Everybody’s right to meatballs
It is everybody’s right to have a decent meal of meatballs. This is exactly what is written on the package of the iconic Ikea köttbullar. The label may read like one of those odd umlaut-rich Ikea names given to the furniture, but in fact “Allemansrätten” is a Swedish concept that means “everyman’s right.” It is a term used for the general public’s right to access certain public or privately owned land and the freedom to roam forests, fields or any landscape. So what does this concept of roaming in nature have to do with meatballs? The logic is as straightforward and simple as Ikea furniture: As every citizen should have the right to explore the wilderness in their country, they must also have the right to a proper meal. Enter Swedish meatballs.
As in many countries, Ikea shops in Turkey are very popular, people prefer their simple functional designs especially for vacation houses. Anyone who has visited one of those gigantic furniture warehouses has probably also paid a visit to their cafeteria. It is likely they also ate those round meatballs, very appealing in their reasonably priced menu choices. Surveys reveal that about 30% of all visitors in Europe actually come in for the good value meals, and especially the meatballs. This makes the Ikea Swedish meatballs one of the most well-known dishes in Europe. What is not known is that the Swedish meatballs have their root in Turkish cuisine.
Turkish people love meatballs. There are countless versions, not only grilled but fried, boiled, broiled, baked, stewed, stuffed, or even the famous çiğ köfte raw meatballs. There is a köfteci (a meatball shop) in every possible neighborhood. Some cities take pride in meatballs named after the city. The word köfte is borrowed from Persian, coming from the verb “to pound, to knead.” In English the term “kofta” is given to all oriental meatballs from Central Asia and North India to the Middle East, Balkans and North Africa.
How Turkish meatballs ended up going all the way to Sweden is another story. It was due to the Great Northern War, which involved Sweden on one side and an alliance of countries such as Denmark-Norway, Saxony-Poland-Lithuania and Russia on the other. When the young King Charles XII of Sweden unexpectedly won several victories combatting his enemies, he had the wild idea of marching to Moscow. When he was defeated by the Russians, he and the remainders of his army took refuge in Ottoman lands. Welcomed by Sultan Ahmet III, they took exile in Bender, now in Moldovia, setting up a small Swedish community. They were provided with cooks and kitchen staff, as well as other necessary provisions. As a gesture to the Swedish king, the Sultan arranged to buy captive Swedish slaves from the Russians including women and children, encouraging a small “Karoliner” community.
The Ottomans recognized the rights of their guests to have good food and provided them with ample food and a full kitchen staff to cook. The registers of all the food given to the Swedish community is quite extensive, the daily items include bread, lamb, beef, chicken, onions, chickpeas, rice, flour, eggs, milk, butter, honey, sugar and coffee. The recordings also reveal that even some booze was provided to the group including a monthly supply of 300 kıyye beer (about 3850 liters), then called “arpa suyu,” meaning “barley juice.”
All these expenses were paid by the Ottoman state budget, so thanks to the registry system we get a pretty good idea about the basics they received. Of course there were also additional food and items they bought from the local villagers. The king was to remain in Ottoman territory for a good five long years, from 1709 to 1713, enough to pick a taste for Ottoman food.
Many claim that he and his army fellows brought Turkish tastes such as meatballs, cabbage rolls, spices and coffee back to Sweden, but the reality is when he left to return to his country, the king never reached Sweden. Other monetary matters continued to contribute to Turkish-Swedish relations. The king and his community had spent so much, and made such a big debt in the Ottoman budget, the Swedish troop was followed by Ottoman creditors hoping to get back the money they had lent to the exiled king. Those Ottoman creditors stayed in Stockholm between 1716 and 1732, quite an unrealistic time to wait. So it must have been them, or some other Swedish guests that did return – but not the King himself – that kicked off the whole meatball thing in Sweden.
It is amazing how Ikea succeeded in making Swedish meatballs invade the world. Perhaps the late Ikea king Ingvar Kamprad was inspired by King Charles XII’s amazing voyage. After all, the king felt he had the right to roam the fields and forests from Sweden to Moscow, and even ended up exploring a few Ottoman lands, before trying to return to Scandinavian territory again. He and his followers probably had more than their fair share of köfte, which is why they are believed to bring their culinary memories from their hosting land back to their native country. I think his gastronomic legacy is now best reflected in the iconic Ikea meatball package: Allemansrätten is everyone’s right to field, forest and a fine meal of meatballs!
Recipe of the Week: Meatballs and beer go well together. Meatballs cooked in beer are even better. This Ikea hack is not about furniture but about meatballs. Mix two tablespoons of lingonberry sauce and ketchup, three to four tablespoons of soy sauce, one bottle of dark beer (Bomonti Black is a good choice), toss in with a bag of frozen meatballs, put in a heavy bottom pot, cook over a slow heat or bake in a 180 degree oven, until all the cooking liquid has reduced to a glaze.
Fork of the Week: What goes well with the Turkish-inspired Swedish meatballs is a French sauce, originally very difficult to make but easily available in Sweden. Sauce Béarnaise’s distinctive tarragon flavor goes well with the meatballs and with fries. Funnily enough, the French inspired Swedish Örneborgs Béarnaise sauce is made in Sweden, imported to Turkey by a Swedish-born Turk, available at French-origin Carrefour Gourmet stores. Good food travels, right?
Cork of the Week: What goes better than a glass of beer to accompany meatballs? The new Black of Bomonti is ideal to gulp down with some sizzling köfte. Red is also good, and especially the lingonberry-sow glazed beer braised köttbullar.