, at least for me, is of the day, the daily lunch specials offered at many restaurants in Sweden, where you can get a main meal including bread, a salad bar, water, lingonberry squash, tea and coffee – and even a biscuit if you’re lucky.

I’ve even seen freshly baked apple cake offered with the of the day at a lunch restaurant in Malmö, which is a sure-fire way to pique my interest. You often collect your food, cutlery and drinks on a tray or tray, so you might also hear the term bricklunch used to describe this type of meal.

MALMÖ’S FOOD SCENE:

Don’t get me wrong – other countries also have daily specials – but I’d never seen them hold such an important role in a country’s lunch culture before moving to Sweden.

Swedish lunch menus are published on a Monday and typically include two or three daily specials – usually one meat, one fish, which change each day. Some restaurants also have a vegetarian option which varies daily, others have the same vegetarian option all week. Today is a popular choice for lots of Swedes – be it because they don’t work in an office (like tradesmen who travel between different jobs), because they don’t like eating leftovers or even just because it’s nice to go out and eat with your colleagues once in a while.

A top tip for eating out cheaply

The other benefit of a of the day, is that it’s an easy way to save a bit of money when eating out. Many restaurants with a pricey evening menu offer dagens at lunchtime for around 100 kronor (slightly less than 10 euros), which is a steal when you factor in all the extras. Most of the more old-school restaurants also offer a lunch, a card where you can pay up-front for 10 lunches and get one free.

Every Monday my husband looks at all the lunch menus for our local restaurants, and we decide based on their offerings which day we’ll treat ourselves to eating out for lunch. What started as a luxury has slowly become a way for my husband to show me the kind of traditional Swedish food or home cooking his grandmother (paternal grandmother) used to make, the kind not usually found in Swedish restaurants.

Although I don’t eat meat, his lunch orders have taught me a lot about Swedish cuisine beyond meatballs, mash and gravy.

I’ve learned about Swedish dishes I’d never heard of such as salted brisket of beef (salted beef brisket, boiled), Scanian kalops (a traditional beef stew from the south of Sweden), cabbage pudding (a meaty casserole topped with cabbage) and wallenbergare (a breadcrumbed ground veal patty served with clarified butter), meals rarely seen on evening menus. My theory as to why of the day is so popular is that it is an opportunity for Swedes to eat traditional comfort food that takes hours to make – something no one has time to do any more on busy weeknights.

A socialist utopia?

You’ll also see a much wider range of Swedish society when eating a of the day than you might see at evening restaurants.

I often think of a of the day as embodying the socialist paradise people abroad envisage when talking about Sweden – you’re just as likely to see a suited businessman wearing AirPods sipping on a glass of lingonberry squash as a paint-splattered decorator still wearing their work clothes – at least in Malmö, where I live.

People of my husband’s mormor’s (maternal grandmother’s) generation rarely eat their evening meal in restaurants, as the cost was prohibitive for many years, but you are just as likely to spot them tucking in to a of the day as students on a break from lectures.

Eating a big lunch like this has also made me reassess my own lunch habits – previously, I saw lunch as being a quick break in my workday, often a cold meal such as a sandwich or a salad small enough so I’d still have an appetite for a large dinner in the evening.

Now, at least when I eat a of today, I often eat more like the elderly Swedes at the care home where my husband used to work – lunch is the largest meal of the day, often substantial and hot, with enough carby boiled potatoes and dairy to keep you going for so long that you only need something light at dinner time.

But of the day isn’t just reserved for traditional Swedish meals consisting of meat with brown sauce and potatoes. Here in Malmö, our excellent vegetarian scene is host to more modern, “new Nordic”-style lunch restaurants serving a of the day based on local, seasonal produce.

These new interpretations of traditional Swedish classics such as pea soup – yellow pea soup traditionally eaten on Thursdays – provide a of the day for foodies without straying too far from Swedish comfort food. Although, perhaps unsurprisingly, you’ll be disappointed if you go to any of these places expecting a free glass of lingonberry squash with your meal.

What do you think?

I hope you enjoyed getting to know me through the medium of food. What’s your home country’s food culture like, and how have you adapted to the one in Sweden? Feel free to comment below or get in touch with me at [email protected] if you have any questions or comments – and who knows, maybe I’ll share my tips on Malmö’s best of the day if you ask nicely.

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